The Cincinnati Bengals were a perfect litmus test as the Washington Redskins played their home opener Sunday. The Bengals were good enough to make the playoffs last year at 9-7, though with few impressive wins. They are flawed enough this year to be demolished by the Baltimore Ravens, losing by 31 points in Week 1. Their defense isn’t much good, but their offense can strike deep. All in all, they’re an average NFL team. If you can beat them at home, you might be solid. If you can’t, you might be in trouble.
The Redskins couldn’t handle them, losing their seventh straight home game at FedEx Field, a home-field disadvantage almost unheard of in the NFL except for teams even worse than the Redskins of recent years. The 38-31 final score, the Redskins’ third straight high-scoring shootout of this 1-2 season, may typify their whole year. Tons of points on both sides of the scoreboard, plenty of excitement and comebacks, but with more losses than wins — same as the first two years of the sputtering Shanahan era.
“I thought our defense would be the strength of our football team,” said Coach Mike Shanahan, who’s watched that unit give up 101 points. “We have more depth than in the past, so there are no excuses not to get better. We just didn’t get it done today.”
Even by the standards of NFL-speak, that’s understatement. The Redskins’ badly injured defense has valid excuses for the weekly incinerations it now suffers.
You can’t hide the obvious. The Redskins, so far, can’t . . . stop . . . anybody. And on long pass plays, they sometimes can’t . . . touch . . . anybody. Their defensive backs are in danger of breaking the pathetic meter. Cincinnati gained a staggering 478 yards. How bad is it to give the Bengals 478 yards? They’ve only done it once in their previous 80 games.
The Bengals scored on touchdown strikes of 73, 48 and 59 yards on which no defender so much as touched the receiver after the catch. Perhaps none made contact before the passes were thrown either. We’ll have to watch the tape.
The Redskins get credit for battling back from a 24-7 second- quarter deficit to tie the score at 24 with more than 20 minutes left. But the uncomfortable reality is that when the Bengals needed to score — early in the game to build that lead and late in the contest to pull away — they put together drives of 73, 68 and 68 yards in the first half, then touchdown marches of 73 and 72 yards in their first two possessions of the fourth quarter.
Such games mean that the quarterback of the trailing team must become an even more central part of the offense. He has to take every risk, improvise and symbolize the team’s will to win. The Redskins couldn’t have a better man for the job than Robert Griffin III — if you can get your heart out of your throat hoping he survives until the Redskins have a team worth putting around him.
Griffin will produce some thrilling wins, even as an underdog on the road, as he did in New Orleans against the now 0-3 Saints, but he’s constantly going to play on the edge of disaster, too. Right now, he’s reliving the early years of the Sonny Jurgensen era of the 1960s, when the redhead made Washington entertaining, but often got belted all day, seldom beat good teams and was 30-38-3 his first five years in D.C. But Jurgensen had Hall of Fame skill-position players to help him and never had to run two yards.
For a supporting cast, RGIII has his heart, his legs and, for now, his health. No NFL team ever admits it isn’t very good, that it probably isn’t going to the playoffs, that its off-season plans don’t seem to be working out well. Right now, that describes the early-season Redskins.
Instead, you do what you have to do to be competitive. Right now, that means the Redskins ask Griffin to do absolutely everything — then do a little more, if he can figure out how. As long-term franchise planning, it’s suicidal. Everything the Redskins are doing puts RGIII at maximum risk. On Sunday, he ran a dozen times for 85 yards. Without the threat of those runs and option pitches to Brandon Banks, the rest of the Redskins’ offense wouldn’t have ended up with 381 yards and 31 first downs.
But all those runs, some designed, some desperation and some inspiration, mean that RGIII is in harm’s way as much as a normal quarterback, plus a running back, too. In this game, he was blasted for six sacks, none of them gentle, fumbled three times (one lost) and took many rough delivery sacks as he completed 21 of 34 passes for 221 yards and a fine 90.4 quarterback rating.
However, by the final drive, as Griffin dinked, scrambled and willed the Redskins from their own 2-yard line to the Cincinnati 19 with 29 seconds to play, you didn’t know which to admire more, his skill, his toughness or his survival instincts.
“It’s football. I got hit a lot. I don’t know how many, but I got hit a lot,” Griffin said.
“I’ve never played scared in my life and I never will, even if they have to cart me off the field. I’ll get off the cart and walk [off],” Griffin said afterward, perhaps expressing the fears of fans a bit more specifically than they’d care to hear.
Griffin’s teammates sense this period in his rookie season when the team’s defense is so depleted, its offensive line so thin (Trent Williams missed most of this game after a first-quarter knee injury) that Griffin must carry the team and make the other 10 stiffs on the offense — sorry, his selfless teammates — look better than they are.
“You don’t want your guy to get hit so much, but it comes with the territory right now,” said wide receiver Santana Moss.
The key words are “right now.”
The Redskins don’t want to build a conservative traditional offense that might preserve Griffin but minimize their season. That’s not the NFL mentality and it’s certainly not the Redskins way, a franchise that pretends it never rebuilds even when the entire universe knows they are or should be. So, for now, it’s max out RGIII’s gifts, hold your breath and hope that the defense and the Shanahans have better days than they did Sunday.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
More on Redskins-Bengals:
Photos: Scenes from FedEx Field
Photos: NFL power rankings