The dynamic is all too familiar to Washington Redskins fans.
After a 4-1 start, the 1999 Redskins have stumbled badly, losing three of their last four games to drop to 5-4 entering Sunday's NFC East game against the New York Giants.
In contrast to the Dallas Cowboys, who beat Green Bay last weekend without their three brightest stars (quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin), the relatively injury-free Redsksin have folded when faced with difficult opponents. Only one of the Redskins' five victories has come against a team that has a winning record (the 50-21 defeat of the Giants in Week 2).
Former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen thinks the Redskins' true character will be revealed Sunday, in a crucial game that will help unravel the logjam for the lead in the NFC East. Owner Daniel M. Snyder has demanded his team make the playoffs; the Redskins, the Cowboys and the Giants are tied for the division lead.
"They haven't had to overcome a lot of adversity," Jurgensen said of the Redskins. "They've been healthier than anybody they've played. It's step-up-to-the-plate time now. There's nowhere to hide."
But Rick "Doc" Walker, a former Redskins tight end turned football analyst, has seen enough to offer a midseason diagnosis.
"This team suffers, in my opinion, from low self-esteem," Walker said. "They don't handle adversity as well as you need to handle it, and that comes by confidence. This team, when things go wrong, in the back of their mind seems to think, 'Oh, here we go again.' "
Through the first eight games, the offense had been the Redskins' strength. But its six-turnover performance doomed last week's effort against Philadelphia, a 35-28 loss. Until then, the Redskins had committed just nine turnovers in eight games. Then, in less than 41 minutes of play, came the flurry of three interceptions and three fumbles.
Still, given quarterback Brad Johnson's record of steadiness, Jurgensen sees no cause for alarm regarding the offense.
"Anybody that has ever played that position, who has been there, if they line up behind the center and take a snap, they have had days like that," Jurgensen said. "And when you get tattooed a few times [Johnson was sacked four times], your decision-making speeds up, and you don't see the field as well. It's nothing to be concerned about. It just happens."
Fox analyst Tim Green, who will cover Sunday's Redskins game, takes a similar view.
"I've read stuff where people are kind of forecasting the downfall of the team," Green said. "But if you look at it, they still fundamentally beat the Eagles. They ran the ball on them [for 130 yards]; threw the ball on them [for 292 yards]. The defense looked good, for the most part. The special teams melted. But I don't think it's time to pull the panic switch. I think they just want to keep doing what they do well: Offensively, that is running with Stephen Davis behind the offensive line and continuing to let Brad Johnson throw the ball around."
The defense, ranked 31st in the NFL, has been the team's Achilles' heel. Walker saw progress against Philadelphia, with the Redskins blitzing more and limiting the Eagles to 38 passing yards.
"They were put in some terrible situations," Walker said, referring to the six turnovers. "But they didn't give up six direct scores. They were terrible at tackling, but they responded to sudden change better than they have."
The missed tackles were costly.
Like Buffalo quarterback Doug Flutie two weeks ago, Eagles rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb gained big yardage scrambling. And running back Duce Staley (28 carries for 122 yards) wriggled out of the defense's clutches time and again.
"You cannot let people repeatedly break tackles," Walker said. "If this were basketball, they would lead the league in being dunked on."
It's not because the defense doesn't have the athletes.
"They wanted a defensive tackle; they gave them two," Jurgensen said, referring to the 1998 acquisitions of Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield. "They wanted more speed at safety; they got that [with free agent Sam Shade, signed in February]. They've given them everything that they've wanted. And nothing has changed. It's the same results."
Breakdowns on special teams seem to occur weekly, whether in the form of improperly executed onside kicks, inadequately defended onside kicks, blocked field goal attempts, out-of-bounds kickoffs or poorly blocked and poorly defended returns.
Against Philadelphia, special-teams play continued to be poor, with mistakes leading to kickoff returns of 89 and 83 yards. The 89-yarder produced a touchdown that turned the game's momentum. Afterward, Turner decided to rotate more starters into the special-teams lineup. But that naturally increases the risk of getting front-line players injured.
"The players have to respect the importance of that [special teams] role," Jurgensen said. "They are on the field almost 30 percent of the game, so you've got to win that battle. You can steal games from people on special teams. That's an easy way to do it. But they have not been getting the job done. It's probably one of the most consistent things on the team: [special teams'] inability to play well."
Each week, The Washington Post will draw analysis from inside and outside the organization in hopes of better understanding the previous Sunday's game and state of the team.