By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Nine days ago, the Washington Redskins stood helplessly, watching a football sail toward the goal posts. It fluttered through, and they lost. Sunday evening, that same group of players and coaches stood on the same field with that same feeling, watching yet another kick. It went wide, and they won.
"It could be that way all year," Coach Jim Zorn said.
Approaching the midway point of the season, perhaps no team has been touched by the vagaries of the close-as-kin NFL as the Redskins, who have yet to play a game decided before the final two possessions. They have five wins, all decided by a touchdown or less. They have two losses, neither by more than nine points.
In the final seconds of different games, they have had to secure an opponent's onside kick, twice converted a fourth down to prevent giving the ball back to another team with a chance to win and watch a field goal -- Sunday's 54-yarder by Cleveland's Phil Dawson -- float wide, preventing overtime.
What the Redskins don't have headed into Sunday's game at winless Detroit is anything resembling a blowout, either way. After seven weeks of the season, only one other team, Jacksonville, has yet to be involved in a double-digit decision. The other 30 teams in the league have all had at least two such games.
The Jaguars and Redskins are also the only teams to play six games decided by a touchdown or less. For the Jaguars, that harrowing personality has evened out; they're 3-3. The Redskins, somehow, have managed to turn most of those tight situations in their favor.
The Redskins know they could have lost tight games in the final minute against Cleveland (14-11), Philadelphia (23-17), Dallas (26-24), Arizona (24-17) or New Orleans (29-24). They did lose on a game-ending field goal to St. Louis (19-17).
The players can only attempt to explain why that happens.
"Guys don't, I guess, get nervous," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "They don't panic."
That is the convenient explanation for what is essentially inexplicable. Zorn, though, has a clearer view. He knows that his club ranks seventh in the NFL in total offense, sixth in total defense. Only one other team, the New York Giants, stands in the top seven in the league in both categories.
But the Giants, the only team ahead of the Redskins in the NFC East, are beating teams by an average of 11.5 points per game. The Redskins' point differential is a scant 1.7 points per game. Their idea of a thumping is that seven-point win over the Cardinals.
"We're not really a dominant team, are we?" Zorn said. "I don't know of many teams right now in the National Football League that you can say, 'This team could be undefeated.' "
There would be just one, Tennessee. But Zorn's point is a broader one, and a favorite of coaches: Each game is likely to be close, the kind decided on a handful of plays. He pointed out that two weeks ago; St. Louis was 0-4, but now has two straight victories, including the narrow win over the Redskins. Dallas was a popular early pick for the Super Bowl but has lost three times in four games and is without injured quarterback Tony Romo.
"It just shows you there's real balance in our league," Zorn said.
Still, because Zorn said he believes any team -- even the Lions, whom he referred to as "the most dangerous team in the National Football League at 0-6, and playing well in all their games" -- can beat the Redskins, he understands Washington must take better advantage of the opportunities it has to put teams away. Allowing opponents to remain close because of Washington's mistakes -- a problem that has come up the past two weeks in listless first halves -- is of concern to Zorn.
"We're trying" to put teams away, Zorn said. "We don't, for whatever reason."
Oddly, the Redskins' inability to close out games might start in the first half. In their past four games, they have managed seven points in the first quarter -- total. Even moving the ball has not always translated into points. The Redskins' average of 20 points per game is tied for 23rd in the league, and they have not had a lead of more than 11 points.
"We're going to have to be more productive offensively," guard Pete Kendall said. "Seventeen and 14 points is not going to get it done most weeks in the NFL."
For now, though, with five tight games decided in their favor, the Redskins are generally able to spin what wide receiver Antwaan Randle El called "a quality" in their favor. "You would think," linebacker London Fletcher said, "it would help you to be in some battles, and to be battle-tested and to have a lot of close games."
Zorn said he believes his team has won most of those games at least in part because he has "a solid veteran group." But he also said his team has the ability to play without an eye on the scoreboard. That helped in one of the rare instances when a game seemed to be headed into blowout territory, when the Redskins trailed 14-0 at Philadelphia. Their response then was to stick with the plan that had been laid out during the week, chip away at the lead, and they won.
"The resiliency to not get down when things to go bad has been an earmark for our football team," Zorn said. "Because believe me, we've had some disasters where you want to smack yourself you're so frustrated with the situation."