Halfway...Where? The Indelible Irrationale of the 4-4 Washington Redskins

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Halfway...Where? The Indelible Irrationale of the 4-4 Washington Redskins
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Oh the heady days of springtime for the Washington Redskins.  The restructuring of the entire coaching staff.  A big-time quarterback acquisition from within the division.  A revamped defensive scheme.  Fewer public inanities from owner Dan Snyder.

Big-game predictions.  Huge offensive upgrades.  A renewed commitment to staunch defense.  The 4-12 Redskins?  A team of the past.  The Jim Zorn days of lackadaisical football and on-the-field malfeasance are over.  A pitiless cyborg named Mike Shanahan is now sitting behind the wheel.  Don’t like the driver? Get off the bus.

The Washington Redskins could very well make the playoffs.  They’re going to finish the season with a winning record for the first time since Joe Gibbs was the head coach. 

That losing record from the 2009-2010 season was misleading.  They nearly beat the Cowboys, the Saints, and the Eagles.  They could have made the playoffs.  Somehow, Jason Campbell managed to throw for 3,600 yards.  And that guy’s barely the starter for the Oakland Raiders now. 

Sound familiar, Redskins fans?  Washington was palpitating with excitement at the quarterback acquisition of Donovan McNabb and the organizational restructuring the Redskins underwent at the behest of the team’s new head coach.  We were excited at the freshness of new faces all around.

To some very moderate extent, they’ve lived up to expectations.  They’ve matched their total win-record for last season and they’ve shown brief flashes of offensive mastery.  Donovan McNabb and his two-ton cannon of an arm has thrown for a league-high six 40-plus yard completions.  Their defense has often been oppressive to opposing teams, forcing turnovers like it was the only thing they were trained to do.   

And still, for the majority of the time that the team has spent on the field, the Redskins look like an overly professional reenactment of the football classic “Necessary Roughness” starring Scott Bakula, complete with an aging quarterback, comedic players, and an emotionally distant coach. 

For the first half of the 2010-2011 season, the Washington Redskins have been a maddening bunch of players to behold.  They are perhaps the only team in the history of football that has looked better in its losses (notably to the Colts and Texans) than in its miraculous wins (against the Cowboys, the Bears and the Packers). 

Prior to the start of the season, sports commentators and fans were predicting huge things for the Redskins.  On local and national radio, the Redskins were presented as a free radical sort of team, one that would definitely have an improved year with veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb at the helm and Mike Shanahan serving as head coach.

How far could they go? They were forecasted in many corners to be an 8-8 team with a faint shot at making the playoffs due to depleted, competing NFC divisions all over the nation. 

Well, at least they’re on track to have a .500 record.  Write whatever else you would like to about the Washington Redskins—their even record likely won’t hold for the rest of the season.  The team that nearly lost it to the Cowboys, then did lose it to the Texans, then barely bothered playing against the Rams, cycled around and hung on for a gutsy win against the Eagles in Week 4. 

Since, they’ve managed to earn a terrible win in Chicago, lost respectably to the Colts, somehow found a way to beat Green Bay and lost in dramatic and confusing fashion to Detroit. 

It had been said early in the season that Donovan McNabb—in spite of not being in top form—was one of the reasons that the team found the heart and spirit to win.  It’s been said in the last four games that the Redskins have found ways to win in spite of him, often relying on an aggressive, headhunting defense. 

Something in the Redskins offense isn’t clicking.  One looks immediately to McNabb’s play: he is having a statistically worse season than any since the earliest in his career.  At the same time, he is being almost comically consistent in his subpar performances.  He is passing for right around 220 yards each game, completing just under 60 percent of his passes, and throwing for one long completion of forty or so yards during every outing.

This is not the same old Donovan that Philadelphia Eagles fans were used to watching.  Something is off in his execution—whether that means he is adjusting to a new scheme, relearning how to throw a football, having a difficult time connecting with his receivers or that he’s got a lingering injury (or, more likely, all of the above). 

But the blame shouldn’t (and doesn’t) fall entirely on McNabb.  Surprisingly, McNabb is on track to throw for 4,000 yards this season, a shade more than he has at any other point in his career.  He is, bizarrely, the team’s second best rusher, coming up with a startling six-yard average each time he takes off.  Something is going wrong elsewhere on the field. 

McNabb’s offensive line is porous as a sieve.  In the Redskins last game against the Lions, he was sacked four times in the first half alone and dropped to the ground half a dozen more.  He has been forced to throw quickly—and for a guy who enjoys a five-step drop to go long, it simply won’t do to be forced into a quick dump-off.

For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, the offensive coaching staff didn’t pick up on any of the blitz packages being thrown at McNabb and failed to provide the quarterback with any extra blockers.  Which is to say, everyone associated with pass protection and offensive execution in Washington was doing a poor job.  Even the usually jocular Chris Cooley let loose on the entire offense after the loss to the Lions. 

Of course, it was McNabb’s benching at the end of the last game with under two minutes to play that has brought the most scrutiny toward the Redskins this week.  It was a foolish decision on Shanahan’s part to yank his Pro Bowl starting quarterback for a backup known for his own inconsistencies and football foolishness. 

But there are two very good things that came out of McNabb’s having been benched, though I don’t think either one was intentional. 

First and foremost, we aren’t really talking about McNabb’s mediocre play now; the conversation revolving around the Redskins is focused almost squarely on poor coaching.  To some moderate extent (premeditated or not), Shanahan has thrown up a screen in front of his starting quarterback, shielding him from the harsh criticism of doubting fans.  There were already voices in among the ‘Skins fanbase calling for the hook—well, they got what they asked for.  Sort of.  We now know what the Redskins look like with another former Super Bowl runner-up at the helm. 

Peter King of Sports Illustrated noted that, statistically, McNabb was unlikely to put together a game-winning drive, something the quarterback has failed to do all season.  In the last eight games, McNabb has rallied his team to a field goal in fourth quarter situations.  The Redskins offensive captain, who has not been an exemplar of reliability this season, likely wouldn’t have been able to pull it together against Detroit, either. 

That doesn’t imply that Rex Grossman is a better option at the end of a game when the Redskins are one score away from winning.  But McNabb, who had been given decent field position all day, only managed to put in one touchdown before the offense stalled entirely in the second half. 

Which is all to say that Shanahan saved McNabb the embarrassment of, in all probability, not being able to complete this particular game.  Though McNabb has a strong history of pulling games out at the last moment, he hasn’t done so in quite some time—and certainly not with the Redskins.  He hasn’t kept his new team in the game in late-pressure situations.  In point of fact, there was ample reason not to have McNabb quarterbacking at that particular moment with 110 seconds on the clock in Detroit.

Does that mean that Shanahan should have given Grossman the keys to the family car? Of course not.  Does it make Shanahan’s decision seem more sensible? Somewhat.  The Washington coach certainly wasn’t doing McNabb any immediate favors in benching the Pro Bowler.  But McNabb is now as much a victim of a bizarre and only semi-understandable system rather than his own worst enemy. 

Of course, Shanahan’s two-fold reason behind benching McNabb has now made everyone question the man’s thought process. After the game, Shanahan staked the claim that Grossman gave the Redskins the best chance to win the game because Grossman has a higher level of familiarity with the offense.  A day later, Shanahan made the more absurd statement that he felt McNabb was hampered by a hamstring injury and was "out of shape."

Flashback to training camp earlier this year.  Don’t you have a recollection of that same head coach sitting one Albert Haynesworth out of two weeks worth of practices because the big defensive end was "not in football shape?"  Are we to understand that Donovan McNabb—who managed to show up to camp twenty pounds lighter than he was last year, and whose whole career is defined by the intensity of his workout regimen, his hell weeks under a summer sun in Phoenix, his rigorous conditioning schedule—was yanked because of a lack of "cardiovascular endurance?"

Please.  Children often play this game, in which they will take an ill-advised course of action and infer the rationale behind it only after the fact. 

McNabb’s past success in Philadelphia’s offensive system stemmed from the fact that McNabb had a reliable, versatile running back in Brian Westbrook and a flexible set of offensive coordinators.  There is a growing sense that the Shanahan family offense has ossified into an unassailable machine, that those who cannot fit into the system will simply be put aside. 

The problem is, the Redskins don’t seem to have any of the component parts of the West Coast style offense that Shanahan and Son wish to run.  Their receiving corps is literally one-person deep; their running backs are on the decline or injury-prone; the offensive line let up a sack once every five minutes that the Redskins had the ball; their quarterback is best suited for a team that can give him time to throw from the pocket.

Rex Grossman fumbles after a sack, losing the ball, and the game.

One can criticize Shanahan for having thrown in the towel at the end of the game against the Lions.  One can criticize his boyish son Kyle for not having developed an offensive protection plan that would have allowed McNabb to avoid one of the six sacks and many hits he took from a marauding Detroit defense.  McNabb is the second most sacked quarterback in the league—right behind Jay Cutler.  Has any quarterback ever played well when a guy the size of Ndamukong Suh is eating his face for dinner?

But McNabb, too, hasn’t come along in the way he (or anyone else) had hoped—something he acknowledged in a press conference last week.  While McNabb has maintained his commendable composure these last two months during the Redskins first act, he has failed to display the kind of light-em-up talent that Washington so desperately needs.  

A look down the road to the rest of the season doesn’t look too promising for Washington.  With upcoming games against the Eagles, Titans, Vikings and Giants, it is difficult to believe that McNabb will be able to regroup and hold together for another four to six wins.

By the same token, a look down the stretch also reveals a slew of variable teams.  The Cowboys are in disarray and seem to have already mailed in their season. Minnesota—in spite of a much vaunted offense and a good pass-rush—is having troubles of their own.  The Titans are as maddening a team as the Redskins.  And a late matchup with the Jaguars doesn’t seem particularly intimidating. 

In other words, the Redskins still have hope to be the 8-8 team they were projected to be prior to the season’s commencement.  The NFC is a cumulative disaster this year, with only a few teams showing any sort of dominance halfway through the season.  Which is to say, they might even make the playoffs (unlikely though that is).

Shanahan’s decision to bench McNabb puts all of that in jeopardy.  If the team’s confidence is shaken because the coaching staff clearly isn’t making the best decisions for the team, it is difficult to imagine the team working together effectively to pull through a full sixty-minute game. 

The Redskins got by in the first half of the season on swagger, a little bit of luck, and a ton of grit.  Their wins have all come because the whole team banned together to support itself.  It is difficult to imagine the team walking tall after this. 

The Redskins have been a metonymy for the unpredictable quality of NFL play this year, an unmitigated disaster one moment and a well-tuned machine the next.  These next two weeks, while Washington has the bye, represent a brief moment of respite before which the Redskins will certainly be diving into the more difficult half of their schedule. 

One has the impression that Shanahan might have not just thrown his hands up for a single game when putting Rex Grossman under center. The Redskins mercurial coach might very well have dumped the entire season along with it.  Winning in the NFL is as much about attitude as it is about ability. This team, its fans, and most importantly, its leaders, had a positive outlook heading toward the latter half of the season.  Now, a cloud of questions and uncertainty has come over the Redskins like a pall.  

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