- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS – They’ve been here before. They were 3-6 a year ago, the same record they have now. But it’s not the same. The only similarity is the record. Any talk of going on a seven-game win streak to close the season would be outlandish.
If you can’t beat a 1-7 team that is missing five starters and playing with an inconsistent quarterback, you don’t dare dream of the postseason. And if you can’t hang onto a 13-point lead against that team? Against the inconsistent quarterback’s backup? Then your season is over. Welcome to the Washington Redskins’ reality after their 34-27 loss Thursday night to the Minnesota Vikings.
Mathematically the Redskins are alive, and, sure, things change in a hurry in this league. But two years in a row? That's asking a lot, which is why they’re on life support. That’s the harsh reality for a team that entered 2013 with visions of going deep into the postseason. The goal now is to build momentum for 2014; otherwise, Washington will face much tougher questions than simply, “What went wrong?”
Yes, the Redskins had a chance to reach 4-5. They could have entered a game at Philadelphia with a legitimate chance to climb back into contention in the NFC East. But here’s the thing: Through nine games they have yet to show that they can play a complete game, let alone repeat it multiple times in a row. Their defense shows signs of life but remains bad. The only quarterback they’ve fared well against this season is Matt Flynn, who is currently looking for work.
They played well for a half against Chicago’s Jay Cutler, only to be carved up by his backup Josh McCown in the second half. They’ve played the run better and on Thursday did a nice job, save for a few runs, against Adrian Peterson. They wanted to make Minnesota one-dimensional, but that one dimension hurt. Too many receivers were open. Too many big plays were made at crucial times. And too little pressure was applied. Yeah, there was some tough field position at times. Make a stop. They did it a week ago at the goal line; the momentum did not carry over.
“Can’t let a team like that score that many points,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “That’s totally on us. We were sleepwalking at times.”
That’s not good.
But this isn’t about one game, it’s about how a team that reached the playoffs last season and returned 21 of 22 starters has fallen so hard, rarely -- if ever -- looking like a good all-around team this season. Don’t just blame quarterback Robert Griffin III’s knee. It hurt the offense, no doubt, early in the season, and there’s a trickle-down effect from his play -- good and bad. But Griffin has been running well enough lately to power the offense, like he did Thursday night. If there’s a positive it’s that Griffin is starting to reassert himself, playing his second strong game in a row. The Redskins need him to develop as a passer if they ever want to take that next step, so they don’t have to rely on his legs to make part of the offense go.
And if Griffin plays well down the stretch, then at least the Redskins can look forward with optimism. By forward, I mean to 2014. They can point to Griffin and running back Alfred Morris and receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed and feel good about that side of the ball. But those weapons failed on four shots inside the 10-yard line in the final minute against the Vikings.
Defensively? They don’t have the same building blocks and have more questions regarding players’ futures. Four years into this regime and the defense might need to be rebuilt again. It will be an interesting offseason on that side of the ball. The Redskins will be flush with cash but don't have a first-round pick.
Another obvious question: Will coach Mike Shanahan get a contract extension? He has one year left, and would be owed $7 million if he were fired. A strong finish, even without a playoff berth, would be enough. But about that extension -- you have to wait and see how these next seven games go. The character was evident last season, and it’s mostly the same players. But it’s not the same.
For this season, it’s just not enough, because the Redskins haven’t played winning football. It's botched special-teams play. It's costly 15-yard penalties, the sort they could overcome last year when they were rolling. It’s the lack of a legitimate return game. Details, man.
“Thought we’d do a lot better this year,” Morris said. “We haven’t been able to get it done. Lack of execution or whatever it is, been hurting us all season.”
When they were 3-6 a year ago, the Redskins were coming off three straight losses, but they had shown an explosive offense from the start of the season. They didn’t turn the ball over. When players said they could do something special, you weren’t expecting seven straight wins. But the belief they had then was real. A strong finish wasn’t unlikely. Is there that same sense now?
“Doesn’t matter, man, I don’t care about that,” Orakpo said. “We can’t keep relying on the past. We let this one slip. This is right there for the taking. It would have been the perfect situation.”
The Redskins cling to hope. By a thread.
“We still control our own destiny,” tackle Trent Williams said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
What they needed, though, was a win against a banged-up, one-win Minnesota team. They didn’t get it. The next seven games are about showing improvement, regardless of where it takes them. What they're showing now isn't taking them anywhere.