Steve Spurrier stood outside the Washington Redskins' locker room on Sunday after beating the Cowboys, 20-14, and seemed genuinely mystified. "We should have beaten them by three or four touchdowns," the coach said. How could Dallas still have a chance to win in the closing minutes? How could the Redskins, playing at home, throttle a bad team in every statistic, yet barely win?
Are his Redskins much closer to being of playoff caliber than many think, Spurrier wondered? Or is something basic wrong?
In their last four games, since Patrick Ramsey took over at quarterback, the Redskins have followed the same tantalizing, but frustrating pattern they showed Sunday. They've had the stunning stats of a winner, while making the mental mistakes of a loser.
In this span, the Redskins have played all three of their perennial foes in the NFC East -- the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys, plus the expansion Texans. Two playoff teams, two lousy teams. In those games, they've rolled up an enormous advantage in yardage (1,528-988), first downs (84-49) and rushing yardage (616-326). Since Ramsey entered, they've also had a 10-4 advantage in sacks.
Those numbers imply a physical domination of both lines of scrimmage and systems, on both offense and defense, that work. The 382 yards of offense per game, as Spurrier and Ramsey meld, have been especially eye-catching. The highest-scoring Redskins team ever ('83) averaged 384 yards. Last year, the Redskins averaged 277.
Is the Spurrier system, with Ramsey at the controls, already starting to click? Or is a month of late-season games too small a sample? Since becoming the entrenched quarterback of the future, Ramsey has completed 66 of 124 passes for 816 yards. That's decent. More important, he has had six touchdowns to two interceptions and, in the last three starts, taken only four sacks.
"I'm about 10 times more comfortable now. I'm not as uptight about every single play," said Ramsey after a mediocre final game. "I'm beginning to understand that you can't throw a touchdown every play. Try not to get sacked or make mistakes."
As Ramsey, who missed part of training camp with a contract dispute, understands Spurrier's offense better next season, his low completion percentage -- about seven percent below the NFL norm -- should improve. That might take care of better yardage and touchdown ratios as well.
"I've been really pleased with Patrick these last three games," Spurrier said. "He made a few bad plays, but he made more good plays. He can make all the throws and he's a tough guy to stand in the pocket. He has a great chance to be pretty good."
Pretty good can often be enough. Ramsey's upside? He might someday be as useful as two strong-armed Redskins who were also smart, brave, but immobile pocket passers -- Mark Rypien and Doug Williams. Neither was flashy. Both were Super Bowl MVPs.
The Redskins have also gotten spectacular production -- albeit against weak teams -- in the final two games from Ledell Betts and Kenny Watson. With 214 yards on 37 carries (5.8 average), Betts looks like next year's starting running back. Watson's 168 yards on 37 carries (4.5 average) weren't a shabby audition, either.
Meanwhile, the Redskins' defense claims it's finally mastering Marvin Lewis's system. Just in time for some other NFL team to grab him as a head coach in all probability. The Cowboys' first 12 possessions Sunday produced eight punts, three lousy fumbles and an interception. "They were coming in at all angles," said Dallas quarterback Chad Hutchinson. "We could not do much out there."
If so much is going right, even if it's in obscure late-season games, then why do the Redskins also seem like a team that might miss the playoffs next year and drive Spurrier to distraction again?
"If we don't beat ourselves, like we have all year then . . ." began veteran defensive end Bruce Smith. "But then 'beating ourselves' is the only thing we've been consistent at the whole season. The effort's been there. But when you don't protect the ball, you lose."
In the last four games, the Redskins have lost 10 fumbles. That's not just inexcusable, it's almost incomprehensible. Four of Joe Gibbs's teams lost seven or less fumbles in an entire season. A player at a skill position on a contender should wake up in the night screaming if he even dreams about fumbling. The thought "coach is going to cut me at dawn" should leap to mind.
Holding onto a football isn't rocket science. Everybody in the NFL tries to strip every ballcarrier. That's old news. But it hasn't reached Redskins Park. Unfortunately, the unnecessary fumble -- like Betts getting the ball poked out from behind at the one-yard line by a Cowboy -- is emblematic of an entire slipshod season.
Maybe next preseason, the Redskins can get Samuel L. Jackson to give his "Pulp Fiction" speech to all the Redskins ballcarrier -- the one where he points his magnum at your forehead and bellows "and I shall lay my vengeance upon thee."
By next season, somebody has to put some fear into all the current Redskins who repeat the same basic errors endlessly, like 35 penalties in the last four games. Even when the Redskins do something right, they're often within an eyelash of messing it up. On Watson's five-yard touchdown run, the play clock was down to tenths of second before the snap.
The Redskins lost a touchdown Sunday on a fumble recovery because players on the sideline -- for reasons known only to them -- ran onto the field with the play still in progress. Touchdown gone, Cowboys ball. No doubt they have their excuses. Who cares? Buy 'em seat belts. Make 'em take a number to get back in the game. This was no fluke. It was pure Redskins 2002 football.
Spurrier is a gentleman's gentleman who rarely curses and never grabs a face mask. Yet he's always chewed out his quarterbacks when they made mental mistakes. He shows them up on the sideline and couldn't care less. But they improve. "He's about as demanding as a person can be, but that is what I want out of a coach," said Ramsey. "Someone who is going to push me."
As he gets more comfortable with his players, Spurrier may need to be more demanding. Or find assistants or team leaders who can. Current methods for demanding crisp play aren't doing the job. Spurrier managed the trick at Florida. Can he do it with pros?
"Next year," said defensive tackle Daryl Gardener with disgust, "we have to pay attention to detail."
If they'd done it this year, they might still be playing.
"I'll get my enthusiasm back in a little bit, but it's hard for me to watch everything that happened out there and see how we let it get to a six-point game," Spurrier said after the win over the Cowboys.
"We just didn't play smart at times. Hopefully, we can correct that and have a chance to be a pretty good football team . . . We're not too far off from having a team that can really compete."
How "far off" are the Redskins?
The good news is that the distance is probably only about six inches. The bad news is it's the same six inches that separates winners from losers in every NFL season on almost every team.
In a league defined by parity, it's the six inches between your ears. That's the area Spurrier has to learn to reach. Then teach.