The task isn't an easy one; it could be a necessary one. The Washington Redskins continue to lose players and games, but they're also not the only team in the NFL dealing with injuries. So in the final three weeks of the season, their job is basic: Find a way to play better, win games and prevent speculation that always accompanies Washington in these sorts of Decembers.
There's nothing to indicate, as of now, that coach Jay Gruden's job security hinges on a strong finish. Injuries have gutted their roster, but the question he'll have to answer is whether that explains everything. And, then, who's at fault?
Redskins owner Dan Snyder has never had a coach who lasted more than four seasons; Gruden is finishing up his fourth, though he did receive a two-year extension last offseason (and if they liked him enough for that move, it would be real hard to then do a 180 and blame him and his staff for an injury-filled season). There's also Redskins president Bruce Allen, under whom Washington owns a .404 winning percentage. Always know this: Good organizations win consistently. The opposite is true as well.
But, for the Redskins (5-8) and Gruden, the trick is finishing strong when having to start players who had been cut before the season. They've used more than 20 offensive line combinations. However, of their 22 starters Sunday, 18 were either projected starters or key backups when the season began.
"I hesitate to make it about injuries," Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said after Sunday's loss. "So many teams are going through that ... it is hard to measure who had it worse than someone else. Certainly at times you notice that it makes it a challenge. There just has to be a greater level of execution, attention to detail."
Still, it could get worse if the Redskins decide to shut down left tackle Trent Williams because of his knee. Against the Chargers on Sunday, the Redskins were down to one running back (LeShun Daniels), an undrafted free agent rookie who now has two career rushing attempts.
With 15 players on injured reserve (including 11 projected starters or key reserves), the Redskins have had to keep adding players. The result at times is a simplifying of plays or schemes, designed to help the newcomers play faster. Then they get up to speed -- and get hurt. So the process starts over. The best teams talk about playing for the guy next to them; here, too often some are playing next to a guy they perhaps just met a few weeks back. The Redskins should hand out jerseys and name tags.
"For us new guys, it's like training-camp mode," Daniels said, "while still trying to prepare for a game. ... It's just footwork on different run plays, for example. It's different for different offenses. It might be a similar play, but the footwork is different. The read might be different. It's definitely a challenge, but a good challenge."
Against this backdrop, however, the Redskins must find a way to play better. Gruden and his staff must find a way to help them do so. They need to somehow infuse practices with more energy; find ways to create a spark. Saying it is easier than finding it, but coaching is about more than Xs and Os. This is part of the job, too. They can't keep getting blown out, leading to more fan anger and, worse, apathy. They can't have postgame interviews filled with discussion about preparation or regression.
There are no asterisks placed next to records to indicate how healthy or unhealthy the team was that season. Those most aware of that? Gruden and his staff. He's accepted blame, which is what a coach should do. No, it's not just on them. They need their big-money guys still standing to play better, too. But this isn't a league about excuses, it's about results. There's been progress during Gruden's tenure, but there's also not enough of a cushion -- no playoff wins; no double-digit victory seasons -- to assume everything is safe.
"That's the only thing that matters is winning and winning the next game, so that's what we're going to focus on," Gruden said Monday.
The upcoming schedule provides them a chance: Arizona (6-7), Denver (4-9) and at the New York Giants (2-11). To date, the Redskins have played 10 games against teams currently over. 500; they're 3-7 in those games.
It's tailor-made for a good finish -- provided a team can play to a certain level. After the past two weeks, can the Redskins reach that level? What happens if they don't? The Redskins looked competitive this season when healthier -- they were 4-4 after winning at Seattle. There was no reason to wonder about job security; there was a lot more reason to praise these same coaches.
Still, if the Redskins don't play better, it will lead to a lot more wondering. That's what happens in Washington.