A team can go a long way in the NFL by beating up on patsies, and in the case of the Washington Redskins that means the Cleveland Browns. Not only can you stop slides, regain confidence and get healthy against the NFL's worst teams, but it's the first step toward contention.
The notion that beating the Browns today in Cleveland wouldn't mean much is completely misguided. Yes, the Browns went 5-11 last season and are 1-2 this season. Even worse, the Browns have lost 10 of their past 13 games. They've lost rookie cornerstone Kellen Winslow Jr. for the season. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is struggling to master a new offense, and the Browns have looked, in general, lost -- even if they did beat Baltimore in Week 1.
But this is precisely why beating the Browns is imperative if the Redskins plan on being something other than everybody else's patsy. The formula for a winning season doesn't start with beating eventual division winners; it starts with beating the worst teams in the league. The Dallas Cowboys, after going 5-11 the previous year, won 10 games last season and beat only two teams with winning records -- Carolina and Philadelphia -- along the way. Otherwise, the Cowboys defeated the Giants twice, Redskins twice, Detroit, Arizona, the Jets and Buffalo.
The Green Bay Packers won nine of their 10 games against non-playoff teams. Of Seattle's 10 victories, one (against St. Louis) came against a team with a winning record. The Panthers showed exactly how it ought to be done. They lost to Tennessee, lost to the Cowboys, lost to the Eagles, even lost to the Falcons with Michael Vick back in the lineup. But the Panthers beat the Jaguars, Buccaneers twice, Falcons without Vick, Saints twice, Redskins, Cardinals, Lions and Giants. Those last three victories, including narrow wins over sorry Arizona and Detroit, finished an 11-5 regular season and gave Carolina plenty of momentum heading into the playoffs. The Panthers had one victory over a team that wound up with a winning record, the Colts, the entire regular season.
Losing to the Cowboys last week hurt, particularly because it came on the heels of another division loss, to the Giants, and because the Redskins entered the season with one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL. To have reasonable expectations of winning nine games, they simply have to win the three gimmes on their schedule: at Cleveland today, at Chicago in two weeks, and at San Francisco the week before Christmas. You build your season simply by beating the teams you're supposed to beat, and by always beating the bottom feeders -- just the way Carolina did last season.
To do that, the Redskins don't have to do anything special. They must play the way they did against Tampa Bay in the season opener: protect the quarterback, run the ball well, stay away from penalties and get a few decent plays from the passing game.
The Redskins' coaches have bristled at criticism (quite a bit of it in this space last Tuesday morning) directed at quarterback Mark Brunell. And maybe I should have spread more of the criticism around and included Joe Gibbs, who has yet to get into the play-calling rhythm that made him one of the best offensive coaches ever and who didn't handle the clock or replay challenge the way we expect he will. Maybe Gibbs has been knocking off some rust, too, over the past couple of weeks.
But Gibbs gets every benefit of the doubt, at least here, and will for the foreseeable future. It doesn't, however, convey to Brunell, whose numbers were a result of a hot fourth quarter, and only half of the quarter at that. There are still too many missed passes (more than drops), too much holding onto the ball forever.
What is fair to wonder is if Brunell can pick up where he left off Monday night, when he was planting and firing, and moving around more like the Brunell of five and six years ago in Jacksonville. It's not like the Redskins need Brunell to turn into Donovan McNabb and fulfill every fantasy football dream. Consistently efficient would be fine. The guess is that Gibbs and quarterback coach Jack Burns will have used two weeks' worth of criticism of Brunell to rally him to his best game this season.
The Redskins' defense ought to smother Cleveland. You think the Redskins' offense is struggling? The Browns' offense is 28th in the NFL, and coordinator Terry Robiskie will be trying to work injured running back Lee Suggs back into the lineup against a Redskins defense that is No. 1 in the league against the run, allowing just 2.2 yards per carry. Still Robiskie, the longtime former Redskins assistant to Norv Turner, indicated this week the identity of this Browns team may rest with the frequent running of William Green and Suggs.
The identity of the Redskins may rest with how well they separate themselves from the likes of the Browns, a team struggling the past two weeks even more than the Redskins.