Correction to This Article
The column in the Aug. 23 Sports section referred to Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis as Fred Dean.
Proceed With Caution

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Redskins aren't very good. The Redskins aren't very good. Repeat as needed. When it's time to reverse the mantra, we'll let you know.

Actually, the Redskins looked pretty good against the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night at FedEx Field. And that's dangerous.

The most perilous word, when it comes to Redskin Universe ("nation" isn't big enough) is the word "good" and all the variations that can be played on it: very good, playoff good and, most lethal of all, Super Bowl-good.

As soon as the Redskins do anything that incites the faithful to use superlatives, or even think such thoughts in the solitude of their burgundy-and-gold basement lairs (been there), the mischief starts all over again.

As the Redskins and their fans start their annual pursuit of NFL Nirvana, it's essential to hold one thought in mind, annoying and antisocial as it seems: The Redskins are not very good.

One reason that Redskin fans, and the team itself, have such a hard time staying grounded in reality is that, year after year, things begin too well. Last year's 4-1 start, which got the whole town spinning as it mushroomed to 6-2, was not an anomaly for this franchise. It's the rule.

The early weeks of the season keep fooling us. For a team surrounded by so much off-season hype, and with a locker room so inclined to fall in love with its own payroll and prestige, it's a terrible formula for disappointment. Since '99 when Daniel Snyder bought the team, there has been some point in October when the Redskins were 5-2, 6-2, 3-1, 4-2, 4-2 and 4-1 last year.

So, a solid performance like this against the Super Bowl champion, the same team that came here in Week 10 last year and won 23-6, starting the serious portion of the Redskins skid, may be a mixed blessing.

By the time most of the starting players for both teams left the wet field early in the second quarter, Washington trailed only 7-3, far less ugly than last week's 23-0 loss to Baltimore in the exhibition opener.

True, Jason Campbell was ineffective, completing only 1 of 7 passes for 10 yards. Jay Cutler would surely have completed 8 of 7. But the Redskins opened the game with a 62-yard drive, almost all on the ground, that stalled at the Steelers' goal line but led to a field goal. The starters can't go scoreless.

After three series each, when the regulars took the night off, the Steelers barely led in total yardage, 76-69. With $41-million-guaranteed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth making his first appearance as a Redskin, Washington put decent pressure on Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, who was playing in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger. You could squint your eyes just right, enjoy two second-half touchdown passes by Chase Daniel to Marko Mitchell and Fred Davis, and say, "Pretty good."

But don't.

Even though the Redskins will be tempted. Oh, sorely tempted. They beat the Steelers (subs) 17-13, didn't they? The first question for Coach Jim Zorn was to evaluate Campbell's brief outing that got him a passer rating of 39.6.

You guessed it. Zorn's first words were "very good." Next came, "He is doing a great job on his decision-making." Great?

"We moved the ball well," said Campbell, even though the Redskins would have gone three-and-out in their first possession if Zorn hadn't succeeded with a run from punt formation. Of his two long bombs, both of which hit Steeler hands first, not his receivers, Campbell said, "We will start hitting them soon."

Of course, the Redskins have to be upbeat -- new season, two tough warmup foes in the Ravens and Steelers. But they also need to be careful. Two quotes linger from last season. As the playoffs started slipping away, a disconsolate guard Randy Thomas said, "Over the years, we've shown signs a lot of times. Then something happens. . . . Can't we ever just put it together?"

After the year's worst loss in Cincinnati to the Bungles, then 1-11-1, Santana Moss said, "We're way better than this. It's about us not playing up to our level. We should be able to BS at times and still win games."

No, they can't. The Redskins, at least to start the season, need to see themselves honestly. They may have improved with Haynesworth, No. 1 draft pick Brian Orakpo and the possibility that the bust wide receivers of '08 -- Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly -- will prove to be NFL worthy.

Bu the Redskins' baseline is not high. They were outscored by 31 points last season, which NFL stat students say should have generated a 7-9 record, not 8-8. Against four of the absolute worst teams in the league -- the winless Lions, Bengals, Rams and Seahawks -- the Redskins only had a two-point edge. And the year's results weren't skewed by turnovers; Washington netted out at zero with low turnovers (18) but abnormally low takeaways, too.

Each off-season, Snyder stocks up on expensive new players or flashy new coaches. And, almost every year, there are also internal tensions waiting to bubble up. This year, everybody knows that both Campbell and Zorn are on the shortest possible leashes. Famous coaches Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden and Mike Holmgren all out of work or "retired" -- an NFL euphemism for a sabbatical with a big contract at the end of it.

At one level, it is cruel to note how long it has been since the Redskins truly were "very good." In the last 17 seasons years, they have won 10 games just twice. Sometimes, they've been pretty poor. And sometimes pretty good, especially in September and October. Only during Joe Gibbs 2.0 did they play well in December and make the playoffs twice.

But mostly, they've been mediocre -- 76-84 under Snyder and a stunningly poor 112-143-1 since the first time Gibbs left. Perhaps what's most amazing, and probably admirable, is the town and the team's capacity for resilience. Or delusion.

This premature anointing of the Redskins will probably start again soon, sure as the turning of the season from summer to fall. Haynesworth already has the spiel mastered. "We have all the time in the world. We just need some time to get together," he said, "and we can accomplish a lot of great things."

Great. Maybe. Just don't say it.

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