By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, August 29, 2009
The Redskins and their fans have spent the offseason worrying about Jason Campbell's insulted psyche, Jim Zorn's job insecurity and the health of an old offensive line. Whenever there's a nervous moment to spare, everybody wonders whether defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, with his $100 million contract in hand, will stay healthy and motivated all year.
After Friday night's 27-24 exhibition loss to New England, in which the Redskins' offense looked much improved but the defense was often shredded by the Patriots, a new set of counterbalancing hopes and fears arose.
Who would have thought that, during a 17-17 battle while both team's regulars were in the game, Campbell would complete 13 of 22 passes for 209 yards and look very much as if he belonged on the same field with three-ring quarterback Tom Brady.
However, it was the Redskins' constantly perplexed pass defense, bamboozled by Randy Moss for 6 catches, 90 yards and 2 touchdowns before intermission, that looked uncomfortable in comparisons with Brady. In his longest outing since returning from knee surgery, the elegant Patriots quarterback completed 12 of 19 passes for 150 yards and two scores before leaving the game at halftime.
Yet all these concerns are probably the wrong focus entirely. Worry about such matters later. This season, the Redskins face one of the easiest early-season schedules imaginable for a half-dozen games. Then, in a blink, the task gets vastly harder for the last 10 games. So, the preseason question is now much simpler: Are the Redskins ready?
Is this often-erratic team, which can beat good foes but lose to the worst, properly motivated for the start of the season? Is it prepared to give a maximum effort, as pros should, week after week, against the Rams (2-14), Lions (0-16), the blown-up Bucs (9-7) and the Chiefs (2-14), within the first six weeks of the season?
In that stretch, the Redskins play the Lions, one of the worst teams in NFL history, on the road. The other three gift-wrapped games are all at home. It doesn't get any easier than this. It's a dream, a panacea for all the Redskins' self-induced offseason migraines.
But will they take advantage of it? Or will they duplicate the infuriating inconsistency of the last decade, giving often inspired efforts against famous rivals -- like their back-to-back wins in Dallas and Philadelphia last season -- only to turn in some of the league's most putrid efforts in the very easiest games on their schedule?
Fortunately for the Redskins, as this preseason has developed, each game has found them more prepared -- though still penalty-plagued and Brady-flustered at several points Friday night.
In the first exhibition game of the season, the Redskins faced a supposed local rival, the Ravens, yet lost 23-0 and barely seemed to care. Veterans, after they came out of the game, laughed the night away on the sideline.
Then, last week, the Redskins got a chance to put a knot on the head of the Super Bowl champion Steelers. Pittsburgh embarrassed the Redskins at home last year. A little revenge? The Steelers even showed up wounded and distracted by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's foot injury. The Redskins weren't bad. But their first-team offense only managed a field goal. The starters left with Pittsburgh ahead 7-3. A fourth-string quarterback eventually produced a 17-13 scrub-scrimmage win. Still, it constituted significant improvement.
On Friday night, with their 17-17 stalemate against the powerful Pats starters, that progress continued. Feel free to complain about eight first-half penalties and Brady's long scoring passes to Moss; first DeAngelo Hall, then safety LaRon Landry, were badly beaten deep. Fret, if you must, that Campbell squandered what would've been an untouched 72-yard touchdown bomb to Santana Moss when he grotesquely overthrew his open favorite receiver.
"We came out and had some fun," Campbell said. "I just wish we had that bomb back, that one shot to Santana deep down the field."
But don't nag much. The Pats were an 11-5 team last season -- without Brady. So, the team that the Redskins played dead-even, and outgained 213-186 in the first half, was a quality bunch. Ignore second-half flukes, like a 99-yard touchdown interception return by New England's Jonathan Wilhite, for a 24-17 Patriots lead, on a bad decision by Colt Brennan, a third-string quarterback at best.
Nevertheless, we should never compliment the Redskins prematurely. Last year, the Redskins faced the same task -- five games against the worst patsies in the league, the Rams, Browns, Lions, Seahawks and Bengals. Everybody knew these teams were awful or beaten up beyond recognition when the Redskins played them. As a group, they had a 14-65-1 record and were outscored by 858 points. That's 858 points. Or, think of it as 122 touchdowns, a field goal and a Canadian rouge.
The Redskins outscored those five poached eggs by just five points combined. And they lost two of the games. That's how 10-6, and a trip to the playoffs, turns into 8-8 and stay-home-in-January.
Some franchise trademarks are hard to change. For instance, it's tough to come up with a Hall of Fame quarterback as your centerpiece. The Redskins haven't had one since Sonny Jurgensen almost 40 years ago.
But you'd think it wouldn't be so hard just to be ready to play. Of course, in the case of the NFL, that means revving your evil reptilian brain stem up to the red line so you're jacked enough to pull a tractor trailer off a small child. Nobody said it was an easy league. But that's the job description. Paul Newman, Oscar Wilde or Laotzu -- one of 'em I'm almost sure -- said that "Ninety percent of life is showing up."
Last year, the Redskins missed the memo. Now, consumed with world-changing issues, like whether Campbell will have a better season than Jay Cutler or Mark Sanchez, will they overlook the core question of the moment: Can they start the season at least 4-2? Because they can, even if they lose their tough season opener against the Giants at the Meadowlands.
And they probably must. A slipshod 3-3 start can turn this season into navel-gazing chat-frenzied Twitter-tormented chaos. The Redskins' last 10 games are a bear -- harder than the NFL norm -- with nine games against teams that won at least eight games last year.
Exhibition games don't count, but they do matter. Everybody knows it. But will the Redskins remember the lessons that they seem to have learned this August? So far, they have shown important gains. The Ravens game was a stinker. The showing against the Steelers was pivotal. And on Friday night against the Pats, the Redskins gave the first signs of what they could become.
But will they remember? For the Redskins, it's the sleepy weeks that slay them. Say "Tom Brady and the Pats" and they play their best. Next week, a trip to Jacksonville, in which few regulars will see much playing time, will be a perfect time to snooze. But, in just 23 days, the Redskins begin a stretch of five of the easiest games that any team will ever see: St. Louis, at Detroit, Tampa Bay, at Carolina, Kansas City. Win four. Don't come back without 'em.
Are they ready? Their work against the Pats says, "Probably." But these are the Redskins. So feel free to fret.