To show improvement is genuine, Redskins must take Lions seriously
Do the 2010 Washington Redskins, as the theory goes, play up or down to their opponent's level? Does that explain victories over three of last season's playoff teams, and a thumping by the St. Louis Rams? Or is inconsistency simply the Redskins' modus operandi this season as they adjust to all the changes in schemes and coaches and discipline?
Well, Sunday's game in Detroit is the litmus test on those questions. Entering Sunday's game against the 4-3 Redskins at Ford Field, the 1-5 Lions are favored by 21/2 points, in part because of the Redskins' reputation, in part because of the impending return of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford from a Week 1 injury, and in part because of last year's meeting.
Remember that game? Surely the Redskins do. Realtors were already cold-calling Jim Zorn in Week 3, when the Redskins visited the Lions. Detroit, led by a rookie Stafford, ended its 19-game losing skid with a 19-14 victory. In a season of nadirs for the Redskins, that was perhaps the nadir-est of all.
So will the Redskins play the Lions like a respected foe that embarrassed them a year ago, or like a struggling 1-5 team? Coach Mike Shanahan says that record may be misleading.
"You don't have to look at someone's record and see the progress," he said. "All you have to look at is the Chicago game - having a fluke call, they didn't win that game. Then you look at Green Bay - Green Bay wins by two [points]. They hold them to 250 yards of total offense; then they have a chance to win it at the end of the game.
"Philly, it's 35-32, the game could've easily went either way. Giants, 28-20, you still have a chance to tie it with a minute left. So, you take a look at all those scenarios, and they beat the Rams, 44-6. And you get [Ndamukong] Suh, you get [Jahvid] Best, you take a look at the direction a team is going and how they've played. It's one of the reasons why we are an underdog going into the game."
Another reason is the return of Stafford, out since the Chicago game because of a separated shoulder. The No. 1 pick overall in last year's draft, Stafford has played 11 games for the Lions and missed 11 games because of injuries, so he's still an unknown quantity to a degree. But against Washington last season, he was 21 of 36 for 241 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. For the $72 million the Lions are paying him, his overall numbers aren't impressive yet - 13 touchdowns, 20 interceptions - but with such a small sample size, the data can't be considered conclusive.
Certainly the Lions feel his return - as well as that of starting middle linebacker DeAndre Levy (ankle and groin injuries) and running back Jahvid Best (turf toe) - coming after a bye week signals a fresh start. And they intend to make the most of it.
"The bye week came at a good time for a lot of reasons," veteran defensive lineman Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "We were pretty beat up. We had guys out; we had guys really just playing through injury. Last week gave us an opportunity to give some guys some rest and get healthy, but at the same time it was really a good time to look back and reflect and do some self-scouting because really, for the most part, in all five losses we did some things to beat ourselves. We've got enough talent so if we stop beating ourselves we can play with anybody and beat anybody."
The Lions' game plan in Stafford's return should closely resemble what they did in Weeks 2 through 6 with Shaun Hill at quarterback. So this year's film will be helpful, but the Redskins will also want to look at last year's stuff, just to remind themselves that Stafford can go deep with his well-rested, 22-year-old arm.
"They saw the preseason," Lions Coach Jim Schwartz said. "They haven't erased any of the tapes from last year. They had a chance to see him last year. All that stuff is still there. It's different than a guy who has never, ever played before. It's different than getting ready for a Donovan McNabb who has a long career behind him, but they're not flying blind."
So the Redskins may have to sit through game films of last year, but the Lions won't, not even for inspiration. When Schwartz enumerated the changes the Redskins made in the offseason, the local media tittered in disbelief.
"There's not much to take from last year's film," Vanden Bosch said. "It's obviously a different quarterback, a different offensive scheme, a completely different defensive scheme, so up to this point, I haven't seen any of last year's Redskins-Lions film."
All that remains to be answered, then, is this: Is the Redskins' mind-set different than a year ago? Can this year's team see past a 1-5 opponent and realize that "any given Sunday" is not just a sales pitch in the NFC this year?
If they can't, the Lions are ready once again to remind them.