WASHINGTON — The thought struck me sometime last week, amid the quarterback madness that managed to achieve a new level of bizarre, even by Washington Football Team standards:
What if we’re missing the canary calling down the coal mine? What if — after years of apple bonuses, expired beer, elimination of any benefit of being a fan and attempts to repackage the team’s offensive (to some) name as an honor by trotting out fake or disgraced former tribal members — it’s all about to come crumbling down?
Could Washington go 0-16?
Strictly speaking about football, this team screams four or five wins to me. Six — which both my colleagues have predicted — seems like a hard ceiling. But what if something greater is in play, and the confluence of events is just right to send them spiraling into a Detroit Lions-like oblivion?
What happens if this team starts losing and never stops?
Washington came within a late Jacksonville field goal of going undefeated in the preseason this year. We know there’s very little correlation between preseason and regular-season records: They’ve gone 16-4 in exhibitions since 2011, 22-42 in the regular season over the same stretch. Remember those 2008 Lions? They were 4-0 in the preseason.
When the Lions went winless, they were punchlines for late-night comedians by midseason. But as the losing wore on, most people started to feel bad. If Dan Snyder’s football team suffers the same fate, do you honestly think anyone will sympathize? Or will a whole country unite in an act of nationalistic schadenfreude to root for them to be ground into oblivion?
The decision over the weekend to keep RG3 can’t possibly help. Griffin’s biggest issue has been his propensity to call attention to himself off the field. Just as Kirk Cousins never should have had a radio show while serving as a backup quarterback, it’s hard to imagine any good coming from constant sideline shots and media attention to a backup more famous than the starter. It’s clear to nearly everyone that Griffin needs a fresh start, something that can never happen in Washington.
As for Cousins, I don’t doubt his belief in himself, but the man is 2-7 as a starter. His only wins came against the 2012 Browns (who finished 5-11) and the 2014 Titans (2-14). He has more career interceptions than touchdowns. And the more he has played in the backfield with Alfred Morris, the less effective the latter has become.
Morris has averaged just 66.6 yards in Cousins’ starts, and just 52.8 last season. The only recent year in which Washington has been effective was in 2012, when Morris averaged more than 100 yards a game and found the end zone 13 times. He’s watched his total yardage and yards per carry drop each season since.
Washington has already seen a season-ending injury to linebacker acquisition Junior Galette as well as a lesser injury to its best cornerback, Brashaud Breeland. Injuries can always undermine a season, but if a couple more key players went down, Washington could be truly sunk.
Early returns on the offensive line haven’t been promising. After spending the fifth overall pick on offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, the team moved him to guard, where he was manhandled at times in the preseason. With the Miami Dolphins’ vaunted defensive line staring at him and the rest of the boys in the trenches in Week 1, the learning curve will be steep.
Where could the first win come? Against an improved Rams squad that embarrassed Snyder, then his team, in Landover last year? On the road against the Giants? Against a high-octane Eagles squad? In Atlanta?
Right now, I’d have to think Washington is an underdog in all those games. Sure, they draw the Jets and Bucs Weeks 6 and 7, respectively, but who knows what either of those teams will look like by then?
The fact that the NFC South — far and away the league’s worst division in 2014 — is on the schedule makes a winless season seem unlikely. But if the losses start to mount before Washington can get in the win column, so will the pressure. With the Nationals’ season imploding in new and increasingly epic ways seemingly every day, attention will shift to football even more wholeheartedly and viciously than usual this year.