Reporting David Elfin
There have been 415 plays during the Redskins’ first three games. While a Washington defender chasing an opposing ballcarrier has been a frighteningly frequent result, the one that symbolizes the switch from NFC East champions in 2012 to winless bumblers in 2013 happened early in the fourth quarter yesterday with the score tied at 17.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, looking like himself in the open field for the first time since his Jan. 9 knee surgery, danced through a slew of would-be tacklers en route to easily his longest run of the young season. But instead of giving himself up by sliding and ensuring that Washington would maintain possession, Griffin dived forward. The ball came out and was recovered by the Lions’ Glover Quin at the Detroit 25-yard line. Six players later, the visitors had reclaimed the lead for good en route to a 27-20 victory, their first in 22 trips to Washington.
And with that, the Redskins are already toast at 0-3. It’s the most shocking start to a Washington season since 2001 when new coach Marty Schottenheimer’s disciplined approach to a talented-laden roster – Hall of Famers Darrell Green and Bruce Smith, Canton lock Champ Bailey, stars Chris Samuels, LaVar Arrington, Stephen Davis, Marco Coleman and Jon Jansen — produced a 0-5 start that included defeats by 37, 32 and 27 points.
However, the 2001 Redskins had made a radical switch in coaching philosophy which some veteran players detested. And by Week 3, Washington also had a new starting quarterback.
This year’s Redskins have no such excuses. The only spots where fourth-year coach Mike Shanahan isn’t starting the player he wants is left defensive end where Adam Carriker has been sidelined for more than a year with a quadriceps that won’t heal and Jarvis Jenkins is suspended for one more game for a substance abuse violation.
Otherwise, Washington’s big names – Griffin, Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, Trent Williams, London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and DeAngelo Hall — have all started in the spankings by Philadelphia and Green Bay and yesterday’s battle with usually downtrodden Detroit.
There’s no easy explanation for what has happened to the Redskins who returned 21 starters – disappointing free safety Madieu Williams wasn’t asked back – from a team that won its final seven games of 2012 to capture its first division title in 13 years.
Griffin certainly hasn’t been the dynamic dual-threat he was as the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, especially before halftime. His first half passer rating is a bleak 46.5. And as Griffin goes, so goes Garcon, his favorite receiver. But left tackle Williams stoned Packers premier pass rusher Clay Matthews and has generally been stout. Running back Morris is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and is on pace for 1,200 yards even though Washington has usually been in a pass-heavy mode, having been behind for all but 33:04 of the season’s 180 minutes.
While fans hold their breath every time an opposing players gets near Griffin, he has only been sacked six times, on pace with last year. Washington’s 5.3 yards per carry is a tick ahead of 2012’s average.
With the help of a couple of breathers courtesy of backup Nick Barnett, the 38-year-old Fletcher finally looked like himself yesterday, sacking Matthew Stafford on the opening snap and flashing often. Fellow linebacker Kerrigan has been Washington’s best player, making impact plays each game. Cornerback Hall is tied for the team lead with two touchdowns. Orakpo, who missed the final 14 games of last year with a torn pec, hasn’t regained his elite pass rushing form, a factor that has affected the yet-again sieve-like secondary, but that alone hasn’t caused the Redskins’ horrible September.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s job security is already in question with the Redskins having surrendered an NFL-record 1,464 yards during their first three games. Until New Orleans allowed 7,042 yards last year, no team had ever given up more than 6,793. Washington is on pace to surrender a staggering 7,808. The Redskins weren’t a good defense last year, but they were better during the 7-0 stretch drive. Now, not only do they give receivers way too much room in coverage, they’ve also seemingly forgotten how to tackle.
The return game has been lousy under new special teams coach Keith Burns, but it wasn’t good in 2012 under predecessor Danny Smith. Punter Sav Rocca is still solid. The missed field goals by Kai Forbath and John Potter weren’t consequential since they came in blowout defeats.
In 2001, Washington sunk to 0-5 before rallying to finish 8-8, the same record it had posted the previous year. For this year’s Redskins to match last year’s record, they’ll have to go 10-3 the rest of the way against a schedule that includes Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas (twice), Denver, Kansas City, the New York Giants (twice) and San Francisco. The odds of that happening are about the same of a team that started 0-3 making the playoffs during the previous 24 years: 2.6 percent.
Make it 22 straight seasons without the Redskins in the Super Bowl and 21 in a row without consecutive winning records.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin