We all understand that the NFL is an up-and-down league. Teams can look like garbage one week and suddenly go toe-to-toe with the league’s best the next—or vice-versa. Just ask the Bills. Or the Packers. Or the Dolphins.
Heck, just ask the Dallas Cowboys, who sit at 3-3 after alternating losses and wins over the first month-plus of the NFL season. Dallas scored just eight points in a season-opening defeat at the hands of the same Panthers team the Redskins just beat, yet the Cowboys are also coming off of an absolutely dominant victory over the previously-formidable Jaguars (who are now—you guessed it—also 3-3).
Washington goes beyond that baseline level of NFL inconsistency, though, much to the chagrin of its exhausted fanbase. Even when the Skins have played well in 2018, that’s meant an outstanding first half followed by a decent second half with just enough quality plays to keep the other team at bay.
Take the thrilling (and encouraging) win over the Panthers. Led by Josh Norman’s stellar bounce-back performance, the Redskins came out fired up and focused after the embarrassing loss to the Saints six days earlier. They “played angry,” and rightfully so.
Washington built a 17-0 lead. It was 17-6 at the half. The final was 23-17.
It wasn’t that the Redskins played badly after getting the early lead. Far from it. But the seeming inability to maintain a high level of play from game to game—or even from half to half—speaks to the one impeccably consistent quality possessed by the Gruden-era Redskins.
That leads us back to the Dallas Cowboys.
Forget about the rivalry for a minute. Forget about the four-game losing streak. Forget about the fact that the Skins are 6-14 against Dallas since Joe Gibbs retired.
Putting all of that aside, this weekend’s game represents a chance, at long last, to take a real step forward. A big one. The Cowboys are flying high after that shocking 40-7 rout of the Jaguars. They’re playing their best football as the heart of the schedule begins. And they’re just a half-game back of the division-leading Redskins.
A win would put Washington two games up on Dallas in the loss column with a head-to-head win in hand, albeit with the defending champ Eagles still looming. It would also put the Redskins two full games above .500 for the first time since they beat the Chicago Bears back in 2016. As a bonus for old-school fans, Sunday’s game is even on CBS!
Fairly high stakes. That’s nothing new for the Gruden Redskins. The last several seasons have included a number of “fork-in-the-road” games. More often than not, however, Washington has failed to make it to the happy path.
Therein lies the unique flavor of frustration that attaches itself to mediocrity. As miserable as it has been to be a Browns fan the last few years—and I wouldn’t trade places with them—there is at least the promise of a new beginning. A fresh start. A clean slate. A faint light of hope flickering in the distance.
On the other hand, long-term mediocrity can paralyze an organization and numb a fanbase into indifference. The team is never good enough to double down on a winning formula or to generate real fan excitement, but it’s also never quite bad enough to blow everything up and start over with a new approach.
The NFL is so parity-driven that a team that goes 9-7 or 8-7-1 or 7-9 can legitimately believe it’s only a handful of moves away from being a 13-3 Super Bowl contender. And, amazingly, that belief may very well be right.
At some point, though, mediocrity can linger for so long that everything must be blown up.
That’s where the Redskins are in 2018. One big reason I predicted that they would take the NFC East and win at least one playoff game is that there’s really no other option for the current regime. If you’re perpetually treading water, you’ll eventually sink.
Sunday will be the latest opportunity to prove that the Redskins are ready to swim. To beat this Dallas team, the Redskins will need to put two high-quality halves together. With all due respect, the Cowboys aren’t the Cardinals.
Specifically, Alex Smith and company must score at least one second-half touchdown and best their league-worst, 4.6-point second-half scoring average. They’ll also need to rev up their offense beyond that: A plus-three turnover margin masked Washington’s paltry total of 288 yards of offense against the Panthers, just five more than the season-low 283 yards the Skins achieved against the Saints. On the other side of the ball, a resurgent Ezekiel Elliott, who has broken the 100-yard mark in three of his past four games, will put Jonathan Allen, Zach Brown, Da’Ron Payne, and the rest of Washington’s sixth-ranked run defense to the test.
Can Washington do it? Personally, after seeing how the Redskins responded last Sunday, I’m optimistic.
If (and it always seems to come back to “if” for this team) Washington can prevail at home against their biggest rival in a featured, late-afternoon throwback game, we’ll know the Redskins are in this race for the long haul. They’ll be 4-2 with at least three winnable games coming up after Dallas—the free-falling Giants, the talented but struggling Falcons, and the reeling Buccaneers.
If not, then it’s back to treading water.
How are you feeling about Sunday?
This poll is closed
Great! The Redskins will put together a complete game and soundly beat the Cowboys.
Good! It’s going to be a tough game, but the Redskins will win and stay in first place.
So-so! I’m nervous, but excited. It’s a toss-up.
Bad! I don’t trust the Redskins yet, and it seems like Dallas should be the favorite.
Terrible! We’re going to get embarrassed like the Jags did, except at home. Fire everyone!