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The 5 O’Clock Club: The cold grip of doom replaced by the warm comfort of confidence

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


I don’t plan to offer any statistics in this article. It’s not that they wouldn’t be useful, it’s just that I want to keep the focus completely on my personal feelings.

I’m not trying to sell you a point of view that I think you should adopt; I just want to share, like a friend, what I discovered in myself recently.

Not long ago, I wrote an article or comment here on HH saying that I had seen the WFT offense move into field goal range in the first quarter of a game and I thought to myself that they would end up going backwards out of field goal range and end the drive with a punt. That’s exactly what happened.

I had become conditioned to expect Washington’s offense and defense to fail. Too many times over too many seasons, the offense had the ball 2nd and 4, only to stall a drive with a holding call, a sack or a turnover. Too often, I’d seen the defense allow opponents to convert third downs... 3rd & 6, 3rd & 12, 3rd & 19...no distance seemed safe when the Washington defense was on the field.

Really, the only time I felt confident was when I saw Tress Way on the field. We had one guy that seemed to consistently do his job and do it right. Everything else was a crap shoot of inconsistency. We’d string together 5 or 7 plays to move the ball downfield on offense, then make a mistake. The defense would play well enough to apparently stymie an opponent’s drive only to give up a 17-yard quarterback scramble, or a 25-yard catch and run by a tight end. The only thing consistent about the offense and defense was their incredible inconsistency.

It wasn’t always that way.

I remember in the latter part of 2012, feeling that with Robert and Alf on the field, the run game was almost unstoppable. That season, every fumble seemed to bounce into the hands of a Redskins player. It was uncanny.

For several seasons, when I saw Pierre Garcon in the game, I felt like he could get open, catch the ball and get the first down. It seemed almost automatic to me.

They were sometimes far and few between (and mostly on offense) but over the past decade, there have been a number of guys that I believed in. In 2015, it was Jordan Reed who gave me that sense of peace. When I saw him line up on a 3rd & 8, I just knew he’d get 9 yards.

In 2017, it was Chris Thompson. 2nd & 25? No problem... CT will get 21 on screen pass. 3rd & 11? Thompson would squirt between the guard and tackle for 15.

But, during those last two-plus years of Jay Gruden’s tenure, it felt increasingly like the team was snakebit. Players were parading to IR; the offense couldn’t make a third-down conversion and the defense couldn’t stop one. Somehow, Redskin defenders seemed to miss more tackles than other NFL players. It felt like every tight end and half the receivers in the league had their best statistical days against the Washington defense.

Eventually, I started to feel the cold grip of doom. I anticipated the next injury, the next false start penalty, the next holding call, the next dropped pass, the next missed tackle, the next failed drive, the next big play by the opposing offense. I started to expect it like I expect the sunset in the evening — it would happen, and there was nothing I could do to change that.

However, I noticed something during the past few games — the losses to the Giants and Lions and the wins against the Bengals and Cowboys. I noticed that I had started anticipating success. I wasn’t always right, and my optimism wasn’t always rewarded (or we wouldn’t have lost two of those games), but I was expecting good things to happen.

Against the Giants, when Washington got the ball down 23-20 with 5 minutes left to play, I expected the offense to drive for a score — probably a TD to take the lead, but at least a field goal to tie. When Alex Smith threw a bad interception instead, I expected the Washington defense to get a stop and give the offense another chance. When that happened, I expected the offense to succeed where it had failed on the previous drive. Of course, they didn’t. Smith threw his third interception of the game and the Giants won, but what I noticed afterwards was that I was surprised by the failure, and that was a significant surprise to me. Watching the game, I actually expected the Football Team to win, and I realized suddenly that it had been a long time since I’d been confident that Washington would come back from a deficit to get the victory.

I went through much the same set of feelings as the Lions game wound down. When the WFT offense got the ball with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, I expected them to put together a game-tying or winning drive. When they tied the game, I expected the defense to stop the Lions from scoring, and expected the Football Team to prevail in overtime. The Lions won, but I was both disappointed and surprised. I had expected a better outcome. This was a big change from the expectations of failure that had accompanied me for so long previously.

Obviously, my confidence was rewarded against the Bengals and Cowboys, as plays mostly went our way, and Rivera’s guys put together back-to-back wins.

Now, please understand; when I talk about the confidence that things will go well, that doesn’t mean that I suddenly expect the Football Team to be among the best in the NFL. What I’m talking about is more on a play-by-play basis...as the Washington players line up for each play, I feel a certain level of confidence that they will mostly do their jobs.

That’s different and new.

This isn’t something I was feeling, for example, in Week 2 against the Cardinals or Week 4 against the Ravens. It’s a feeling that has developed gradually since Week 6, but it’s a feeling that has been stronger every week, and is built on the confidence that individual players will perform consistently well.

That’s a big change from where I’ve been for a while; I think that what is affecting me is the result of better coaching, and I think it has at least two aspects.

One aspect is that the coaches seem unafraid to make personnel changes. We’ve seen this most starkly, I think, along the offensive line, where the coaching staff has continually tinkered with a trial-and-error approach to getting the best lineup on the field, but it has extended to the linebackers, defensive secondary, quarterback and running back positions as well. Of course, some changes are driven by injury, but others are simple coaching decisions. There seems to be a genuine commitment to getting the best players on the field and in a position to succeed in a scheme that features their strengths and papers-over their weaknesses. I get the sense that it is working, and I think we’re close to seeing the core of Ron Rivera’s 2021 roster on both sides of the ball.

The second aspect is what coaches like Sean McVay used to bring to the team; that is, detail-orientation, genuine teaching and continual adjustments. Players talk about it, but you can feel it when you watch the team. The offensive and defensive units are both playing better football today than they were in September. In nearly every game this season they played better in the second half than in the first. This young roster has been learning, and it’s paying off. Instead of seeing inconsistency from most players, we are seeing predictable consistency of performance more and more often, and it’s leading me to expect better and better football play from the Washington team.

I’ll remind you that I’m not suddenly predicting a 2012-style 7-0 run of the table to finish 9-7; what I’m talking about is the confidence in the competence of the coaches and the improving play of the WFT players on the field, win or lose.

Let me quickly highlight a few names to make this a bit easier to understand.

I’ve never been a Danny Johnson fan. I often wondered how he hung around the roster year in and year out. Well, Danny now looks like a reliable kick returner. He started returning kicks in Week 5, and for the past few weeks as the full time returner, I have grown increasingly confident that if he runs the kick back, that the offense will get started with good field position. I just feel good when I see him gather the ball in and start upfield; there’s no cold fist gripping my insides telling me to prepare for the returner to be tackled at the 12-yard line.

I feel sometimes like I’ve been the president of the Antonio Gibson fan club since shortly after the draft pick was announced. I’ve been bullish on Gibson from the start. It’s undeniable, though, that his first six games were more potential than production. Now, he’s broken out, and he staked his claim to national legitimacy on Thanksgiving day with about 20 million people looking on. Every time I see Antonio Gibson with the ball, I anticipate that he’ll break a tackle or make a great cut. I expect him to get more yards than the offensive line blocks for him. I never expect him to have a negative play, or even an ‘average’ one. I fully anticipate that he will exceed the reasonably expected result every time he touches the ball. I feel like we’re seeing the weekly development of a future star.

Terry McLaurin should not be able to get open. In an offense that lacks any real dangerous receiving threats on the other side, opposing defenses should be able to shut him down. But when I see the ball heading his way, very much like Pierre Garcon back in the day, I expect that Terry will catch it, and if YAC is available, he will add that on too.

I see other players who need to make a play — Dontrell Inman, Logan Thomas, Cam Sims, whoever — and I now expect them to just make it. Inman only caught one ball on Thursday, but it was a 15-yard catch on 2nd & 16 that helped set up an important field goal. Logan Thomas, in the past two weeks, has run a “QB sneak” for a first down on 3rd & 2, thrown a 28-yard pass on the team’s first TD drive this week, converted a first down on a read-option from behind center to keep a drive alive, fought hard for a 7-yard gain against the Bengals to set up a Hopkins 50-yard field goal, and caught Alex Smith’s only TD pass on Thanksgiving. It’s now surprising when he doesn’t make a play.

J.D. McKissic is a guy that I thought was a 50/50 shot to make the team when he was signed as a free agent this off-season. I expected him to be a competent 3rd down back and nothing more. Instead, he has given Washington an explosive player that is reminiscent of Chris Thompson at his best. Early in the season I expected nothing from McKissic, especially in the run game. Now, when I see him get the ball, usually either out in space or headed in that direction, I just know he’s gonna turn on the jets and beat the defenders, and usually he does.

Early in the season, I felt that cold grip of doom nearly every time we ran a passing play. I just knew that the offensive line was going to blow the blocking assignments and the QB was gonna get blown up or sacked. Too often, that’s exactly what happened. But over the past few weeks, the o-line has started to gel. Protection isn’t perfect, but it is competent and sometimes impressive. The run blocking of late has looked really good. I now find myself surprised when the blocking breaks down — and that’s after I spent the first month of the season cringing on nearly every offensive play and wondering how the team could survive the entire 2020 season with opposing defensive lines busting through, pressuring the QB and contacting the runners behind the line. Lately, that seems like a different team in a different lifetime.

Ronald Darby had some bad plays in the first half on Thursday, but that was the exception. He and Kendall Fuller, in particular, have played good football this season. Really. Good. Football. No cornerback is perfect. It’s the kind of position where mistakes are exposed, and fans remember the failures more than the solid play, but there haven’t been a lot of failures in 2020, and, as the game continued in Dallas on Thursday, I found that I wasn’t surprised to see Darby recover and get back on top of the Dallas receivers. I’m not scared these days when I see an opposing quarterback prepare to launch. For the past few seasons, every time I saw that happen, I figured there was an opposing receiver running open downfield. Now, I expect Darby, Fuller, or somebody, to be therein coverage, forcing the receiver to make a good play or fail. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but more often than not, my faith is rewarded.

And how about Kamren Curl? When your starting strong safety is a 7th round rookie and he’s playing well, something is going right with your scouting and coaching; especially when it’s clear that the team could have signed Eric Ried but chose not to. I hear names of young players like Curl, Moorland, and Holcomb being called by the TV announcers and I feel pretty confident that the young player just made a good play, not that he was responsible for a busted coverage or missed tackle.

Of course, there’s been the expected good play from the defensive line. Ioannidis is on IR, but he was a beast before the injury. Tim Settle has 5 sacks playing limited snaps. Daron Payne and Jon Allen are beating opposing interior offensive lines. Chase Young is commanding double- and triple-teams as a rookie, freeing up Montez Sweat to wreak havoc. For all the dissatisfaction that I’ve seen expressed about the defensive line play by a lot of fans, I simply don’t agree. I think individually and as a unit these guys are winning many more battles than they are losing, and they are forcing opposing OCs to game-plan around them — they are taking options away from opposing offenses. I said at the top that I wouldn’t use any stats, but if you’ll indulge me for just a moment...the Washington defense is 4th in Yards per Game, 7th in Points per Game, 14th in Rushing Defense (5th over the past three games), 3rd in Sacks per Game, and #1 in the league in Passing Defense. That’s a sign of a lot of things being done right, and, by the time you get 11 games into the season, those kinds of stats are meaningful and not just due to small sample size.

In the several weeks from the first Giants game to the Thanksgiving day win in Dallas, something has developed in me as a fan that I’d lost quite a while ago — confidence. A bit of swagger.

I’m seeing individual players play assignment football. I’m seeing offense, defense and special teams play complimentary football. I’m seeing a team playing increasingly consistent football.

When the offense lined up to “go for it” on 4th down in the past, I used to hold my breath and pray. Nowadays I feel a quiet confidence that Scott Turner will call the right play and the offense will execute it. 71% of the time (100% in the past three weeks) I’ve been right.

That’s just one more example of how my gut has changed from the cold grip of doom to the warm comfort of confidence, but I’ll tell you what: it feels good.

Poll

The Steelers offense is averaging 29.8 points per game; the Washington defense gives up an average of 22.1 points per game. How many points will the Steelers score at home against the WFT on Sunday?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    15 or less
    (28 votes)
  • 10%
    16-20
    (78 votes)
  • 41%
    21-24
    (310 votes)
  • 28%
    25-28
    (210 votes)
  • 11%
    29-33
    (84 votes)
  • 4%
    34 or more
    (36 votes)
746 votes total Vote Now

Poll

The Washington offense is averaging 21.9 points per game; the Steelers defense gives up 17.4 points per game. How many points will Washington score on the road against Pittsburgh on Sunday?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    15 or less
    (65 votes)
  • 34%
    16-20
    (225 votes)
  • 35%
    21-24
    (232 votes)
  • 14%
    25-28
    (95 votes)
  • 2%
    29-33
    (13 votes)
  • 2%
    34 or more
    (16 votes)
646 votes total Vote Now