Two weeks and two defeats into the season, a question confronts the Washington Redskins:
Are they a good team that just is not playing well or are they a formerly good team that has fallen from its peak?
"That's a big thing on people's minds now," General Manager Bobby Beathard said yesterday. "When we played well over the last two years, we always said that we were playing over our heads. We were the epitome of the overachieving team.
"We were aware of our weaknesses, but we were able to overcome them. Maybe we're not playing over our heads now."
Monday night, the Redskins fell behind the San Francisco 49ers, 27-3, at halftime. Even four touchdowns by the Redskins' offense in the second half could not prevent a 37-31 defeat eight days after losing to the Miami Dolphins, 35-17.
"Obviously, the 'Skins are struggling right now," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Our team has really responded in the past; like when we were 0-5 (at the start of 1981) or when we went 0-4 in the preseason (before 1982's Super Bowl-winning season). There's been struggles in there and this is a struggle now."
Questions come more easily than answers for Washington nowadays. True, Miami and San Francisco are among the league's finest teams. Over their past two NFC championship seasons, though, the Redskins have found ways to beat such teams; now they are not.
Yesterday, the Redskins tried to help their pass defense by acquiring cornerback Ricky Smith from New England in exchange for an undisclosed draft pick. Smith, 24, also was effective as the Patriots' regular runback specialist last year, on punts and kickoffs, although he had 11 fumbles in 80 returns.
To make a roster spot for Smith, a third-year player, the Redskins placed defensive end Todd Liebenstein on injured reserve due to a bacterial infection that might keep him out for eight weeks, Gibbs said.
The acquisition of Smith does not bode well for cornerback Anthony Washington, who was beaten for another touchdown pass Monday, then was replaced by Vernon Dean. Gibbs said Dean will start Sunday against the New York Giants.
"We're not making plays back there (at cornerback)," Gibbs said. "We felt like Anthony has had a tough time two weeks in a row. We felt like Vernon did a good job."
Defensive Coach Richie Petitbon said, "We obviously have to play better defense. We intend to work our way out of this, and hopefully it won't take too long."
It seems that gaining day-to-day, week-to-week continuity has been a problem this year for the Redskins, following a season in which their balance never teetered till the Super Bowl.
They have been hurt by injuries. Five players from the 49-man roster for opening day have been placed on injured reserve -- tight end Clint Didier, strong safety Ken Coffey, tight end Mike Williams, defensive tackle Bob Slater and Liebenstein.
Consequently, six new players -- guys named Donnalley, Mauti, Towns, Kane, Arnold and Smith -- have been added to the roster over the last 22 days. Furthermore, special teams captain Pete Cronan (fractured ankle in the preseason) likely is lost for the season, stealing leadership from the special teams. And the role of retired running back Nick Giaquinto, who was an excellent receiver on third-down plays last season, has not been filled effectively.
"If I can pinpoint one thing that's been missing from this team for the last two and a half games," linebacker Rich Milot said Monday night, "it's emotion. This is not a team that can get the big head. So that's not the problem. It's just that we haven't been an emotional team since the first half of that 49er (NFC championship) game last year."
Free safety Mark Murphy concurred, saying, "For some reason, we haven't gotten to the emotional high of last year. It points out that the personality of a team changes when a season ends."
The Redskins feel their second-half revival Monday night may have brought a complete turning point in their ways. Beathard said, "It may seem strange, but the second half made me feel comfortable. It can still be a bright season for us. Had we not made that comeback in the second half, it could have been scary."
Gibbs said, "Maybe this is the time when our team really comes together for the first time this year. Why? I don't think there's an absolute reason as to why. We felt very comfortable in the preseason. We won two games and we went with our normal approach . . . and yet we start off the year like this. What we're getting is lopsided performances, none smooth throughout the game."
In both defeats, the Redskins have fallen so far behind that running back John Riggins' style of ball control has been scrapped. Against Miami, the running game worked well in the first half. Against San Francisco, it hardly worked at all.
Quarterback Joe Theismann completed 24 of 43 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns at San Francisco. Under pressure often in the first half, Theismann and the offense stalled. But Theismann excelled in the second half, throwing for 255 yards; wide receiver Art Monk caught seven passes for 148 yards in the second half and finished with 10 receptions for a career-high 200 yards.
"On offense (in the first half), we just couldn't hit anything, couldn't make the throw, couldn't hit the block, didn't make the play," Gibbs said.
The greatest concern, however, has been the defense -- not just defending the pass, but also the run. The pass defense has been beaten for 678 yards (out of 931 total yards) and seven touchdown passes, while recording just two sacks.
The run defense -- rated best in the league last season -- yielded 167 rushing yards to San Francisco, 111 in the first half.
Also, on two key second-half plays that kept the 49ers ahead, Redskins blitzes were detected, then exploited. It happened first when two linebackers blitzed and cornerback Darrell Green was beaten for a 44-yard play, to the seven, by wide receiver Mike Wilson. That set up a touchdown.
It happened again when linebackers Milot and Neal Olkewicz were rushing the passer. Montana called an audible at the line, then connected on a 56-yard pass to wide receiver Dwight Clark, who beat Dean. This led to Ray Wersching's 38-yard field goal and a 37-24 lead with 9:49 to play.
"For whatever reason, (San Francisco) was catching us (in blitzes)," said Murphy, who calls defensive signals. "Maybe one of the (defensive) linemen is tipping it. The reason I knew that they knew we were coming on the pass to Clark is that Montana took an extra long time (with his count) and audibled. I knew he was doing it and wanted to come out of (the blitz), but . . . "
Petitbon said of the possible tipping of blitzes, "We'll have to check into it. We'll definitely research it."
Gibbs scratched his head late yesterday, appearing as somber as an 0-2 record. He said, "I've heard 50 different reasons. Every press reporter has a reason, every commentator has a reason. I've heard that it's mental toughness, that our guys aren't ready to play, all of those things.
"The most important thing for me to do is to analyze it all, find out why we're hit and miss right now, why we're playing in spurts, and tighten it up. I don't think you say, carte blanche, that it's one thing. It's a lot of things."
Reserve linebacker Stuart Anderson aggravated his groin injury Monday and will not play against the Giants, according to the injury report. Wide receiver Charlie Brown pulled a hamstring muscle and Murphy suffered a strained knee ligament; both are expected to play.