Looking for Leaders? Look to Washington

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Only four weeks into the season, the NFL already has that transitional feel. There's a distinct hint of out-with-the-old, meaning the Patriots and Colts, and in-with-the-new, meaning the Titans and Bills, both surprisingly undefeated, and now, quite possibly, the Washington Redskins.

Three straight victories won't guarantee a team a spot in the playoffs, but in the NFL's sprint of a season it does produce an extraordinary buzz. Just maybe it's the Redskins who own the most impressive win of the season, Sunday's victory over a formidable and presumptuous Cowboys team in Dallas. Beating the Saints, Cardinals and Cowboys has all but wiped away the memory of that season-opening loss at Giants Stadium, the one that had the cynics concluding that Jason Campbell would never be able to run Jim Zorn's system and that the rookie head coach might be roadkill by Halloween.

Now, Campbell has thrown six touchdown passes to zero interceptions and become the model of efficiency in Zorn's offense, which appears capable of catering to the quick strike, the power run or both in the same game. And in a total switcheroo, it's the Cowboys, the team that would have been atop the pro football polls if there were such a thing, who are knee-deep in drama after one measly loss.

The Redskins seem to have put their soul searching after Week 1 to good use, at least for now. If there actually were an NFL poll and I were a pollster, my ranking of the top five would be, in order, Giants, Redskins, Titans, Bills, Cowboys. Yes, the Redskins would be second in the entire league. Doesn't mean they'll end up there or even be there in two weeks. We're only talking about the here and now.

The victory down in Dallas might serve the Redskins in a couple of ways. One, it provides them with evidence they can beat any team in the league. Two, it threatens to discombobulate the Cowboys.

Already, Dallas is on the verge of something calamitous, compliments of the Worst Teammate in the World, Terrell Owens. The guy who sabotaged Jeff Garcia in San Francisco and Donovan McNabb in Philly is on the very edge of doing the same thing in Dallas. The Cowboys lose at home to their arch rival and all T.O. cares about after the game is not getting the ball enough.

Never mind that the Cowboys tried to throw 19 passes to T.O. and handed the ball to him twice to run it from scrimmage. Never mind that more than one-third of the plays Dallas ran in that game went to Owens. T.O. says he didn't get the ball enough and opined and whined as much afterward. Of course, he didn't care that the Cowboys handed the ball to Marion Barber only eight times and distorted their offense to have Tony Romo force bad passes to keep Owens quiet. Reports out of Dallas yesterday said T.O. has already vented to Romo, told him he didn't like the way some of the passes were being thrown to him as far back as the season opener.

Owens's selfishness is a primary reason it's silly to buy too much stock in the Cowboys. There are former teammates of T.O.'s in Philadelphia and San Francisco who have been waiting for just this to happen in Dallas. And now it's fair to wonder whether Wade Phillips has control of the team. Phillips, who apparently doesn't know T.O.'s history, says it's a good problem to have, that Owens wants to have the ball every play. Phillips isn't Bill Parcells when it comes to exerting control and Jason Garrett, the offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting, doesn't have the status or the coldblooded nature to tell T.O. to shut his mouth and catch passes, which is exactly what would be best for the team.

The Redskins don't have to worry about the Cowboys for a while, but can take advantage of their melodrama. And the best way is simply to keep doing what they've been doing the last three weeks against what might be three playoff teams. They've developed such a power running game that Clinton Portis might even fantasize about running behind his own offensive line. In its own strange way, Portis's grass-is-greener comments a couple of weeks ago might have triggered a certain "let's-show-his-butt" resolve among Portis's teammates. And even if that isn't the case, the bottom line is the Redskins have no turnovers on offense, zero, through four games and seem to be growing more and more comfortable on that side of the ball.

It's reasonable to think that the Redskins could finish their grueling opening five-game stretch with a 4-1 record after Sunday's game at Philly, where the Eagles have stumbled after their impressive start and are suddenly desperate to win after dropping two straight. The Redskins winning four of their first five was unthinkable in the aftermath of losing to the Giants. Even if they lose Sunday, the Redskins would be 3-2 and will have finished their division road schedule earlier than any team in the NFL. Playing in the toughest foursome in the league, there couldn't be much better news one month into the season.

The Redskins aren't the biggest surprise of the first month; they did, after all, make the playoffs last season. The Buffalo Bills being 4-0 has to qualify as the big shocker; they're one of only three remaining undefeated teams (the Giants and Titans are the others). The Bills have been dominant in the fourth quarter of all their games. Trent Edwards, who probably couldn't be identified outside of New York state even in his jersey, trails only Brett Favre and Philip Rivers in fourth-quarter passer rating. We're talking about a team that hadn't won four games before November since 2003.

And higher than the Redskins on the surprise list has to be Tennessee, which is one of the handful of teams that could be better with its backup quarterback (Kerry Collins) than with its starter (Vince Young). The Titans' coach, Jeff Fisher, does know how to exert control over a team and the Titans right now look like the best team in the AFC.

But there's nobody in the NFC, one month in, that looks any better than the Redskins. Certainly there's no team with more momentum, no team that after Sunday's game that will have faced tougher competition, no team that has any reason to feel better about itself after the season's first turn.

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