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They've Fallen Far, But Still Far From the Bottom

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Redskins fans think they're suffering, and they are. Under Jim Zorn, the Redskins are 10-11 with a 4-9 skid since the middle of last season. And they've split their last four games against some of the NFL's very worst teams.

But look around: These days, that's nothing. All over the NFL, fans are screaming to fire the coach, bench the quarterback or impeach the owner. Or, preferably, do all three at once.

The facts are stunning. The Lions are on a 1-21 streak, the Rams 2-23 and the Chiefs 2-28. Such incompetence is almost unimaginable to Washington fans. There has been only one flop that bad in all of Redskins history (1-26-3 from 1959 to '61.) Yes, of the three wins by Detroit and St. Louis in their collapses, two of them have been against the Redskins. And the Chiefs are coming to FedEx Field on Sunday, hoping to join the club. Still, the Redskins' recent suffering barely registers on the current NFL scale. Well, not yet.

In a battle of ugly last Sunday, the Browns, in their 12th year of awful (61 games under .500), ended a 0-10 skid with a 6-3 win over Buffalo (one winning season in nine years). The Bills were penalized for false starts nine times. Nine. After No. 8, don't you lie and say, "We've hired a sniper. The next guy . . . "

The Buccaneers and Titans, winners last year, already have blown up their seasons with 0-5 starts. Tampa Bay is in full tear-down-and-rebuild mode.

How would you like to be a fan in Jacksonville? The Jags have been falling apart for a year and just lost 41-0 to Seattle. The Seahawks? Oh, they kind of stink, too. They had just lost 16 of 21.

The misery just keeps going. San Francisco, trying to avoid their seventh straight losing year, just got whomped 45-10 on Sunday. Saint Singetary hasn't quite healed the 49ers yet. And every fan in Texas can tell you that, over the past 13 years combined, the Cowboys are still one game under .500. Jerry Jones is to blame.

The absolutely worst team in football might be Oakland after its 44-7 loss to the Giants last week. Before halftime, New York pulled Eli Manning, partly out of pity. The 1-4 Raiders are working on their seventh straight season of 11 or more losses. In a league with a reverse-order draft, that's really hard to do.

Maybe you have to see the tens of thousands of empty seats in St. Louis and Detroit firsthand, or hear the dejected jokes about "The Bungles" in Cincinnati, where a 4-1 start hasn't made anybody forget the past 18 seasons -- one season over .500 and 85 games under .500 in all during the penurious Brown reign.

It doesn't take long for the pall to fall. All in all, Charlotte's done fine. But on Sunday, a Panthers writer told me: "At least the Redskins have won a couple of games. Everybody here wants to fire the coach, bench the quarterback. In Dallas, after they beat us, everybody still wanted to fire Wade Phillips and cuss out Jones."

On any given Monday, all over NFL America, you can hear a litany of lamentations.

Clearly, the NFL talks a better game of "parity" than it provides. While every team wants to be good, perhaps the most powerful NFL emotion these days is the terror of becoming awful. Once you're truly bad, you can stay that way a long time.

That's why Sunday's Redskins game against the Chiefs is a scary litmus test, a benchmark for bleak and a chance to find out whether the Redskins are merely a mediocre team in a slump or a franchise slipping toward the NFL depths.

There's a strong case that the Redskins are still the former, even though they're 32 games under .500 since '92 and have averaged a 7-9 record over that long, mundane period with just two playoff wins. Truly bad teams are outgained in yardage by vast amounts and are outscored heavily, too. For example, the Raiders, Browns, Chiefs, Bucs and Rams -- the teams that will probably end this season as the worst of the worst -- have been outscored by 54 to 112 points this season entering Week 6. That's what lousy looks like. Several other teams, including the Bills, Panthers and (improved) Lions also look lame by these measures.

The Redskins, whose stats have been helped (perhaps greatly) by their weak foes, have played one excellent team this year (the 5-0 Giants) and have outgained their five opponents by 95 yards and have been outscored, 73-82. That's not a bad-team profile.

The Redskins have two qualities that distinguish them from the NFL's 10 or so bad teams. First, their defense has not allowed 30 points in any game since Zorn arrived; second, Jason Campbell had not thrown more than two interceptions in any game until two weeks ago (oddly, in a win). A fine defense and a conservative quarterback will keep you in almost every game. With so many bad teams (they also visit Oakland), it should be hard to stray far from .500.

Is this exciting football? No. Under Zorn, the Redskins have not won any game by more than eight points. They can't put anybody away -- even at home. But the Redskins also have not lost a game worse than 23-6 under Zorn. As much as some of us have criticized his motivational skills, there isn't a single give-up loss against him.

One game probably can't save a coach who is on ice as thin as the fragile floe on which Zorn now finds himself. To stay in his job, his team simply has to play much better and soon. Otherwise, games against unbeatens such as Denver (5-0), New Orleans (5-0), the Giants (5-0) as well as .500-or-better foes on the road -- Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia and San Diego -- will send him packing.

But the Redskins might have reached the point where one more defeat against just the wrong opponent probably could get him fired. And such a game is almost certainly the 2-28 Chiefs.

The Redskins, though they surely would deny it, can live with being mediocre. In the middle of the pack, there's still plenty of hope -- and tickets and merchandise to sell.

But at the bottom of the pile, football gets dark and scary. That's where you never want to be. And, over the past foundation-shaking month, the Redskins have gotten far too close.

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