In the parity of the NFL, being average isn't looking so bad for the Washington Redskins
By now, Redskins faithful, that wonderful combination of adrenaline and euphoria should have been flushed from your systems by the start of another work week, the Monday morning fog, the rapid approach of the holidays. Reality should have set in.
And that reality is this: The Redskins are on the right track.
That's all. Let's not start writing ballads about the gallant, yellow-clad lads who ne'er say die, not quite yet. The truth of Sunday's 19-16 overtime win over Tennessee is that it gave an average NFL team a 5-5 record - in other words, right about where it should be. That's the takeaway.
That's not nothing, not after last season. But it didn't put them on the road to the Super Bowl. (Don't you wish, when Mike Shanahan was asked about his team's postseason chances Sunday evening, he could have lip-synched Jim Mora's "Playoffs!?!?" tirade? There should be an app for that.)
When I say the franchise is on the right track, that's all I mean, but I'm not damning with faint praise. Shanahan and Bruce Allen aren't done fixing this team. They aren't even close to being done. They are barely past go. But they've proven adept at a couple of things, namely, judging talent - especially other teams' rejects - and keeping focus and discipline in the face of adversity (see Football, Monday Night).
Those are not small accomplishments. This is a franchise that has made horrible free agent signings, traded away its draft picks and in general made some of the worst decisions in football history over the past decade - and that's not hyperbole. This is a franchise that could not get out of its own way last season and quickly became the laughingstock of the league, with its bingo caller and its torture of Jim Zorn and its place as the team even the bad teams looked forward to playing (hello, Detroit and Kansas City).
The coaching staff laid an egg last Monday night, no question. Blame for that debacle starts at the top, and Shanahan wisely took it all on himself. And deservedly so. But then credit must also go to the staff that put together a roster deep enough and versatile enough to survive what happened Sunday in Nashville, when they were stacking Redskins bodies like cordwood on the sideline. When your next offensive lineman in the game is going to be third-string tight end Logan Paulsen, be afraid. Be very afraid.
The pieces Allen and Shanahan have put in place are not the final pieces for the Redskins. Don't get too attached to anyone right now. But they have made improvements in spots. No one thought going into Sunday's game that the offensive line would have been a strength, and if you'd known that Casey Rabach and Derrick Dockery were going to go out with injuries and that Stephon Heyer was going to play guard for the first time, would you still have watched?
But the system, the vaunted system we've heard so much about, finally was truly tested and found - adequate. The zone blocking scheme means that the linemen can move from position to position more easily, or so they say. You will recall, unless you've managed to repress the memories, that last season, with similar line injuries, things did not go so smoothly. The offensive players have praised this blocking system since Day 1, and finally perhaps we can start to see why. (Although when asked to describe it before the season, Mike Sellers's answer was, in essence, "I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you," and because he's Mike Sellers, well ... ask him yourself.)
It is not coincidental that all this learning and growing and sharing happened in Week 10, not Week 2. There are OTAs and mini-camps and training camp and the preseason, but none of that - NONE of that - is an NFL game. It was crazy not to assume a huge learning curve in the first season of an entirely different way of doing business. All of us have had to learn, say, a new software program for our jobs. Did you learn it sitting in a classroom being shown slides of different windows, or did you learn it the hard way, when you had five minutes to complete something and no idea what you were doing? (Or did you not learn it at all, in which case stop reading this and get out the manual!)
And it's no surprise that there is a lot of learning and growing and sharing to come. Really, there have been two dust-ups and one blowout this season; otherwise it's been smoother sailing than many people expected. The Albert Haynesworth saga seems to be over; Haynesworth even joked a little about it after Sunday's game, which was refreshing to see. Donovan McNabb shocked the world - or at least his coaches - by running the two-minute offense without a thesaurus and an oxygen tank, so perhaps that faux crisis has passed as well. Both he and Shanahan seem to have put it behind them, so it's the least we can do. Shanahan even admitted he handled it badly, and smiled several times during Sunday's post-game news conference. That's right: Smiled.
But the smiles are few and far between because there is a long way to go before this franchise is in the playoff picture and among the league's elite again. The Redskins have to start scoring touchdowns. They clearly cannot rely entirely on Graham Gano, who came up big Sunday at the end but still missed two field goals that would have kept them out of overtime.
They need more running backs. If Keiland Williams stubs his toe this week, they need any running back. (Paging Logan Paulsen . . .) McNabb and Young Shanahan did a good job of spreading the ball around Sunday, but it's clear when you watch just about any other NFL team that the Redskins lack a big-time, big-play receiver, a guy the other team has to fret about. The line did an outstanding job under great pressure, but still needs upgrades. The defense continues to stretch more than a pair of maternity jeans at Month 9. And so on.
Sunday's win was a good one for the Redskins. They needed it psychologically but paid for it physically. They've won when they should have lost this season, and lost when they should have won. They play up to their competition - except when they don't. In other words, they're an average team in a pretty level league. But at long last, they showed nascent signs of both a short- and long-term recovery. And that may be worth more than a "W."