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Forget The Season, ‘Skins At A Franchise Crossroads

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Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Remember way, way back in January of 1988 when the ‘Skins dropped 35 points on the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII?  I know, it’s a fading memory. The ‘Skins entered the quarter down 10-0, and after 15 minutes of play and a total of 18 plays, the greatest offensive tsunami in franchise history was over — and so was the Super Bowl for all intents and purposes. 

Denver nearly returned the favor last Sunday with a 31-point fourth quarter that just became a new synonym for blitzkrieg. The assault was relentless. It was as cringe-worthy as watching William Wallace being strapped down and tortured by his English captures. If only he would have begged for mercy.  Why didn’t RGIII, Mike Shanahan or anyone on the ‘Skins sideline make it stop by simply screaming “merrrrr-seeeeeeeeeeee” (Roger Goodell, if you’re really into player safety, implement a tap-out rule immediately. I’m kidding … mostly).

Of course, no one expected the ‘Skins to roll into Denver and whip a Broncos team coming off its first loss of the season. Still, when the ‘Skins jumped up 21-7 in the third quarter, the implausible was attainable and everyone laying the points and betting heavy on the Broncos were soiling themselves. What happened next only occurs on Saturdays when SEC powers take on directional colleges seeking a payday (or so I thought): a 38-0 run that swatted the annoying little gnat in burgundy and gold clear back to D.C.

The 45-21 debacle left me with this one, profound question: now what? The equally profound answer that came to mind was “a lot.” The ‘Skins are a big hot mess. The issues are far deeper and more complex than the various versions of the irritating post-game “we have to get better” cliché can veil. Even the dry and evasive Mike Shanahan and the charismatic RGIII are incapable of creating adequate diversions. 

Entering 2013, anyone with a passing knowledge of the ‘Skins knew RGIII would be limited physically, the offensive line would be mediocre, the defensive backfield would be an area of concern and the passing game would beg for a complement to Pierre Garcon. Seven games into the season, those seem like trivial matters now. Washington’s 2-5 record is bad, but considering the opposing quarterbacks in the two wins were a now unemployed Matt Flynn and career backup Josh McCown, the team might not be what its record says it is — the ‘Skins might be worse. The questions circling like buzzards above FedEx have transcended players and units, and are now far more fundamental to the team’s current construct, leadership and future.

Let’s start at the top: Mike Shanahan is a shell of the guy that led Denver to back-to-back Super Bowls. The team often appears unprepared, there’s a pervading lack of attention to detail and the game plans lack imagination. The eye test indicates the ‘Skins are getting out-coached nearly every Sunday. As the unsuccessful weeks pile up and more distance is added between those two Super Bowl titles and the present, Shanahan becomes less of an offensive genius and leader of men and more like a good coach that rode the coattails of John Elway and a talented cast to glory. At this point there’s only one word to describe Shanahan’s future in D.C.: bleak.

But Shanahan’s job status is hardly the most distressing issue facing the franchise. After nearly a 30-year search, 2012 seemed to provide a long-term answer to Washington’s confounding void behind center.  From Week 1 last season, Robert Griffin III laid claim to the long unoccupied throne of ‘Skins franchise quarterback. Despite his post-injury rhetoric, early season struggles were expected and realized. Since the listless, almost scared effort against the Eagles in Week 1, RGIII had gradually but unquestionably improved. Last week’s explosion against the Bears seemed to announce RGIII’s return to form.

It was fool’s gold.

Sunday’s game against the Broncos was perhaps Griffin’s worst as a pro. He was inaccurate, made poor reads, had no pocket presence, displayed disastrous mechanics and turned the ball over several times. Griffin’s performance emulated the very worst of Rex Grossman. Even more damning, Griffin’s non-verbals were atrocious. I don’t want to say he didn’t care, but it seemed like he didn’t care. It was so perplexing that I realized at some point I wasn’t watching only within the context of Sunday’s game, I was watching for next week, next month, opening day next season and five years from now.

I try not to overreact to individual games, and figured a good night’s sleep and dreams of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford adding another chapter to Dallas’ horror novel “The Tony Romo Experience” would provide a different, more rational perspective on RGIII — it didn’t.

What accentuated the stench of Griffin’s performance on Sunday was his counterpart. Peyton Manning certainly didn’t have a clean game, but he was manipulating the defense at the line of scrimmage, getting in and out of plays in real-time and throwing receivers open. It’s not fair to expect Griffin to be Manning, but when has RGIII done any of that? Frankly, when has he even moved a safety with his eyes or gone through a progression in nanoseconds post-snap? What I see is a quarterback who looks for his primary receiver and, if covered, aborts the play and leans on his athleticism. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Michael Vick, not the stuff of franchise quarterbacks.   

Griffin is only 23 years old and has, by any rational standard, just begun his development as an NFL quarterback, but his regression is unmistakable. In last January’s playoff loss to Seattle, Griffin wrecked his knee, but I wondered then and am becoming increasingly resigned to the idea that more than just Griffin’s ACL was shredded on that fateful day.

He lost trust in the organization and his head coach.

Will he ever rebound, re-establish himself and become the elite quarterback D.C. has been seeking for three decades?  Maybe, but for the first time in Griffin’s career, I am questioning whether he’s the answer at quarterback. That’s an issue no one anticipated. Ease my fears and prove me wrong RGIII … I beg thee.