Redskins vs. Colts: Reason for optimism, but not too much

Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 25, 2012

The Redskins were all smiles Saturday evening. When Coach Mike Shanahan wasn’t saying “great job” about one player or another, he was praising the team’s “overall effort” or claiming that if the team’s running game keeps churning, “you have a chance to do something special.”

Veteran Santana Moss, who caught a touchdown pass and volunteered to return punts, said, “Anything to help the team.” Running back Tim Hightower, who hasn’t played since last Oct. 23 because of a torn ACL, gave a sigh of gratitude and said: “It’s been a long journey. Just to hear these fans, I’m so grateful.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

This is the proper mood after an August preseason win, this time a 30-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at FedEx Field. It’s appropriate. But it’s also dangerous.

Shanahan knows the proper balance. “You always have expectations for your football team. If you don’t believe, they don’t believe,” he said. “But talk is cheap. You have to go out and do it.”

After games like this, it’s Washington — the huge fan base that embraces the Redskins, but sometimes poorly evaluates them — that has to remember both halves of Shanahan’s statement: Have expectations, but set them properly. Talk’s cheap and, for 5-11 teams, wins are always tough.

For example, just to give a hint of the height of the hill in front of the Redskins, here’s a trivia question that’s far from trivial. Since the NFL draft began in 1936, how many rookie quarterbacks who were drafted No. 1 or No. 2 overall — the spots in which the Colts’ Andrew Luck and the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III were chosen — have led their teams to even a .500 record?

Here’s a tip. The list of great quarterbacks who have been taken in those spots is as long as both your arms, from Sid Luckman through Terry Bradshaw to John Elway, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and, as recently as last year, Cam Newton.

The answer is: Zero. None of them was even 8-8.

The best rookie-season record ever turned in by a player drafted in either the Luck or RGIII spots was 5-6-1 by George Shaw in ’55. Many of those exalted names blossomed in their second and third years. But if you think the arrival of Griffin, in and of itself, means a great deal in his rookie season, then you aren’t listening to NFL history. All of it.

For optimism, enjoy Griffin’s development, though 11 for 17 for 74 yards is pretty tame; but also look elsewhere for trends.

With 107 yards of churning runs by sixth-round rookie Alfred Morris and a strong pass rush that frequently clobbered Luck, the Redskins efficiently built a 16-7 lead over Indianapolis by early in the third quarter.

Despite three misfires on long bombs, Griffin led scoring drives of 66 and 80 yards. On the latter, he finished the march by sprinting to his right to find Santana Moss in the flat for a four-yard scoring pass. In all, his quarterback rating was a fine 93.8.

“Robert looks a lot more comfortable with each game,” Shanahan said. “We just missed a couple [of deep balls]. That’s always disappointing. We were a hair away.”

That sounds quite encouraging, doesn’t it? And it should, as long as encouraging means more wins than last year, maybe, but not a great many more. The Redskins showed a ground game that might help ensure that their rookie quarterback won’t be swamped. The defense that probably needs to carry the Redskins this year showed its front seven’s force, including a safety by linebacker Chris Wilson.

All of that is to the good and completely true.

But such broad optimism is often a problem in Washington in August. If the Redskins win a couple of preseason games, as they now have, the passion for a burgundy and gold revival is so powerful, so ingrained in the entire region, that it is a struggle to remind yourself that the other team on the field is the Colts. Indianapolis was 2-14 last year and may be just as bad this year.

The Redskins’ worst enemy in most of the last 20 years has not been any one team on their schedule, but the invisible adversary that always hovers over a franchise that is a regional obsession: excessive expectations. We know it. We fight it. We usually fail.

The latest example of our capacity for collective delusion is the ability to overlook, or at least minimize, the damage done to the Redskins by the NFL’s shocking and controversial decision to assess them a $36 million salary cap hit spread over the ’12 and ’13 seasons for attempting to gain an unfair competitive advantage in their structuring of 2010 contracts.

For a franchise that was 5-11 last year, then gave up draft picks to trade up for Griffin, this should be a crippling short-term hindrance. And it probably will be. The Redskins never saw it coming. They needed immediate upgrades on the offensive line, at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield. Suddenly, they had about $18 million a year less to acquire them.

As a result of the salary cap cut, essentially an attempt by colluding owners to punish the maverick Redskins (and Cowboys) for refusing to join them, the players the Redskins pursued in free agency were mostly lower cost or lower quality or agreed to sign for a hometown discount.

Plan A was impossible. What we’ll watch this season is Plan B. If it works spectacularly, the Redskins’ front office deserves MENSA pins all around.

In big-time sports, it’s not enough to say, “We were right. This isn’t fair.” You also have to see around corners, anticipate every aspect of the future and, in the end, find out how to win. Yes, just win, baby.

The Redskins overlooked one crucial element: When 30 of 32 owners tell you over and over, “Don’t do this, we’re warning everybody,” and you have the audacity to do it, they may get furious and shaft you. The Redskins took the chance to steal a march on (colluding) rivals. It blew up on them.

The arrival of Griffin has allowed us to focus on the future of “RGIII,” rather than fresh injuries to the already thin offensive line, as well as suspect safeties and the absence of any proven 1,000-yard receiver in his prime, much less two of them.

So when you catch yourself saying, “I think RGIII will lead the Redskins to an 8-8 or 9-7 or even a 10-6 record this year,” be sure to add these words: Even though no other No. 1 or No. 2 draft pick has ever done it.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit www.washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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