Not so long ago Washington was a boring football team that nevertheless appeared destined to play in precisely one playoff game, which all Americans could feel comfortable skipping. On Sunday, though, they found themselves down 40-0 to the Giants, a very bad team that was also playing without Odell Beckham, Jr., in the third quarter. How’d that happen? The loss of starting quarterback Alex Smith to a career-threatening leg injury was always going to make this game a tough one for Washington; they weren’t really that good to begin with. But the fact that they lost this game, and lost it so spectacularly, had more to do with gutless play and stubborn mismanagement than rotten luck. In the end, Washington made the choice to go out there and get their heads stuffed up their own butts. In that sense, and only in that sense, they succeeded.
Let us pause for a brief moment and be charitable to Mark Sanchez, the journeyman goofball that Washington head coach Jay Gruden decided to make his starting quarterback for this game. Sanchez was signed off the street to be Colt McCoy’s backup after Smith went down, and then quickly installed as the starter when McCoy broke his leg against the Eagles. Gruden explained his decision to start Sanchez, an unremarkable hump who hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2016 and hadn’t thrown a good pass in an NFL game since long before that, because he was, somehow, familiar with Washington’s system.
Anyway, back to being charitable: Sanchez’s first three passes of this game were accurate balls, all of which were dropped by his receivers. Now to dispense with the charity: Mark Sanchez fucking sucks! He only managed to play a little more than half of this football game and he finished it with 38 yards and an interception, completing just six of his 14 passes.
Watch enough bad football and you will start to become familiar with a certain type of quarterback play. It’s a style that betrays the fear and anxiety of the person displaying it, and which seems to be more concerned with achieving survival rather than victory. The quarterbacks who play this way seem somehow to be operating at a lower frame rate than everyone else on the field; their performances are defined by short check-down passes in the middle of the field and endless, hesitant shuffling in the pocket that leads to numerous sacks.
Sanchez was the perfect embodiment of this type of fearful and supremely useless football on Sunday. Every ball he threw—only one of which traveled more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage—and every panicked pump fake that preceded a sack brought with it a simple message: This guy doesn’t belong here. Is there an available quarterback who might have belonged there, or at least played forcefully enough to give his team a chance in the way that Sanchez so clearly couldn’t? The answer is so obvious and routinely proven that I don’t even need to mention his name.
Ah, but Mark Sanchez knew the system! Jay Gruden’s precious, proven system, the value of which supersedes concerns such as trying to salvage your winning season and make the playoffs by signing a quarterback who actually possesses some quarterbacking talent and a winning pedigree. That’s more of a want-to-have than a need-to-have if you’ve got a system. All respect must be paid to the system.
How can coaches keep doing this to themselves? Gruden sat there with the rest of us and watched the Texans piss away a playoff berth last season because they decided that Tom Savage was the best possible replacement for an injured Deshaun Watson. You have to assume he has also noticed what’s happened in Baltimore this year, where John Harbaugh lost Joe Flacco and then was smart enough to change his system to better fit Lamar Jackson’s skills. The Ravens completely retooled their offense on the fly to suit Jackson, and he’s rewarded them with a 3-1 record as a starter.
No matter what you believe to be the reason for Colin Kaepernick’s continued exile from the NFL, the fact of it remains incontrovertible proof that a great many coaches and GMs are either too stupid or too proud to keep their jobs. When Smith went down Gruden was in possession of a 6-5 football team and a choice: try to keep winning by signing a talented replacement, or try to keep winning by signing a guy who objectively sucks ass and hope that the Almighty System can miraculously mold him into something better.
The results of Gruden’s decision were smeared all over the field on Sunday, and by the third quarter he was left with no choice but to throw some paper towels on the mess and send Josh Johnson, a guy who hadn’t thrown a pass in the NFL since 2012, into the game. Johnson, who had just five days to study his new playbook and used a video game to learn his new teammates’ names, completed 11 of his 16 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. He also ran the ball seven times for 45 yards and another touchdown. He played free and fun and fast, and he didn’t seem to be all that concerned with adhering to Gruden’s system.