Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 12, 2013

Under The Big Top In DC

It’s been just two weeks since an overview of NFL teams as the regular season entered its final month appeared in this space. That post concluded with some thoughts on this year’s collapse by Washington’s franchise, dashing the hopes of fans in our nation’s capital who had dared to think that with the dynamic young quarterback Robert Griffin III calling signals, a return to glory for the players in burgundy and gold was at hand. In assessing the state of affairs at FedEx Field, I wrote “while they may not have the NFL’s worst record, they are working hard to establish themselves as the league’s most dysfunctional franchise.” Little did I know at the time just how quickly and thoroughly they would achieve that dubious goal.

Despite the NFL’s enormous popularity and the generally adroit efforts of Commissioner Roger Goodell to stage manage events and keep fans focused on the action on the field each weekend, there have been a fair number of distractions this season. In Miami the departure of one player and the suspension of another amid charges of locker room bullying led to a league-sponsored investigation which is still ongoing. Just this week Goodell suggested that new rules governing the workplace environment might be implemented next season. Still the Dolphins have posted back-to-back victories and won three of their last four to remain alive in the Wild Card race, evidence that the team is still able to focus on the job at hand.

On Florida’s other coast a public falling out between the quarterback and the head coach in Tampa Bay led to the benching and eventual release of the former and rampant speculation that the latter would be the next to depart. But after an 0-8 start the Buccaneers have won four out of five to restore at least a bit of job security to second year coach Greg Schiano while allowing fans to think that maybe Mike Glennon can grow into the job of NFL quarterback.

In Washington though the death spiral has only accelerated. Two weeks ago the team was coming off an embarrassing 27-6 loss at home to San Francisco before a national Monday Night Football audience. Given the enormous benefit of a schedule that featured three consecutive home contests, fans must have hoped, perhaps some even expected, that their team would display both mettle and pride. Instead Washington squandered a two touchdown lead in front of another national TV audience the following Sunday night, losing to division rival New York 24-17.

Then last Sunday afternoon, on a miserable day before the smallest crowd since FedEx Field opened in 1997, Washington played like a team that had quit on its coach, its season, and its fans. The visitors from Kansas City scored on their first four possessions. Washington’s biggest offensive output was a 7-yard touchdown pass from Griffin to Logan Paulsen, a play that put the home team on the board only after Kansas City had tallied the game’s first 31 points. The special teams units allowed both a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns. By the time the final gun sounded in a 45-10 rout the stands in Landover were virtually empty. For Washington, the only good thing about the game was that for the first time in three weeks the team’s pathetic play wasn’t beamed to a national television audience.

After three successive home losses by a combined score of 96-33, it is abundantly clear that the Mike Shanahan era in D.C. is coming to a close. Local media coverage of the team is filled with the usual unnamed sources speculating about the timing of Shanahan’s firing, but whether the coach is fired before the end of the season or once the final game has been played is of little consequence. What is clear is that Shanahan is the latest in a growing line of coaches to fall out of favor with owner Dan Snyder. Shanahan joins the likes of Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn on the list of coaches who Snyder loved, until he didn’t.

Which is not to say that Shanahan is blameless for the debacle in D.C.; quite clearly he is not. He remains a coach with two Super Bowl rings, and exactly one playoff game victory with a quarterback not named John Elway. His decision to leave an obviously injured RGIII in last season’s first-round playoff game against Seattle reverberated right into the current campaign in which Griffin, still recovering from major off-season surgery, has been a shadow of the dynamic young signal caller who thrilled the team’s fans just a year ago. That misguided call last January appeared especially ironic this week, when Shanahan announced his decision to sit Griffin for the team’s final three meaningless contests so as not to risk injury to the franchise quarterback.

But while his tenure in D.C. will do little to burnish Shanahan’s reputation, there is plenty of blame to go around. While one must remember that he is still only 23, and thus will sometimes act like a 23-year old, in his second professional season RGIII has increasingly appeared self-centered. In a team sport it is useful for the most important player to acknowledge the importance of the team from time to time, but Griffin’s sound bites all season long have been a lot more about “me” than about “us.” Fans have noticed, and that fact as much as the team’s poor play and sorry record may account for the steep decline in sales of his jerseys.

Then of course there is Snyder, who while publicly keeping a much lower profile than in past years, has by no means left the stage. Dan Snyder was a fan before he was an owner, and he has always had difficulty distinguishing the two roles. His tenure at the top of the franchise’s hierarchy is filled with stories of an owner enamored by his close association with stars. When players know that they can ignore their coach and go directly to the owner to get what they want, it seldom ends well for the coach, or the team. Amidst all the trashing of Shanahan in Washington’s media outlets this week, there have been a few voices pointing to the extraordinarily close relationship between Snyder and Griffin as fundamentally undermining the coach’s authority.

Wherever the blame may fall, and please feel free to take your pick, in the end the story in Washington is the same. Another lost season, another coach about to get the axe. One must stop and ask, who would really want the job when it shortly becomes available? I grew up in the suburbs of D.C., and I remember that I always used to love it when the circus came to town. Now in Washington the circus has a permanent home at FedEx Field. While other teams focus on the playoffs and the chance to win a championship, in Washington the question at the end of every season remains the same. Who is going to clean up after the elephants?


%d bloggers like this: