The winless St. Louis Rams are awful. Since the start of the 2007 season, they are 13-55. This season, they seem headed back to the one-two-or-three win abyss of their recent past, Sam Bradford or not. So barely beating them, 17-10 as the Redskins did here Sunday, falls somewhere between a sigh of relief and a cause for alarm. Slaughtering these lambs should be easy.
But it’s never easy to beat anybody with Rex Grossman at quarterback.
On a day when the Cowboys and Eagles blew 24- and 20-point leads at home, the sun should shine in Washington for two weeks, right through the Redskins’ bye next Sunday. They are in first place in the NFC East and their defense, next-to-last in the NFL last year, was fierce all afternoon, sacking Bradford seven times and yielding a paltry 172 yards by the Rams. That is, by miles, the Redskins’ biggest, most lasting area of improvement.
But when Grossman throws two more interceptions, both in the fourth quarter giving the Rams the ball at the Redskins 31 and 19-yard lines, the gray clouds aren’t going to go away entirely. One wasn’t his fault — a tipped ball off Santana Moss’s hands. But the other was a dreadful misread.
“All I saw was a wide open Santana Moss. That [linebacker] must have anticipated,” Grossman said. “. . .I’ve got to [read] that.”
If the Rams were a normal NFL team playing at home, this game would probably be in overtime now. That’s 14 turnovers in his seven starts since taking over as Redskins quarterback last December. An average NFL quarterback makes about one turnover a game, including lost fumbles. No team can succeed, or ever has in recent times, with a quarterback spitting up the ball anywhere near that twice-a-game rate.
This makes two straight games where Grossman has had bad fourth quarters, including his final-minute fumble in an 18-16 loss to Dallas last Monday. The fault isn’t entirely Grossman’s; he’s playing a great deal like he always has. The issue is whether the Shanahans, Coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle, have overestimated their ability to raise his game as Mike once did after acquiring Jake Plummer in Denver.
You can’t evaluate this game honestly without conceding how awful the Rams are. The Rams can’t line up right. (Or left.) It’s like herding sheep.
They jump offsides and hold, but wait until they are in the red zone to do it (three times). They have a punt return man, still conscious at last reports, who appeared not to know he was allowed to make a fair catch. After being smote three times, and fumbling twice, he got an ovation for throwing up his arm. “Jeez, tell you dude to fair-catch it,” one Redskins player told a Ram.
Once, the Rams faked a handoff to no one. “Oh, we saw that,” Lorenzo Alexander said.
Twice, they missed wide-open touchdown passes in the end zone.
They have a tight end named Michael Hoomanawanui who, with all those letters, is still two consonants (and 10 fingers) shy of having any “hands.”
“If this is your bad game . . .” I started to say to one Redskins vet.
“Then we played the right team,” he answered. “Those turnovers, as long as we are winning, we are overcoming it and they don’t look so bad.”
But eventually, they always do.
The Redskins’ conundrum is that the Shanahans believed during the past offseason that either Grossman or John Beck or both could be outstanding quarterbacks in the Shanahan offensive system. Against a team that entered the game next-to-last in defense, and had been outscored 96-36, Grossman completed only 15 of 29 passes for 143 yards, one score and a 48.5 rating.
Fortunately, the Redskins’ three-headed running game was back at full strength with Ryan Torain playing for the first time this season and ripping off 135 yards on 19 man-possessed carries. When running backs coach Bobby Turner told him: “Get ready. Get loose,” Torain thought, “ ‘I’ve been waiting to hear that.’ I was ready.”
After this game, Mike Shanahan backed Grossman, as he should. “Obviously, you don’t want to turn it over,” he said when asked about Grossman’s 15 turnovers in seven starts, plus one series, since the beginning of last season. “Hopefully, in time, we get better at it.” Then he cited Moss’s missed catch and other missed chances, not Grossman’s fault, that might have broken open a 17-0 game.
For the past three seasons, the Rams have been a perfect litmus test to find out where the Redskins stood, at least with hindsight. In ’08, the Redskins lost at FedEx to a Rams team headed to 2-14; then, the next year, they barely won, 9-7, against an even worse Rams team headed to 1-15. Those were flares in the sky that the Jim Zorn experiment was a bust. Then, last year, with Bradford aboard, the Rams handed the Redskins a 14-point licking here. That let you know there’d be no Shanahan miracle in Year 1.
Now, once more, the Rams have provided a reality check. The Redskins’ 3-1 record isn’t a mirage. “Our defense is soooo much better,” Alexander said.
“We’re a totally different team. We have a better locker room. Coach Shanahan has cleaned up a lot of things,” linebacker London Fletcher said.
As for the Redskins’ two defensive stands, both filled with pressure on Bradford and three vital sacks, Fletcher said, “We are going to defend every blade of grass.”
The Redskins should spend the next two weeks celebrating their 3-1 start and the praise that may come with it. But they shouldn’t be deluded. Two veteran Redskins used that dangerous phrase “as great as we can be” about the team in the postgame glow. Good goal, but far, far in the future.
Now, and for who knows how long, the Redskins are going to have to play above the limitations of their quarterbacks. Because their defense and the Shanahan culture is so strong, they’ll probably win enough games that they won’t be remotely close to the kind of high draft pick that will land a quarterback of the future like Andrew Luck from Stanford.
“In this league, you celebrate and cherish every win,” Fletcher said.
Even the homely ones. Cowboys and Eagles lose. Redskins win. Let that suffice. For now.