A year after winning their first NFC East title in 13 years, the 3-7 Redskins are enduring their most disappointing season since 2006 when they followed a surprise playoff appearance with a 5-11 stinker.
Coach Mike Shanahan, who won 62 percent of his games and two Super Bowls during his 14 years in Denver, is under fire in Washington where he’s just 24-35 and hasn’t won a postseason contest.
Linebacker London Fletcher, the 38-year-old captain and one of just four Redskins to be chosen for four straight Pro Bowls over the past 26 years, and 34-year-old Santana Moss, the franchise’s most productive receiver during that same span, are probably finished.
Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo and former starting tight end Fred Davis are two other long-tenured Redskins who are likely heading into their final six games with Washington.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, the toast of the town as a rookie in 2012, is being roundly criticized, even by the usually genteel Sonny Jurgensen, his Hall of Fame predecessor several generations removed.
Coordinator Jim Haslett’s defense is surrendering points at a ghastly pace while new special teams coach Keith Burns’ units are a joke.
And yet, in the midst of all of this gloom, receiver Pierre Garcon is steadfastly playing the best football of his six-year career. Heading into this weekend’s games, Garcon led the NFC with 67 catches (just three shy of his career-high for a full season). He was second with 450 yards after the catch and 20 third-down receptions, and fourth with 871 receiving yards (only 77 shy of his career-high). Only Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson had been targeted more often than Garcon’s 111.
Washington lured Garcon away from Indianapolis in March 2012 with a five-year, $42.5 million contract that included $20.5 million in guaranteed money, a little over half of that via a signing bonus. All of that once would have been unfathomable for a receiver who played at Division III Norwich (Vt.) and then Mount Union (Ohio) because he didn’t receive an offer from a school that gave football scholarships.
After helping lead Mount Union to two national championships, Garcon was selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft by the powerful Colts. He debuted against Washington in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio the night after Redskins star Art Monk was inducted into the shrine.
Five-plus years later, Garcon is on pace for 107 catches entering tonight’s game against visiting San Francisco. That would break Monk’s 29-year-old franchise record of 106.
“I don’t know about all that,” Garcon said last week as the Redskins prepared to face the defending NFC champion 49ers. “We’re not winning so my numbers don’t mean that much.”
Garcon had very different numbers in 2012. He caught Griffin’s pass over the middle and raced 88 yards for a touchdown at New Orleans on Washington’s second series of the season but injured a toe on the play. Garcon missed the next two games, did little in the two after that, and then sat out four more before returning in Week 11. Not coincidentally, the Redskins didn’t lose after he came back, raising their record to 9-1 when he played, 1-5 when he didn’t.
Garcon’s presence hasn’t had the same effect on the scoreboard this season, but the Redskins certainly appreciate what the feisty 6-foot, 210-pound West Palm Beach, Fla. native is doing for them.
“He’s been playing that way since he’s been here,” Shanahan said after Garcon lit up San Diego for a career-high 172 yards on seven catches in Week 9 and followed with 107 yards on seven grabs four days later at Minnesota. “I think everybody else is starting to see from the outside how good of a player he is. He’s a very physical wide receiver. He’s not afraid to run over safeties, linebackers. He’s exceptionally strong. When I bragged on him that one game about blocking – and the reason why I did it so much is a lot of people don’t see how physical he is.”
Griffin, Moss, Fletcher, Orakpo, offensive tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safety Brandon Meriweather all have Pro Bowl experience, but other than second-year running back Alfred Morris, Garcon is Washington’s only player who could earn his first trip to Hawaii this season.
“We try to get him the ball as much as we can,” said Griffin, who has thrown 108 of his 372 passes Garcon’s way. “He’s a running back playing receiver. Everybody saw him truck that safety against Minnesota. He’s a [hot]-tempered guy out there on the field and he plays that way at receiver which you don’t see very often. If you get the ball in his hands, he can do some damage with it. On third-and-long, you throw him an underneath route and he gets the first down.”
The 49ers have the stiffest pass defense that the Redskins will have faced and it will be frigid weather for a Florida native who played his home games during his first four NFL seasons in a dome, but if there’s any player that Washington can count on tonight, it’s Garcon. In nine of 10 games this year, he’s caught at least six passes for at least 50 yards.
So while there are plenty of people to blame for Washington’s ugly season, the man wearing No. 88 is certainly not among them.
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.