ATLANTA — The Redskins, awash in chaos and controversy, may find comfort in the reminder they’re not alone in their first-to-worst misery.
An unexpected fall from the 2012 NFC East title to last place in 2013 has led to a quarterback change for Washington. Coach Mike Shanahan, facing questions about his future with the team, benched quarterback Robert Griffin III for the final three games.
Standing across the Georgia Dome field today will be an Atlanta Falcons team that has taken an even more dramatic fall to the same painful 3-10 record. One year ago, the Falcons were on their way to a 13-3 record, NFC South title, No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and berth in the NFC championship game.
Now, Atlanta is trying to avoid becoming only the third team since the 1970 merger to have the most losses in a conference one season after having the most wins, according to STATS. No NFC team has experienced such a devastating freefall.
The Raiders were the last team to go through that indignity, falling from 11-5 in 2002 to 4-12 in 2003. The Houston Oilers flopped from 12-4 in 1993 to 2-14 in 1994.
Criticism of Falcons coach Mike Smith, who is bolstered by winning records in each of his first five seasons, has been softer than the attacks aimed at Shanahan, who is on pace for a third last-place finish in four seasons.
The situations are not the same, but still Shanahan joked this week he might share notes with the Atlanta coach.
“We probably should talk to each other, but you don’t get a chance with your preparation,” Shanahan said. “I know Mike, he’s a great guy. I’ll get a chance to talk to him before and after the game. But I think you’ve got empathy for everybody, because there’s only one person that’s happy and that’s the person that wins.”
Shanahan said he was protecting Griffin’s health for a much-needed offseason program when he made the decision to have the quarterback inactive today and the remainder of the season.
“I want Robert to be able to go into next season with a full offseason program, and the way he’s gotten hit the last five or six weeks, I thought it was in our best interests, the team’s best interests, to make sure he goes into the offseason healthy,” Shanahan said.
Here are five things to watch as the Redskins try to end a five-game slide and the Falcons cling to fading hopes for a strong finish:
COUSINS IN CHARGE: Shanahan’s decision shifts the spotlight to Kirk Cousins, who will make his first start of the season. Cousins made his NFL debut in a backup role in a 24-17 home loss to the Falcons last season.
Cousins completed 5 of 9 passes for 111 yards with a 77-yard touchdown to Santana Moss and two interceptions in last year’s loss to Atlanta.
Shanahan’s switch to Cousins could come at the right time for the second-year quarterback to shine. The Falcons could start five or more rookies on defense, including three in the secondary. First-year safety Zeke Motta may fill in for Thomas DeCoud, who left last week’s 22-21 loss at Green Bay with a concussion.
REBOUND FOR MORRIS: Redskins running back Alfred Morris hasn’t had as many as 15 carries or more than 52 yards rushing the last three weeks. The Falcons rank 30th in the NFL against the run, but held Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy to 64 yards on 20 carries last week. The decision to start Cousins could give the Redskins another reason to emphasize the running game with Morris.
ROOKIES LEARNING TO FLY: Smith has consistently said his first priority is winning, but he showed he is serious about giving young backups more playing time when he held out healthy veteran cornerback Asante Samuel last week. Robert Alford, who replaced Samuel, joined Desmond Trufant as rookie starting cornerbacks.
The Falcons also list two undrafted rookie linebackers, Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, as starters. Worrilow has a streak of six straight games with 10 or more tackles.
PLAYING FOR PRIDE: Lopsided losses to Arizona, Carolina, Seattle and Tampa Bay — each by at least 13 points — caused some to ask if the Falcons had given up on the season. But the Falcons responded with a close home loss to the Saints, followed by an overtime win over the Bills and last week’s narrow loss to the Packers.
“I think again it comes down to pride, taking pride in what you do and what you put out week in and week out,” said quarterback Matt Ryan. “I think while we haven’t played as well as we need to, I think our effort has been there. I think the attitude has been there, and we need that. That gives us a chance. We have to find a way to execute better.”
By contrast, the Redskins were thoroughly embarrassed in last week’s 45-10 loss to Kansas City. After the game, Shanahan said “I didn’t have the players ready to play.”
SPOTLIGHT ON SPECIAL TEAMS: The Redskins allowed touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns to the Chiefs. Washington ranks last in the league in opponents’ punt returns (18.0) and with a net punting average of 33.2.