We all know what’s at stake in this game, which is nothing. We know that it would take quite a bit for coach Mike Shanahan to return. There have been other crazy years in Washington, but this one will go down as one of the most surprising because of the turn of events, from preseason contender to 3-12 and the change in storylines regarding Shanahan and quarterback Robert Griffin III. Those other bad years? You could see them coming, whether it was Steve Spurrier’s second season or Jim Zorn’s second season. Neither should have been an NFL head coach and their second years proved why. But we’re talking about a coach in Shanahan who has won Super Bowls – yes, I know, with John Elway, but just about every coach is better with a great quarterback and it's still hard to win when you do have them. And we’re talking about a quarterback who went from Heisman, to NFL rookie darling to a question mark with an image to repair, fair or not.
I remember being asked in August on some radio stations if there was a scenario under which Shanahan would not return. My response: Only if there’s some disaster … but it’s hard to think they’ll be that bad.
And now here they are: that bad and Shanahan’s job likely ending within the next couple of days. I doubt anything happens Sunday night. Shanahan anticipates something happening soon, based on his comments last week. But that might mean a couple days while a settlement is negotiated (unless Shanahan simply says no to one and demands all $7 million).
I thought this was an interesting quote from receiver Santana Moss earlier in the week. He was asked about if players liked playing for Shanahan. Moss: “That’s something I won’t comment on. What does that matter, honestly? I think he’s a great coach. I think he did well by what he tried to do with this team and it just didn’t work. … Last year was an incredible year and you would have wished things would have been different this year. … I was thinking we could have that same kind of year or even better, but it didn’t and we can’t sit back and think about what-ifs and all that.”
I remember the emotion in the locker room after last year’s regular-season finale, the NFC East-clinching win over Dallas. Even guys like Brian Orakpo, who was on injured reserve, were beaming and celebrating. There will be much different emotion Sunday. A lot of players have talked about how this will be the last time they play together. There’s turnover every offseason, but there wasn’t a whole lot last offseason as 21 of 22 starters returned. So it’s a group well-familiar with one another. They know what’s coming in the offseason and they know it will look a whole lot different in the locker room in 2014.
One player I’m curious to see Sunday is Chris Baker. He’s done a nice job down the stretch and he’ll be facing an offensive line that is banged up and not very good right now. Baker, too, is playing for a contract. There are holes in his game, but Baker flashes the ability to penetrate. He’d be good to keep around.
Rookie linebacker Brandon Jenkins hasn’t done a whole lot, mostly because he did not help on special teams. You absolutely need young linebackers who can run to help on special teams. He needs to develop in this area, especially if the Redskins stay in a 3-4 and re-sign Orakpo. Even if they don’t re-sign Orakpo, it’s not as if Jenkins projects to a starter in 2014. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said you can’t evaluate Jenkins fairly because he’s only played 23 snaps this season. Jenkins, of course, is transitioning from a college end to outside linebacker and learning how to drop into coverage. “When I was in Pittsburgh, it took Joey Porter three years,” Haslett said. “Brandon will be a guy that can step in and play here in another year or so, but to say that we gave him a fair evaluation this year, no, I can’t say that.”
I’ll be curious to see how the Giants defend the Redskins and running back Alfred Morris Sunday. They focused heavily on Morris in the first meeting, particularly on the zone-read option game. Morris only carried the ball two times in the second half of a close game (a third carry was wiped out by a penalty). But the Redskins typically like to run against a 4-3 front such as the Giants. Their stretch-zone game can be effective, getting the linebackers to flow hard to the play side. And that sets up their inside-zone toss. The Redskins need to do a better job holding their blocks.
In the first meeting, the Giants often used eight in the box, but not all the time. Morris’ best runs came off stretch zones on plays in which the linebackers awaited a cutback, allowing an offensive lineman to seal them to the inside. But the Giants have a pretty smart and disciplined defense. They don’t trick teams as much as they do their jobs well, starting in the middle with linebacker Jon Beason. He was not often fooled by the action of a play and, because of it, disrupted a few runs. I’ll be curious to see how the Giants handle the bootleg action; athletic end Justin Tuck could make that difficult for Washington.
One reason Nick Williams said he felt better returning kickoffs last week: reps. Though he hadn’t returned any kicks or punts since his first game, he has been doing so in practice. It makes a difference. And an underrated part of the return game is knowing how his blockers will handle certain situations. “I used to say when I had success in college that next year when all the guys graduate I’ll be back, but it still has a lot to do with your blockers and the wedge and scheme,” Williams said. “A lot has to do with who’s in front of you.”