Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (96) reacts after sacking Packers quarterback Matt Flynn last week. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — Two teams who are ready to put 2013 behind them square off today when the Atlanta Falcons host the Washington Redskins.
Washington is in turmoil after five straight losses, prompting coach Mike Shanahan to shut down star quarterback Robert Griffin III for the remainder of the season and leading to questions about Shanahan’s job security. The Falcons have lost six of their last seven overall, but they’ve won the past three against the Redskins, including a 24-17 win at Washington last season.
Shanahan attributed the quarterback change to keeping Griffin healthy going into the offseason, as the second-year star regressed following offseason knee surgery.
“The quarterback needs an offseason program. It’s important,” Shanahan told reporters when announcing Kirk Cousins will take over the starting role for the rest of the season. “He’s your future. If you miss two offseasons in a row, it’s the hardest thing in the world to recover from that. It would be devastating to him.”
Atlanta players say they’re focused on finishing the season strong, but they’re also tied for the second-worst record in the league and in line for their highest draft pick since picking quarterback Matt Ryan third overall in 2008.
Atlanta’s precipitous fall from NFC South champion to conference bottom-feeder can be blamed on its play in the trenches — the Falcons rank 30th in the league in rushing offense and rushing defense. They’ve topped 100 yards on the ground only three times while allowing triple digits in 10 straight games. Ryan (3,677 yards, 21 TDs) is in line for his third straight 4,000-yard season but also his lowest quarterback rating since his sophomore season of 2009.
While much of the focus for the Redskins has been on Griffin’s shortcomings in his sophomore season — and the 38 sacks the once-mobile quarterback has taken — the defense has been a much bigger problem. Washington is tied for 22nd in total defense and last in the league in scoring, allowing 31.3 points per game. The Redskins don’t even have the silver lining of a high draft pick to fall back on — their first-round pick went to St. Louis in the deal that allowed them to move up and pick Griffin two years ago.
To no surprise, Griffin lobbied to finish out the season as the starter.
“I expressed my desire (to Shanahan) to play, (but) at this point, I just have to leave it up to Coach, like it always is,” Griffin said. “It’s a tough time, (but) if I allowed it to break my spirit, then I wouldn’t be the person that I think my parents raised me to be.”
Last week, Griffin said that he “loved” working with Shanahan. Asked Wednesday if that was still true, Griffin wasn’t nearly as effusive, saying, “(There’s a) general misconception that players in our locker room want people gone.”
Shanahan also said that he regrets not going with his gut and sitting Griffin once it was obvious the quarterback was hurting against the Seahawks last season. The coach even said that keeping Griffin in that game cost the Redskins a victory after leading early, 14-0. Interestingly, a win there would have advanced them to a divisional round game at Atlanta, where Cousins will start on Sunday with veteran Rex Grossman, the third-stringer the last two years, as the backup.
“I do believe that Robert is the franchise quarterback here in Washington,” Cousins said. “He was drafted No. 2 overall. A lot of picks were traded to get him. Common sense would say that this is his team, and I’ve never wanted to take that away from him or do anything to undermine his role. Even as I start this week, I believe that … this is Robert’s team going forward into next season.”
SERIES HISTORY: 23rd regular-season meeting. Redskins lead series, 14-7-1. The most memorable meeting came in 1991 when Washington quarterback Mark Rypien threw a franchise-record six touchdown passes as the Redskins rolled 56-17 en route to winning their third Super Bowl in a decade.