The 60-something coach had known the joy of winning a Super Bowl on multiple occasions. But now his Redskins were in disarray, having lost three straight games to fall below .500 in late November of his fourth season. Two of those had come on the road, one to NFC East rival Philadelphia.
That coach was 67-year-old Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs six years ago yesterday. Fast forward to now and 61-year-old Mike Shanahan’s Redskins have lost three in a row, two on the road and one to Philadelphia to ensure that they won’t finish above .500 in his fourth season in command in Ashburn.
Gibbs’ heartache grew immeasurably worse six years ago today with the shooting of Sean Taylor which would cost the 24-year-old Pro Bowl safety his life the next day. The grieving Redskins lost their next game in the final minute before using Taylor’s death as a galvanizing force to run off five straight victories and reach postseason. Gibbs, still shaken, retired two days after the playoff defeat at Seattle.
After last night’s listless 27-6 loss to San Francisco in Landover that dropped the defending NFC East champions three games behind the front-running Eagles and Dallas Cowboys in the division race, it’s near-impossible to find anything that can spur a Washington turnaround.
The offense, which had clearly been the Redskins’ strength, didn’t score a touchdown for the first time since Week 10 of 2011 while producing just 190 yards and 10 first downs, 30 and one after halftime.
The ever-bumbling defense surrendered 27 points and 304 yards to a 49ers offense that had managed just 29 points and 347 yards in its previous two games combined.
The woeful special teams gave up 14.4 yards per punt return, more than double San Francisco’s previous average.
Worst of all, Shanahan’s Redskins played and coached with no fire. Given their desperate situation and with the entire nation and their peers around the NFL watching them on “Monday Night Football,” they should have come roaring out of the tunnel. Instead, Washington went three-and-out on its first three series while producing all of 13 yards.
Incredibly, the start of the second half was worse.
The second of Kai Forbath’s two field goals had closed the deficit to 10-6 as the first half ended. Then on the opening possession of the third quarter, DeAngelo Hall forced a fumble that Brandon Meriweather recovered. Washington was just 49 yards from taking the lead. However, quarterback Robert Griffin III and Co. couldn’t gain 10 in four tries. The Kyle Shanahan-run offense that had come oh so close to forcing overtime in the recent losses at Philadelphia and Minnesota never got beyond its own 41-yard line the rest of the night.
Even in a league where the players are grown men, a coach has a great deal of influence on their emotions. Their absence last night reflected those of Mike Shanahan, who seemed to be without a spark.
Shanahan, who can be as cold-eyed as any tough boss and can get as angry as any of his more often expressive fellow NFL coaches, was surprisingly jolly last week even though the Redskins had already exceeded last year’s loss total. He was buddy-buddy with referee John Parry as they walked down Washington’s sideline before the second half kicked off last night. And Shanahan was more matter-of-fact than mad after the 21-point defeat, Washington’s worst at home since Week 10 of 2010, the ninth game of his regime.
The Redskins’ valiant comebacks that fell just short against the Vikings and Eagles the previous two weeks showed that they hadn’t quit on their most disappointing season since any of them, save ninth-year receiver Santana Moss, first arrived in Washington.
Those efforts told me that Shanahan still had the players’ hearts and minds, that he hadn’t lost the locker room. But last night’s passion-less performance said otherwise.
I have maintained that no matter how badly this season finished and no matter how often apparent squabbles between the Shanahans and face of the franchise Griffin became public that Dan Snyder wouldn’t fire his $7 million-per coach just a year after Washington’s first NFC East title since he was a brash rookie owner back in 1999.
However, if the Redskins play with a similar lack of desire Sunday night against the visiting New York Giants, a division foe, then it will be time for Shanahan to go and for yet another re-start in Ashburn.
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.