How far can an NFL team advance in the playoffs if it has only been a good team, but not a great one, during the regular season?
In other words, are Redskins fans yelling "On to the Super Bowl" out of their burgundy-and-gold gourds? Or is there any sensible precedent for such optimism?
You'd think the common sense answer would also be the correct one. If you've been a "B" student all year, why should you expect to get an "A" on the final exam? There's an old saying during practice rounds before The Masters. "You don't come to Augusta National to 'find' your game. You come here because you've got one."
That ought to apply to the NFL playoffs, too, right? Last season, the two NFC teams with the best regular season records, and the biggest point differentials over the league, met for the NFC championship. In the AFC, same deal. The cream rose.
Perhaps a team such as the current Redskins--with obvious flaws--could win one playoff game. At most. Even that might take some luck and quick healing by Stephen Davis's ankle. After all, only five teams gave up more points than the Redskins did and only one allowed more yards. Awful. Special teams? Don't even ask.
All this bleak realism, however, is completely wrong. It's the excited fans, standing in line for tickets at FedEx Field, and the Redskins players, saying, "It's a whole new season. Everybody is 0-0," who actually have it figured out right.
NFL history--especially Redskins history and Norv Turner's own career--indicate that the Redskins have every right to dream of the Super Bowl. It's a pretty long shot. But not nearly as long as most pundits would have you believe.
"Once you get into the 'tournament,' it's amazing what can happen," Turner said yesterday. "The excitement builds. . . . There's nothing to say we can't be that team this year."
One example tells the whole story. This season the Redskins won the NFC East, but only tied for the third-best record in the whole NFC. They outscored their opponents by just 66 points--barely four points a game. Only three Redskins made the Pro Bowl. What can such a team expect in January?
Believe it or not, with inspired play, good breaks, unexpected heroes and a helpful upset by somebody else, a team exactly like that can win the Super Bowl.
It happened just a dozen years ago. To the Redskins.
In the 1987 strike-shortened season, the Redskins also won the NFC East, but only tied for the third-best record in the whole conference. They outscored their opponents by just 94 points--about six points a game. Only three Redskins made the Pro Bowl.
The '87 team also had obvious problems during the regular season. There was a quarterback controversy, with Jay Schroeder (71.0 rating) inspiring little confidence. Only one receiver (Gary Clark) had more than 490 yards. The top rusher, George Rogers, had only 613 yards and averaged 3.8 per carry.
What a powerhouse! A team with no deep threat, a mediocre running game and a quarterback who was unpopular in his own locker room. Those Redskins had one clear strength: They won close games. Seven wins by seven points or less.
The parallels between '87 and '99 are almost eerie. Then, the Redskins drew a first-round bye. This season, Washington faces the 8-8 Lions. No 8-8 team has ever won an NFL playoff game. And Detroit is 0-19 at Washington. The Lions are no bye, not after the way they waxed the Redskins last month. But they're on a four-game losing streak and are without their starting quarterback. You can't get an easier first-round matchup than the Redskins just drew. Win or lose, that's a fact.
In the '87 NFC semifinals, the Redskins had to visit Chicago to play a Bears team that had the same regular season record as Washington did. The Bears were a slight favorite. But who cared? The 49ers--with the top record and tons of accolades--would crush the winner.
In a blink, San Francisco got upset at home by the wild-card Vikings. Suddenly, the Redskins had a home game to get to the Super Bowl!
This season, same set up. The Redskins would have to travel to Tampa Bay next week to play a pretty good team with almost identical credentials (11-5 record, 45-point differential). This season the St. Louis Rams (13-3, 284-point differential) look unbeatable. Could the Vikings (10-6) or Cowboys (8-8) upset 'em? Why not? If the Rams did lose, the NFC championship game would be in Washington.
See, it's easy. Well, at least it's easy to conceive, if not to execute.
For a team to shock the world in January, it needs to do what the '87 Redskins did: kept finding secret weapons. Doug Williams took over at quarterback. Timmy Smith had a one-game career in the Super Bowl.
Even if the Redskins don't win the Super Bowl, there's no reason they couldn't play in the NFC championship game. Turner knows that. He was an assistant coach for the '89 Rams, who tied for the third-best record in the NFC and barely made the playoffs as a wild card. They beat the Eagles and the favored Giants (in overtime), both on the road to reach the NFC championship game.
"Everything is magnified in the playoffs--but especially turnovers. They are the big key," Turner said yesterday. "In that ['89] Giants game, they were ahead and in control just before halftime. But we intercepted a screen pass and scored. That showed [me] how one turnover can completely change a playoff game. . . .
"You're playing the top teams. So, for example, you may have to live with taking a sack. But don't get sacked and fumble, too."
Any team good enough to make the playoffs should dream about reaching the conference title game, at the least. Look at the '86 Redskins, a humble wild-card team that only outscored the league by 72 points. They upset a supposedly invincible Bears team in Chicago to get to the NFC title game. Sometimes, teams and people surprise themselves. Even Darrell Green probably didn't think he'd hurdle entirely over a tackler that day to return a punt for a score.
Usually, a dominant team wins the Super Bowl. But not always. Twenty years ago, a wild-card team--the Raiders--won Super Bowl XV.
Even in retrospect, these January overachievers retain their mystery. With hindsight, they still don't look as if they should have been able to do everything that they accomplished. But they did.
So, don't miss out on the fun by being blase or playing the jaded expert. The list of indictments against the Redskins' chances is long and credible. They've only beaten one winning team. Defense and special teams are usually crucial in postseason. Under Turner, they've usually been the opposite of a big-game team.
No, the Redskins probably aren't going to the Super Bowl. It's about 10 to 1 against them. But it's not 100 to 1. With three weeks of "A" game, some breaks and surprise heroes, plus a helpful upset in some other city, a Jan. 30 game in Atlanta could actually be added to the Redskins' schedule.