The Washington Redskins’ trimmed-down roster will report to Redskins Park Monday to formally begin preparations for their Week 1 opponent, the New York Giants. They’ll watch film, hit the practice field and spend very little time reflecting on the past month.
“These are the games that count now,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said after the team’s final preseason game. “We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.”
But the Redskins’ preseason did buoy optimism for players in the locker room and fans outside it. The Redskins finished with a 3-1 record — their best preseason winning percentage in nearly a decade — and there were plenty of superlatives to be found. No opponent put a single point on the scoreboard in the opening quarter. Washington coaches feel they have two quarterbacks who can both run their offense. The Redskins’ defensive front seven showed promise. The running game exhibited signs of life and their kicker was perfect on field goal attempts.
“We try and get better every day,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “I think we are able to do that throughout the preseason. I’ve been pleased with the effort, pleased with the attitude. We had a lot of players going in the same direction, working extremely hard.”
The question the Redskins must now answer — beginning with Sunday’s season opener at FedEx Field — is whether preseason progress translates into regular season success. History suggests it might be little more than a coin flip.
In the past 20 preseasons, the Redskins posted seven winning records. In only two of those years did they manage a winning record in the regular season — and not once since 1999. There were three years in that period when they won in the preseason but lost in the regular season and two other instances when the team won in the preseason and finished 8-8 in the regular season.
If anything, bad preseasons served as better indicators of future performance. In that same 20-year period, Washington had 11 losing preseasons, which were followed by six losing regular seasons.
Shanahan’s own record is a bit better. In 14 years with the Denver Broncos, he coached his team to a winning preseason record 11 times. His teams finished with a .500 or better record in nine of those 11 years.
There have been numerous studies — from college math majors to football stat geeks — and most agree that the preseason is a terrible barometer of the regular season. In the past 10 years, the NFL has seen 19 teams post undefeated records in the preseason. Only 10 of those teams even managed winning records in the ensuing regular season. In fact, one of those 19 — the 2008 Detroit Lions — went 4-0 in the preseason and 0-16 in the regular season.
The opposite is true, too: Teams that struggle in the preseason often win games once September rolls around. In the past decade, the Indianapolis Colts have gone 12-30 in the preseason. They’ve gone 109-35 over the same period in regular season games. And of course, the 1982 Redskins went winless in the preseason and went on to win Super Bowl XVII.
For Redskins fans, the disconnect between the preseason and the regular season is perhaps most pronounced in memories of the team’s 2002 campaign. That was Steve Spurrier’s first year as head coach, and similar to Shanahan this preseason, the Ol’ Ball Coach was overseeing a quarterback competition between Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel.
Spurrier's team spurred enthusiasm right out the gate, averaging 37 points in the preseason and almost 400 yards of offense. They ran up the score on the 49ers, scored seven second-half touchdowns against the Steelers and ran flea-flickers and double-reverses late in the game against the Bucs.
“We’re four and oh,” is how Spurrier summed up the hot preseason start. “That’s the only answer I know.”
The Redskins lost their fifth and final preseason game that year and went on to a 7-9 regular season that fell well short of preseason expectations.
“Preseason is just practice games,” Spurrier conceded late that summer. “This was overhyped; it's still a preseason game.”
Like countless other NFL teams over the years, that Spurrier group showed there’s little correlation between the exhibition games and the ones that count. While it’s not much of an indicator, though, a handful of preseason wins do manage to consistently raise regular season expectations.
The Redskins lost their lone preseason game by just a field goal at Baltimore last month. Coaches and players don't think their team is that close to being perfect, but they’ve also been pleased with the progress they made through four preseason games.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people,” Bowen said. “I don’t want to say anything like we’re the greatest. I still think we have some work to do, but we’re going to take it one week at a time and stack up these wins.”