Running out of People to Blame

The Washington Redskins are limping to the finish line of another season that began with high expectations. Fans feel the sting of unexpected disappointment, made worse by the fact that it probably should have been expected. The franchise is on track to finish with only one more win than last season despite bringing in star head coach Mike Shanahan and star quarterback Donovan McNabb. Some cynical (and forward-looking) fans have even suggested the Redskins continue to lose to improve the team’s draft position. Next season will almost certainly begin under the leadership of Mike Shanahan; however, some players that drew a lot of attention for their shortcomings this season will almost certainly be missing. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, punter Hunter Smith, and quarterback Donovan McNabb found themselves in the dog house for different reasons, but all made easy targets for those looking to assign blame.

After near constant conflict with coach Shanahan, the over-compensated defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was suspended without pay for the final four weeks of the 2010 season. He did plenty to earn his suspension, beginning with his refusal to participate in the team’s offseason conditioning program. Haynesworth reported to training camp out of shape, giving Shanahan an opportunity to make an example out of him by forcing him to pass a conditioning test before taking the field. On the 10th day of training camp, he passed the test after three failed attempts. Though Shanahan prevailed in this first contest of wills, he proved unable to ease tensions with the $100 million man. Albert never wavered from his irritation at having to play nose tackle in the team’s new 3-4 defensive scheme. He behaved so intractably that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett decided only to use him in nickel packages and as a 3-technique tackle as he had been used to playing in Tennessee.

“Trying to get him to do the 3-4 stuff was trying to get a square peg into a round hole,” Haslett said. “We tried to force the issue, and it hasn’t worked out the way that we would like.”

Despite some successes on the field when he was able to play, Haynesworth routinely resisted his coaches’ orders, tried to get out of practice obligations, and responded with surprise each time Shanahan held him out of a game. Tensions between player and coach peaked after the Redskins’ week 12 loss to the Giants. Albert missed practice the Friday before the game, causing Shanahan to deactivate him as punishment. After the loss, Haynesworth made his displeasure with coach Shanahan known to general manager Bruce Allen. The franchise responded by suspending him for the remaining four weeks of the season without pay for “conduct detrimental to the club.” Shanahan issued the following statement:

“Despite the club’s numerous attempts to persuade Albert Haynesworth to abide by the terms of his contract, he has repeatedly refused to cooperate with our coaching staff in a variety of ways over an extended period of time. Among other things, he has consistently indicated to our defensive coaches that he refuses to play in our base defense or on first-down or second-down nickel situations.  He has also refused to follow the instructions of our coaches both during weekly practices and during actual games as well. Yesterday, when Albert was at Redskin Park, he told our General Manager Bruce Allen that he would no longer speak with me.  Although suspending any player is not a decision that a head coach enters into lightly, I believe the situation has reached the point where the club clearly has no alternative.”

Because the suspension without pay would cost Haynesworth $847,000, the NFL Players Association filed a grievance on his behalf. Regardless of the outcome, Albert Haynesworth’s days in Washington are over.

Hunter “The Punter” Smith’s career in Washington also ended unceremoniously. Smith, a twelve-year veteran who played for the Redskins in 2009 and again in 2010 after an injury to Josh Bidwell, was the 25th ranked punter in the league. Smith also held kicks, an assignment he botched that cost the ‘Skins a game-tying field goal to take the Bucs into overtime during week 13. A re-examination of the play shows that snap was high and the ball was cold, wet, and slippery. Though the play officially ended the Washingtons’ hopes for winning the game, Hunter the Punter doesn’t deserve the full blame for that dropped snap. And he certainly doesn’t deserve the all, or even most, of the blame for the Redskins’ loss. Nevertheless, Washington released Smith on the Tuesday following the game. When he went to clean out his locker, it had already been cleared for him. Kicker Graham Gano, who could have helped win the game if he hadn’t missed two previous field goal attempts, still has his job. The irony of the moment was not lost on ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, who had this to say:

“Smith was canned because a wet, just-out-of-the-box football slipped through his raised hands. Of course, had Gano made one of his two earlier chippies, it wouldn’t have mattered. And by the way, there’s no guarantee Washington would have won the game in OT . . . Sorry, but blaming Smith for the defeat is like blaming your busboy for a bad meal. On one play, he was 25 percent of a bad equation: high snap + wet ball + slippery hands + shaky kicker = PAT disaster. The truth is the Redskins have 100 more-pressing priorities than Hunter and his twice-every-12-years missed snaps.”

Ultimately, Hunter Smith found himself in a situation that he couldn’t control. He belonged to a franchise whose fans expected their new head coach and quarterback to turn the team around. That didn’t happen, and Washington continued to lose. With each game the team dropped, pressure mounted on the coaching staff to do something to stop the bleeding. Naturally, blame that should be shared often flows downhill. Smith just happened to be the most vulnerable person that week. If the Redskins were winners, Hunter Smith would still have a job this Christmas.

Donovan McNabb’s situation proved more complicated than Smith’s or Haynesworth’s. Little more than seven months after being heralded as the long-term answer to Washington’s quarterback woes, Donovan McNabb was benched in favor of Rex Grossman for the remainder of the season. McNabb’s performance suffered this year. He threw for 3,377 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, giving him a 77.1 QB rating (his lowest since his rookie season). His poor performance, which has been exacerbated by inconsistent blocking and receiver play, led Shanahan to bench him for the final 2 minutes of the Redskins’ loss to the Lions in week 8. The coaches’ confusing explanations for sitting McNabb, followed by the franchise signing McNabb to a 5-year, $78 million contract ($40 million guaranteed unless the franchise opts out after the 2010 season), left the quarterback’s future in Washington as uncertain as ever. After the Redskins week 14 loss to the Buccaneers however, Shanahan decided to bench McNabb for good and start Grossman against the Cowboys the following week.

Shanahan explained, “After we were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, I sat down with Donovan to tell him we would go with Rex in the start at Dallas, he would be the backup and that he would be the No. 3 guy for the last two games . . . I’ve got to make a decision who is the starting quarterback for our future and who is second and who is third. I have to do this to make decisions for the college draft. This is all about where to go, not where we’ve been.”

In Mike Shanahan’s mind, he already knows what Donovan can offer the team. By examining the other options, Shanahan showed that he doesn’t think that offer is good enough. McNabb, whose leadership and play have earned him league-wide respect, has to feel the sting of his coach’s message. I doubt divine intervention could keep Donovan McNabb in Washington now.

Though Shanahan and company think the franchise is better off without Haynesworth, Smith, and McNabb, I have my doubts. I won’t argue that the players gave the ‘Skins a better chance to win games. They did, however, distract from the team’s bigger problems. Washington’s defense is ranked last in the league in yards allowed. Our wide receivers are inconsistent. We have no running game unless Ryan Torain is healthy enough to play. The offensive line is plagued by injury and incompetence. The secondary looks like Swiss cheese. Our head coach makes questionable personnel decisions. He also handles those decisions tactlessly. The team’s morale is in the cellar. We have few young players in development. Rex Grossman is our best option at quarterback. The Cowboys just beat us. Forgive me if I don’t see how cutting ties with Albert Haynesworth, Hunter Smith, and Donovan McNabb addresses any of these problems. If anything, Coach Shanahan, our problems just became more obvious.


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