A team can do pretty well merely by beating opponents it should beat, teams with lesser talent or a genius-wannabe on the other sideline. Without having beaten a single good team, the Washington Redskins are in the playoff chase at the midway point because every time they play a bad team, they win. Beating the patsies shouldn't be dismissed because there are enough of them, like the Seattle Seahawks, that it's possible to build a nice little record of .500 or better while evolving into a good team.
The four Redskins losses have come to four of the NFC's best: the Packers, 49ers, Saints and Eagles. None of those games was close. The evidence is overwhelming that the Redskins aren't good enough to beat those teams, all of which are virtual locks to make the playoffs. But when the Redskins have been presented with a lesser light, they've conducted themselves like a team with some ambition and taken care of business rather decisively. They jumped all over the Cardinals, Titans, Colts and Seahawks. The first thing you have to do is establish what it is you can do, and the Redskins have done that without exception.
They can discourage a team as spotty as Seattle, whose number one quarterback, Trent Dilfer, ripped up his Achilles' tendon and whose big-play receiver, Darrell Jackson, suffered a concussion last week against the Cowboys. You know your quarterback (in this case, Matt Hasselbeck) is inadequate when fans spend the fourth quarter chanting the name of Jeff George. I promised myself I wasn't going to bash Mike Holmgren in this space today. But honestly, where else do you lay the blame when a guy puts himself in charge of picking the players and coaching them and both the talent and results are lacking? It certainly would be a lot easier to go easier on Holmgren had he not made a pair of absurd fourth-down calls, which we'll examine later.
But it's the Redskins' responsibility to take lunch money from chumps, so they did. Personally, I think they did it in the fashion that builds the most character over the long haul: with defense and running the ball. For the first time, the Redskins kept an opponent out of the end zone. The defense gave up only 3.3 yards per carry and stopped Seattle whenever it mattered, like on Bruce Smith's fourth-down sack in the first half.
Steve Spurrier must have said a half-dozen times after the game that his team didn't pitch it and catch it very well. It's apparently unimaginable to Spurrier that an offense he coaches could complete 10 of 27 passes on a crystal-clear day with little wind in a splendiferous new ballpark.
"It was just a beautiful day to pitch and catch and it is a wonderful stadium," he said. If Spurrier were coaching Roger Clemens and Jorge Posada, there would be reason to worry. Personally, give me a team that can hold the other guy to three points and get 100 yards rushing out of its backup running back. Kenny Watson, standing in for injured Stephen Davis, ran as beautifully as any fly route, but that's just me; I grew up watching Big Ten football where it's against the law to throw after Halloween or in the fourth quarter with a lead. Still, I can't help but notice that the good pitchers in the NFL (Peyton Manning, Drew Bledsoe, Rich Gannon) lost on Sunday. It was good to hear Spurrier finally say, "I read where Ricky Neuheisel's quarterback [at the University of Washington] threw for 429 yards Saturday and they got beat. I am sure he would much rather have had the 10 completions and the victory."
Okay, with this defense and just a little bit of pitching and catching, the Redskins could be on to something. Imagine how different the club's recent history would be if the Redskins had simply won games they should have won. In 1996, they lost twice to the no-account 7-9 Cardinals and missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record instead of finishing 11-5. And who can forget 2000, when the Redskins went to St. Louis and won on a Monday night but couldn't beat the Cardinals (3-13) or Cowboys (5-11) down the stretch, missed the playoffs and handed their spot in the Super Bowl to the Giants?
"I don't want to look ahead, but the formula to success starts there," Redskins guard Tre Johnson said. "If any team can just avoid the heartbreakers. In past seasons, we often played down to the level of certain opponents. It sounds like a cliche, but there are just certain games you should win. And if you do that, after seven or eight weeks everybody's looking at you going, 'How did that happen?' "
You don't have to beat the best teams, especially now that the weighted schedule has been thrown out. But you can't blow games when you have all the advantages.
Next week, the Redskins play at Jacksonville, where the Jaguars have already lost to expansion Houston. Beyond that, the Redskins have two games left against the 3-6 Cowboys, who have already lost to the Texans and Lions. On the next-to-last week of the season the Redskins host the Texans, who were drilled at home Sunday by the god-awful Bengals. And two games remain against the Giants, who certainly are no better than the Redskins. Even if Washington splits games with the Giants and Cowboys, they should win four of the aforementioned six. The only two games that should scare anybody are against the Eagles in Philly and at home against the Rams. And you never know by the end of the month whether Mike Martz will still be desperate enough to hand the ball to Marshall Faulk or be back to thinking he's both Amos Alonzo Stagg and Paul Brown.
Of course, Martz isn't alone. On fourth and two in the final seconds of the first half here, instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal to close to 14-6, go into the locker room with momentum (and come back after halftime with the first possession), Holmgren elected to throw. Of course, Hasselbeck was sacked. We can't possibly be surprised that Holmgren second-guessed himself not a bit -- "I'm not kicking myself for that decision too much" -- and blamed the execution of the players.
Well, taking advantage of coaches who ignore the obvious to exert their genius is part of beating the teams you're supposed to beat. If the Redskins simply win when they figure to be the better team (at home against the Cowboys, Giants, Texans and Rams, and at Jacksonville), that's 9-7. The Redskins could finish without beating a team with a winning record, but still make the playoffs. And if they can continue to do that, whether by pitching and catching or bumping and grinding, something warm and fuzzy can possibly come of this season.