Redskins at crossroads: Cowboys loom, as team eager to find out if success was a mirage

October 7, 2013

The Washington Redskins return from their bye feeling relatively good about themselves. They had a week to rest and savor their first victory of the season. They potentially could be back in first place in the NFC East by the end of the upcoming weekend.

But should a single win and a less-than-scintillating division race be enough for the Redskins to rightfully be optimistic about where they are and where they’re headed? There are mixed views on that, and much about the big-picture direction of the team could be determined in the coming weeks.

When this season began, there were convincing reasons to believe that the Redskins had put their struggles in Mike Shanahan’s first 21 / 2 years as their coach behind them and emerged as a built-to-last contender. They’d won their final seven regular season games last year to secure a division title. They had a franchise quarterback in place, albeit with Robert Griffin III coming off knee surgery, and they’d managed to keep their roster basically intact in the offseason even while operating in the second year of a two-year, $36 million salary cap penalty.

But notions of building on last year’s success quickly were swept aside when the Redskins opened this season with a three-game losing streak. They kept things from unraveling any further, at least for the time being, with their pre-bye triumph in Oakland. Yet there is room to wonder at this point which is a more accurate reflection of the team’s current state, its 7-0 run at the end of last season or its 15-30 regular season record under Shanahan aside from that streak.

The view of which is closer to the truth could come into sharper focus during the remainder of this season, beginning with Sunday night’s game at Dallas. The clash will leave the Redskins either with a two-game winning streak and bolstered hopes of another turnaround, or a 1-4 record and a steep uphill climb toward playoff contention in Shanahan’s fourth season of a five-year contract.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the defense's impressive performance in the Redskins' win over the Oakland Raiders is a reason to be optimistic for the rest of the season. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“If I were them,” a front-office executive with another NFL team said, “I’d be thinking, ‘We’re gonna find out a lot about ourselves in this next stretch.’ ”

Some in and around the league remain willing to believe that the Redskins will recapture their winning form from the second half of last season once Griffin gets fully back in sync after missing offseason practices, the bulk of training camp work and the entire preseason.

“I believe they’re still the same team we thought they were at the beginning of the season, just waiting for the quarterback to get fully healthy,” said former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross. “I don’t think there’s much of a reason to believe otherwise. I haven’t seen the abysmal nature of the Redskins that some other people are seeing. I think they’re one of those teams that are trying to figure out still if they’re going to be very good or just scrambling to get to .500.”

Cross said that Griffin was done a disservice by Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson’s quick bounce-back last season from major knee surgery, and no one should have expected Griffin to be the dynamic player that he was last season so quickly.

“I think people have had unrealistic expectations based on what a complete freak of nature Adrian Peterson is,” Cross, now an NFL analyst for CBS, said in a telephone interview. “For everyone else, the process to make a full recovery takes longer and it’s an individual thing.”

But others wonder if it’s that simple. The opposing view is that the Redskins were a flawed team last season with significant deficiencies that were masked by Griffin’s superb play. He threw only five interceptions all season and had a passer rating of 102.4. Playing in an offense that borrowed elements from the college game, he also had 815 rushing yards. This season, with Griffin in a knee brace and defenses league-wide defending option-style offenses better, Griffin has only 72 rushing yards one-quarter of the way through the season. He’s thrown four interceptions and has a passer rating of 85.5.

“If the quarterback isn’t special, then all the other flaws show up,” said the front-office executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in exchange for giving a frank assessment of the state of the Redskins. “Then you see the issues on defense, the issues on the offensive line, the lack of depth in the receiver group.”

Shanahan’s contract runs through next season and NFL coaches generally are not asked to coach in the final season of a contract. They usually are given an extension or dismissed. Team-building becomes a bit easier for the Redskins after this season, with the salary cap penalty expired. But the team remains without a first-round draft choice next spring thanks to last year’s trade with the St. Louis Rams that enabled the Redskins to move up to select Griffin.

For now, the Redskins merely are focused on trying to fix another once-broken season, just as they did a year ago.

“We were 3-6 last year. . . . We’ve just got to overcome things, just go out there and play to the best of your ability,” fullback Darrel Young said last week. “Seattle went to the playoffs at 7-9 a couple years ago and ended up winning in the first round. Your job is to get to the playoffs and go from there. We’ve just got to take care of the little things here and there.”

Said defensive lineman Kedric Golston: “Obviously we had a rough start, but we won a football game. The most important thing was getting a win. That was the best we could be [after the 0-3 start], was 1-3. We come back . . . and we have a Sunday night game in Dallas that could possibly be for first place in the division. Our first goal every year is to try to win the division. So that’s still in front of us and that’s what all of our attention is focused on.”

Shanahan said before the bye that he still feels “very good about our football team.” One of Shanahan’s tasks now might be to remind his players that turnarounds don’t just happen automatically.

“Our football team is pretty realistic,” Shanahan said. “They know what type of effort we have to have to get to the next level, what type of play we have to do consistently to win the division.”

The Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are tied for first place with 2-3 records. So the Redskins, even with all of their early-season angst, are only a half-game back.

“We’re really right in the thick of things in the NFC East, which is kind of bizarre the way we’ve played the first couple games,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said last week. “But luckily that’s the way it’s kind of shaken out.”

Said Golston: “We’ve always had the same goal, the same mission statement from Day 1. Obviously we wish we could have done some things better in that 0-3 start. But the work ethic was there. The commitment was there. I was never worried or anything like that because I knew as long as you continue to work and do things the right way, [things] will start turning your way.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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