If the sky is falling in 49er Land after consecutive losses, then the Redskins might have dropped into a sinkhole in the nation’s capital.
At 3-7, Washington has lost its way after last season’s encouraging run to the playoffs headed by Robert Griffin III’s sensational rookie campaign that garnered Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The team won its final seven regular season games en route to an 11-5 mark that won the NFC East for the first time since 1999.
But since tearing his right ACL and LCL in January’s divisional round against the Seahawks, Griffin and his team have struggled to return to form. With the 49ers set to play in Washington on “Monday Night Football” this week, the obvious parallels will be made between Griffin and Colin Kaepernick, who has also struggled to repeat his outstanding breakout season of 2012.
Both quarterbacks are in their second season as starters and both provide the dual-threat skill set that’s become a staple of today’s NFL.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Compared to San Francisco – a team coming off two-straight deep runs in the playoffs that included a Super Bowl appearance - the Redskins have become a daytime melodrama. Meanwhile, the tight-lipped 49ers have given off the same message this week as any other despite going through just the second losing streak since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011.
That can’t be said for Washington.
Following Sunday’s 24-16 loss to the Eagles, Griffin made comments to the media following the game that could be interpreted in a way that would cause civil unrest with his coaching staff.
“They kind of knew what was coming before it was coming and like I said, that is disheartening,” Griffin said postgame. “But we still have to find ways and that’s what I told the guys – no matter what’s going on out there, we’re the players, we have to make the plays work.”
Predictably, those words caused a stir given the already tumultuous background clouding the relationship between Griffin and head coach Mike Shanahan. Any time a star quarterback says things that might indicate his team was outcoached, the narrative takes the irrational turn for the worse as far as the team is concerned.
Griffin’s handing of the media falls in stark contrast with Kaepernick, who provides very little ammunition for hungry scribes. After losing in New Orleans and throwing for just 127 yards, the second-year starter didn’t stray from his reticence.
“I think we made it difficult on ourselves at times and didn’t execute like we should have,” Kaepernick said. “And then we just didn’t make the plays when we had the chance.”
Just as he’s been groomed to read defenses, Kaepernick’s been groomed to anticipate reporters’ questions and avoid creating the types of storylines Griffin and Shanahan have to deal with this week and onward.
In his conference call with Bay Area media members Wednesday, Griffin didn’t retract his postgame comments. Instead, his attempt was to provide context.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I just feel like for myself moving forward, I just have to be more weary of the hostility after a game like that. A divisional game, I’m sitting there trying to give a compliment to Philadelphia’s defense, giving credit where I thought it was due. It was taken as a shot to my coaches. It wasn’t. I addressed that.
“Those guys work really, really hard. They put in a lot of hours and put in the game plans and put us in the right situations to win. And in response to that, we work our tails off too as players. It’s unfortunate that it was taken it that way. There’s nothing else I can do about that.”
When asked to describe his relationship with his head coach, Griffin’s answer was far more concise.
“Two guys that want to win football games. That’s the relationship and we’re working together to make sure that happens,” he said.
Situations like this might be why Jim Harbaugh is always sure to heap praise on his players even during their struggles. The palpable unrest between Shanahan and Griffin - paired with the losing - could cost Shanahan his job. He enters the final year of his five-year, $35 million contract this spring and will have a hard time getting an extension based on the season’s results. Washington is 24-34 with Shanahan at the helm.
On the field, Griffin has shown physical improvement since the team’s Week 5 bye. It appeared he came back too soon following his knee injury and rehab that kept him out of the preseason. But while he has thrown for 912 yards more than Kaepernick, he has not had the defense to back him up.
The 49ers head into Monday night’s tilt with league’s No. 4 scoring defense, the Redskins are 30th allowing more than 31 points per game. San Francisco is sixth with a +6.9-scoring margin, while Washington is at -6.5, good for 27th.
“You can just look at a piece of paper and tell that they’re talented. When you put on the tape it reaffirms that. It’s one of the best defenses, if not the best defense we’ll face all year,” said Griffin.
“They do everything well,” Shanahan echoed. “They got a great front seven. They got two excellent safeties. Both are great tacklers, great in pass defense. They can actually stop the running game with seven people.”
Both players head into Monday night with something to prove. For San Francisco, they must finish the regular season strong in order to return to the playoffs for a third-straight season. At 6-4, they occupy the No. 6 spot in NFC, just ahead of the Lions and Cardinals who share the same the record. Only two of the team’s remaining six games come against teams currently over .500.
For the Redskins, they are cascaded in desperation, which could make them a dangerous opponent on their home field and in prime time. With a win this week, they would be two games back of idle Philadelphia. With a loss, they would fall three games behind with just five games to play. But the 49ers haven’t lost three-straight games since early in 2010.
Based on the way things have gone in the NFC East this season, the winner of the division might only need nine wins. With that in mind, Griffin understands that his team is not fully out of the race.
“Our thought process right now is to just take care what we can control and right now the only thing that we have on our plate is San Francisco,” he said. “That’s all that we can really worry about. That’s all that we can prepare for, that’s what we got to do.”
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