COMMENTARY | What was it that doomed the Washington Redskins Sunday night in Dallas? Was it the much maligned defense that ranked last in yards allowed per game heading into Sunday? Was it the offense that had yet to put together a complete four quarters of solid play? No, what ultimately doomed the Redskins Sunday night was the oft overlooked special teams.
Despite how much the Redskins defense has struggled this season, they held the Cowboys largely in check allowing their rivals only 213 yards. Dallas put up 48 points the previous week against the Denver Broncos thanks in large part to an impressive performance by quarterback Tony Romo. The defense, however, responded to the challenge with what was by far their best game of the season.
The offense which has not yet been able to replicate last season's success again struggled to get into the end zone Sunday. Still, Robert Griffin III looked more comfortable running the ball than he has at any point this season. Though the offense only managed a single touchdown, they were able to sustain long drives and kept the game close.
The difference of this game was that third aspect of the game that is so often ignored; this game was lost by the special teams.
Dallas' Dwayne Harris returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff for 90 yards that led to another touchdown. For the game, Harris had 222 total return yards, more than the entire Dallas offense.
The special teams' problems went much deeper than just two big returns, however.
The special teams unit committed five penalties; two on punts, two on punt returns, and one on an extra point showing that the discipline and organization was lacking across the board. This is not a punting or a kickoff problem, it is a special teams problem.
The most bizarre penalty was actually called on special teams coordinator Keith Burns himself. He stood in the restricted white zone on the sidelines and a referee bumped into him during a punt forcing the call. It was only fitting that the coordinator in charge of so much dysfunction be personally charged with a penalty.
One thing the Redskins clearly did not anticipate in the offseason was the massive step backwards they would take on special teams due to the NFL cap penalty. While the team was able to keep their starters on offense and defense, that money had to come from somewhere. Lorenzo Alexander was the most notable Redskins player to leave last offseason and Shanahan was quick to draw the connection between his absence and the team's struggles.
"Lorenzo Alexander's not going to show up so someone's got to take control of those special teams," said Shanahan. The team is clearly missing Alexander, but on the field leadership is not necessarily what prevents something as stupid as an illegal motion penalty on a punt.
The weak special teams play Sunday night is yet another disturbing example of the dysfunction that has plagued the Redskins throughout the season. Poor tackling, bad penalties, clock mismanagement have all been issues this season and now you can add special teams to the list. Whether head coach Mike Shanahan is responsible or if perhaps the cap penalty hurt the team more than anyone would like to admit is up for debate, but clearly the Redskins have taken a step backwards this season.
Last year when the Redskins made their miraculous run to make the playoffs, they found ways to win. This year, they are finding ways to lose.
When the team ultimately fails to make the playoffs this year, many will talk about Griffin's knee and how the uncertainty over his health cost the Redskins their season, but there is a bigger problem that is affecting the team as a whole and not just the offense. You may not be able to quantify dysfunction or see it in the box scores, but it is there in Washington and it is on display in some form every Sunday.
JJ Regan is a freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and is earning a master's degree in journalism at American University. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
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