On the Average, An Average Team

Friday, November 9, 2007; Page E01

How do you explain or appreciate a team that loses 52-7 one week and wins in overtime by three against a 1-7 foe the next, but is still on the cusp of the playoffs? What sense, in other words, can we make of the Washington Redskins?

Week after week, Joe Gibbs answers that question. But few want to take his words at face value because they are an honest, but not fawning, view of his team's ability. Gibbs constantly repeats that almost every game will be "a close battle" that turns on a couple of plays. If a novice coach said that, we would conclude his team is average. When Gibbs takes that position, he is often viewed as modest or reducing expectations for subtle strategic purposes.

Instead, maybe he just means it.

Life in the middle of the NFL pack is tough. It's crowded, constantly tense. You're not truly good and you know it. Ever since Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas were injured, the Redskins have known that their offense, with Jason Campbell in his first full year at quarterback, would be a salvage operation. But you're not bad either. So you are offended if anybody implies you are.

If you have to run 48 times, mostly behind the healthy side of your line, to slug your way past the Jets with an ugly win against a lousy team, why apologize? That's not being mediocre. It's knowing your limits and toughing it out. Those who praise you aren't much help because they raise false expectations. But those who criticize don't give you fair credit for your genuine effort.

When you live in the crowded middle of the league, even your wins are fretful because you're often so close to losing. Every injury tears at your confidence. A bad defeat, much less a 52-7 loss, calls everything and everyone into question. When you have a huge payroll, an owner who's been impatient, and a history (albeit 15 years ago) of being an elite team, all those difficulties are magnified. The Redskins ask themselves, "Can half the NFL be a bunch of teams almost exactly like us?" The painful answer is "Yes."

For fans, supporting such a team is one long frustration. Do you cheer or boo? No third alternative has been invented.

But that's where the Redskins are. By objective measures, the Redskins are an average team in a league choked with parity. They've been outscored, 160-152. But if those nasty Pats had been sporting (and kicked two field goals instead of going for fourth down and adding two touchdowns), the point verdict would be exactly 152-152. They've gained 310.3 yards on offense, allowed 310.6 on defense. So, maybe Gibbs knows best. After all, he once won a playoff game, 51-7, without trying to run up the score.

Statistically, the Redskins are on a par with 16 other teams that have neither outscored nor been outscored by more than 26 points this season. If you're really good, or really bad, then by midseason your aggregate point totals make it obvious. That's why everybody looks at New England's 355-147 point differential and gasps. It's irrefutable.

However, the Redskins are actually different than most of these stuck-in-the-middle teams in one important respect. At least so far, the Redskins have maintained their morale in the face of injury, resisted backbiting when faced with defeat and maximized their limited strengths. And they've also been luckier than lots of similar teams that are 4-4 or 3-5 and gasping for breath, not 5-3 like the Redskins and still dreaming. Washington is the only team in the NFC that has already won three games by a field goal or less. In fact, the Eagles, who come to FedEx Field on Sunday, are a perfect example of another middle-of-the-pack team, distracted by Coach Andy Reid's family troubles, that has found a way to minimize its season. Philadelphia has outscored opponents, 156-155, and outgained them 349.6-to-317.4. But they are 3-5, desperate and, therefore, dangerous. Someday, the Redskins may be a dominant team again, as they were under George Allen (69-35-1) and Gibbs in his first term (140-65) during a 22-season span that welded the town's passions to the Redskins. That era was addictive. When such pleasure is removed (the Redskins are 100-121-1 the last 15 seasons), irritability mounts. A 45-point loss elicits a citywide groan and, with it, perhaps the beginning of acceptance that Gibbs's return to Washington is never going to equal his arrival.

This time around, perhaps we have to settle for something Gibbs still possesses: dignity. Even at 5-11 or after 52-7, the face of the franchise never acts like a fool. The game that typifies the Redskins' season was not the exposure of their limits in New England, but their rally from a 17-3 deficit to beat the Jets. Average teams don't beat the Pats anywhere anytime. But they can have their playoff hopes scuttled by a loss on the road to a bad team. The Redskins didn't let it happen. If that's a humble "signature win," so be it.

Right now, the Redskins' only focus from one week to the next is survival. It will be another year or two before they know the answer to their biggest question: Is Campbell an elite quarterback? Even if he's merely good, they have a playoff future. But he's not good yet, not with more interceptions than touchdown passes, no touchdowns to a wide receiver and four lost fumbles.

In the second half, the Redskins face five mediocre teams, quite similar to themselves -- three at home (Philadelphia, Buffalo and Chicago) and two on the road (Tampa Bay and Minnesota). They need to go 3-2 in those games. Winning all three at home would be very smart. Then, even if they lose on the road to the Cowboys (7-1) and Giants (6-2), they'd reach the last game of the season at home against Dallas with an 8-7 record and playoff chances probably alive.

That's life in the middle of the NFL pack. Beat the teams at home that are no better than you -- even though that modest task is usually an all-day, cross-your-fingers battle. Then maybe you can take pride in being the average team that's still playing in January.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company