By DERON SNYDER
It’s always something with Washington’s NFL franchise.
Rarely is it something good.
Welcome to the non-competitive portion of another season gone off the rails. The Skins have suffered back-to-back blowouts and four losses in their last five games. Injuries or not, the team’s effort and preparation have come under fire, raising the temperature under coach Jay Gruden’s seat.
Remember when he signed a contract extension in March, a deal that would keep him in Ashburn through 2020? Many observers deemed it a rare, savvy move for the organization. Washington had lost offensive coordinator Sean McVay, was about to fire GM Scot McCloughan, and was bungling another round of negotiations with Kirk Cousins.
Locking up the coach was supposed to provide a semblance of continuity, proof that owner Dan Snyder could commit to more than his wallet. After all, Gruden had just led the team to unprecedented heights in Snyder’s tenure – back-to-back winning seasons.
But now, this season has cratered like most of them and Cousins is closer to leaving than staying.
However, there’s still something to play for if Gruden can motivate his team to beat Arizona, Denver and the New York Giants: The Skins could finish at .500, giving them a third consecutive non-losing season.
Don’t scoff. Washington has accomplished that feat only once under current management, when it went 10-6, 8-8 and 8-8 in Snyder’s first three seasons as owner (1999-2001).
We didn’t know than that we’d look back and consider those as the halcyon days.
Truthfully, unemotional prognosticators predicted that Washington would fall in the blah range this season, somewhere between seven to nine wins. There were too many question marks and not enough exclamation points. A conveyor belt of injured players has exacerbated the situation.
But injuries don’t fully explain routs by a combined 41 points against the Chargers and Cowboys.
There are plays to be made that the Skins aren’t making. Their resiliency has evaporated. Their readiness appears suspect. Their exertion seems ambiguous.
Gruden said he’s “at a loss for words” in trying to explain what’s happened.
“We have not been competitive, and we weren’t ready to play today,” he told reporters Sunday after the 30-13 loss against Los Angeles. “That’s on me, the staff. We’ve got to do a better job getting these guys ready.”
His detractors note similar reflections after last year’s season finale, when the nothing-to-play-for New York Giants visited FedEx Field and beat the playoff-berth-at-stake hosts. Brilliant as he might be at designing plays, Gruden’s ability to prime his team mentally and emotionally has been wanting.
So, obviously, it’s the coach.
Then again, Cousins continues to spark national debate on his merit. Critics say his statistics are empty, like tasty treats that are high in calories but low in nutritional value. He’d be just another average guy under center without Gruden’s schemes, certainly not someone worth the largest contract in NFL history.
So, of course, it’s the quarterback.
On the other hand, the roster is short on talent in some areas. Blame the front office. A lot of players have gone down. The training staff must be at fault. Halfback Samaje Perine left Sunday’s game with a stomach illness. Call the team cook for questioning.
Reasons abound and the Skins need all of them, because there’s so much futility to be explained.
As Tom Boswell pointed out recently, only the Browns, Lions, Raiders, Rams and Jaguars have fewer wins in the past 16 seasons. Washington considers itself a class above those organizations, and there’s no arguing where Cleveland is concerned. But since 1999, Detroit (once), Oakland and the Rams (thrice each) have won at least 11 games.
The Skins haven’t reached 11 victories since 1991 and have managed 10-win seasons a meager three times under Snyder.
Gruden is on the verge of tying Joe Gibbs and Mike Shannan as Snyder’s longest-tenured coaches. Four seasons feels like a lifetime in these parts and he might not reach a fifth one at this rate.
Cousins likely will end this season as the franchise’s fourth-leading passer, surpassing Mark Rypien. Among original draftees, only Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan and Niles Paul have been with team longer than Cousins. Tight end Jordan Reed and halfback Chris Thompson will take Cousins’ spot on that list if he departs as expected.
Coaches and quarterbacks come and go. Likewise general managers, coordinators and water boys. Yet, nothing changes very much in Ashburn.
It’s always something with the Skins.
The only mystery is why we ignore common knowledge and a widely accepted principle when analyzing such situations.
“It” – whatever the problem(s) might be – always starts at the top.