The last thing the Washington Redskins needed was to spend the week hearing people talk about their undefeated preseason.
Losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last night was just what the doctor ordered.
The Redskins' first-teamers outplayed Tampa Bay's first-teamers on offense and defense, only to have the Bucs' reserves win on a fourth-down prayer of a pass at the end of a penalty-filled, replay-delayed game. Beautiful. Norv Turner couldn't have asked for a better script. His players enter the first week of the regular season knowing that they played well last night, and the previous three weeks, but that they're not invincible. They know they're better, but they've got a lot of work ahead. Nothing like a defeat to provide some gravity, even if it means next to nothing.
The last thing these Redskins needed was to put too much stock in the numbers 4-0. The last thing they need is to get cocky.
Last night confirmed a lot of what we already thought after three weeks: The defense could be fabulous. The offense, while efficient at times, is inconsistent. And overall, there were just enough mistakes for Turner to be able to dig in and get nasty if he wants in practice this week. Who's listening after going 4-0? How misleading would 4-0 be? This franchise, after missing the playoffs for six straight years, needs to be as desperate now as it was the first time Daniel Snyder said he would clean house if stuff doesn't improve in a hurry. Nothing like a taste of defeat to serve as a little reminder, right?
So what kind of stuff can Norv sink his teeth into?
Well, the Redskins' first-team offense stalled inside the 20 a couple of times. It happened fairly regularly in the preseason. "We haven't executed as well as I'd like to within the 20," Turner said.
Then, there was a wrong formation that sabotaged a third-and-three.
There was a penalty for having 12 men on the field during a special teams play.
There was a face-mask penalty on a third-and-20 that gave the Buccaneers a first down.
"Those are the plays," Turner said, "that I'm going to point out."
Of course, the first-teamers weren't really guilty of any of this stuff, but you use what you can use to get a team's attention. And it's almost a must to pick on the offense because the defense has looked every bit as good as Tampa's, which was No. 2 in the NFL last year and may be among the best in the league as this season begins.
Asked if he could ask any more of his defense, which essentially pitched a shutout for four games, Turner said: "No. The first group has just been outstanding. There's a chemistry developing. There's great athleticism in the group. . . . We have a chance to be really good, defensively."
On defense, the first team has been virtually flawless, an A-plus. Six points allowed in seven quarters this preseason. The line, the linebackers, the secondary -- everything has been airtight. The reserves have been at the very least a B-plus. They gave up some yards to Patriots third-string quarterback Michael Bishop, but that's hardly something to be embarrassed about, given Bishop's talent. The Buccaneers scored 92 points in their first three games, but could average only three yards per play through the first half last night against the Redskins.
If you go into the regular season with one unit way ahead of the other, you would want the defense leading the way.
Of the offense, Turner said, that the line play is "better" and that, "we moved the football in every game." All that's true. And you have to take into account that the offense was going against the best defense, for my money, in the NFL. Tampa Bay is eight deep along the defensive line. Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy has assembled a defensive line that looks like something Buddy Ryan put together in Philly or Chicago in the '80s. You can't just line up and go down the field on Tampa this year. If the Buccaneers' receivers, particularly Bert Emanuel, ever hold on to the ball, watch out.
Still, it's not a good sign that Brad Johnson barely completed 50 percent of his passes over these four games. When you throw underneath as much as the Redskins have (out of necessity), you've got to be up around 60 percent completions. It's completely understandable that Turner would play Johnson only one series last night; the last thing this team needs is Johnson in a body cast after being trampled by Warren Sapp. What would be the point?
It's just that I still want to see the offense operate at full throttle. It would have been fun to see the first-team offense go just a wee bit longer against Tampa's defense. I still want to see if the line can hold people out long enough for Johnson to set up and go deep. I know Rodney Peete can hook up with Irving Fryar; I want to see Johnson and Fryar working together.
Turner, however, has the benefit of camp and practices. "I've seen enough signs of it," he said, "to feel we're going to be a very good offense."
Against Tampa's suffocating defense, Stephen Davis found holes and broke a long one. Skip Hicks had his best running day of the preseason and found big holes to his liking.
Drama wasn't in big supply last night, beyond all those calls that had to be replayed. Turner didn't need replay on one call. A throw from Peete to Fryar was called incomplete, although it looked as if Fryar kept the ball from touching the ground with a nice scoop-up. "I asked Irving if he caught it," Norv said, "and he said, `Yes.' He is a minister."
Fryar is also a great receiver, a take-charge leader and a veteran who can help this team's transition from an impressive preseason to the real action that will determine whether this preseason was a mirage, or a promising hint of what is to come.