Eyeing a Reversal of Misfortune

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, November 10, 2006

At his first press conference after the election, President Bush was asked, "If you had any do-overs to do . . ."

"You don't get to do them," the president blurted before the question could be finished.

Presidents can't use an eraser on history. But in a way, a football team can. Only your final record counts, not the way you got there. Every team with a late-season streak is creating its own do-overs, substituting unexpected second-half wins for galling first-half mistakes. That's the innocence of sports. Rip off a few wins, and only the cranks recall that you stunk.

So even a team as disappointing as the Redskins can get back into the playoff conversation, provided they grab their do-over chance when it arrives. But those opportunities are rare. For the Redskins, that time is definitely now. Or probably never.

Last Sunday at FedEx Field, Washington received a gift from the gods, a season-reprieving win over the Cowboys. With six seconds left, they were headed to 2-6 and as good as dead. Now there's a glimmer. If that doesn't jump-start them, just toe-tag 'em.

Yet if they beat the Eagles, favorites by a touchdown Sunday in Philadelphia, Washington would awake to an altered world. After a winnable visit to 2-6 Tampa Bay, the Redskins come home for three straight games against solid teams -- Carolina, Atlanta and a Philly rematch. Easy? Far from it. But impossible? No. At least not if they are 4-5 by Sunday night, not 3-6.

In any standard analysis, the Eagles deserve their role as heavy favorites. The Eagles have the No. 1-ranked offense in the NFC, and the Redskins are dead last in defense. The Eagles have outgained opponents by 77 yards a game, while the Redskins have been outgained by 31 yards a game. That kind of 108-yard differential in basic ability is huge. Add Philadelphia's home-field advantage into the mix. Finally, this is the third time the Redskins have had to face a team on the road that's coming off its bye week. Washington has lost the other two, to the Giants and Colts. Nice scheduling.

However, this game has a unique extra dimension. If you reviewed years of NFL games, it would be hard to find two games with last-second endings as insanely improbable as the season-changing dramas the Eagles and Redskins recently have experienced. The Redskins' memory is fresh. But Philadelphia still is living in the aftermath of one of the most unlikely, loony defeats in its history less than three weeks ago. Have the Eagles even begun to recover from Matt Bryant's 62-yard field goal (one yard shy of the NFL record), which turned a seemingly certain 21-20 win over Tampa Bay into a numbing 23-21 loss?

Philadelphia lost the next week, too, at home, for its third straight defeat. Fearing his team was emotional toast, Coach Andy Reid decreed a bye-week vacation. In midseason in the NFL? That's not a bye, it's more like "Goodbye." You can visit China in a week.

Are the Eagles starting to feel sorry for themselves? Or are they about to take out their frustrations on the Redskins?

"I hope we can use this momentum," Washington tackle Jon Jansen said. "But we had 'mo' coming off of beating Jacksonville, and we didn't do anything with it. We have to go to Philly and prove we can win division games on the road."

Although they may be grasping at straws, the Redskins think they have a subtle factor working in their favor. "Each group of players has a different feeling about themselves as the season goes on," said Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense. "After the way the Cowboy game ended, there will always be belief here for the rest of this year that we can come back late in games."

That, of course, would be a far easier task if Williams's defense ever came up with a turnover. So far, his corps is abysmal, egregious, laughable, pathetic and indefensible when it comes to its fundamental responsibility to -- at least occasionally -- fall on top of a fumble or catch an interception when somebody throws one directly into their butterfingered hands. So far this season, the Redskins' defense has come up with five turnovers. In half a season: five.

Actually, that's good news, because no defense is that bad. Or, luckily for the Redskins, anywhere close to that bad. The turnovers are coming. Maybe this week. Maybe not. But "reversion to the mean" is a law of nature, not just NFL statistics. And unless that law has been repealed, the Redskins are going to intercept passes and recover fumbles in waves from now on.

You doubt it? Since the Redskins began keeping take-away statistics in 1970, what is the lowest number in team history? Guess. The lowest is 21, in 1998. The average is 35. Only four Redskins teams have had fewer than 26 take-aways. In the last 13 seasons since Joe Gibbs I, the Redskins have averaged 30 take-aways a year, and in every season but two their total fell between 26 and 37. The last three seasons, they have had 28, 26 and 30. Once upon a time, Gibbs had a team ('83) with 61 take-aways: "Dexter, thanks for the fumble recovery. Now go get two more. By halftime."

Read my lips: Five take-aways in half a season is almost impossible. And turnover ratio is the most important stat, by miles, in the NFL. One reason Gibbs sticks with Mark Brunell is that he's thrown only three interceptions this season.

So what is going to happen? The Redskins probably will have between 16 and 26 take-aways in the second half of this season. And, provided they don't start giving away the ball like crazy themselves, it may well transform their year. If they get 16 more take-aways, they'd still tie the worst mark in recent franchise history. Yet 16 would seem like a flood compared with the current draught. If they get 26, they will slightly exceed their average of 30 take-aways over the last 13 seasons since Gibbs I.

Why will this happen? Because those are just the odds. The Redskins probably don't even have to play better. They just have to walk on the field and footballs are going to start falling in their laps. A certain number of take-aways simply are the NFL norm -- you can't avoid them. In a violent game, people drop the ball or throw it to you. However, it is a far more random event than coaching gurus like to admit. Mostly, it just happens.

If those take-aways start happening in Philadelphia, both the Eagles and Redskins may think it's karma -- more of the curse from that 62-yard field goal or good luck from Troy Vincent's field goal block. Far more likely, it will just be reversion to the mean. However, for the Redskins, who are almost out of chances for a do-over, those turnovers can't come too soon.

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