The Redskins make you talk to yourself. One minute you're sitting there sanely watching a football game, and the next minute, you're doing hand puppets. "This team's pretty good," one hand says. "Shut up," the other hand says. "No, they're not."
The argument went on like that, back and forth, all afternoon against the Kansas City Chiefs. Just when you thought the Redskins were coming together, they fell apart. For every big play, there was a calamity. The terms "give-aways" and "take-aways" had new meaning on every series -- each time they gave themselves a chance to win, they did something to take it away.
It started on the opening drive. The Redskins moved swiftly downfield at Arrowhead Stadium, and were staring at the end zone from the 7-yard line. "Surely, they can score from there," one hand said.
"Shut up," the other said. "Have you seen their stats in the red zone? They're 27th in the league."
Just then, Mark Brunell reared back to pass, the ball cocked in his hand. Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen reached out and knocked it from Brunell's grasp, like a hapless parody of the old Statue of Liberty play. The Chiefs recovered on their own 18.
"See?" the other hand said.
Later, Brunell would ruefully say he should have moved up in the pocket. Had he just taken that step, a split-second earlier he could have delivered the ball to Chris Cooley wide open in the end zone. "We had something there," Brunell said. "If I could've done it again, I'd step up in the pocket. I think we'd walk away with a TD."
But as Santana Moss said, "Shoulda, woulda, coulda don't mean anything."
The Redskins are talking to themselves, just like the rest of us. At the moment, they don't seem to know quite who they are. But they need to decide what their personality is going to be this season, because at the moment it's split. At times, they are a tough, disciplined team that beats the opponent in every statistical category and tangibly improves every week. At others, they are a mistake-prone and self-sabotaging one that seems in danger of steadily deteriorating from here on in.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot," Renaldo Wynn said. "Obviously, we missed a lot of opportunities. It's been a tale of the tape ever since we started."
"I can't tell you how frustrating it is," Brunell says. "We've got a good team."
But really good teams don't thoroughly outplay the opponent and lose. Four of their games have been decided by three points or less, and against the Chiefs it was a matter of just a touchdown. As long as the Redskins continue to commit turnovers -- they are minus-eight in give-aways and take-aways for the season -- and small, paralyzing mental mistakes, they will be trapped in this schizoid conversation with themselves.
"The last two games we haven't gotten away with it," offensive lineman Jon Jansen said. "Until we put points on the board and capitalize on some of the good things we do, we're going to be 3-2, 3-3, whatever. These have been big games for us and you have to win games like this if you want to be a successful team."
The most aggravating thing for the Redskins is that they have long stretches in which they look like a team that is genuinely headed in the right direction. In the first half, despite two fumbles by Brunell, they fought back to lead 7-6, thanks to Brunell's four-yard scoring pass to Moss.
In the third quarter, the Redskins were doing the things a good team is supposed to do if it intends to win. They even managed to look explosive. On second and 19 from the Redskins 22, Brunell threw a swing pass to Moss, who blew it up spectacularly. He turned the corner and streaked 78 yards down the sideline to score.
Tied at 14 late in the third period, the Redskins were driving again. Brunell was zipping those user-friendly passes to Cooley, and Clinton Portis and Rock Cartwright were tearing through the Chiefs for five and seven yards at a time.
"Now this is what a winning team is supposed to look like," one hand said. "Big plays. Little plays. Consistent drives."
"Shut up," the other hand said. "You'll jinx it."
Just then, it happened. Cartwright carried the ball three yards, to the Kansas City 22. And fumbled. Safety Sammy Knight picked the ball up and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown.
"See?" the other hand said. "What did I tell you? They stink. And they have the fifth-easiest schedule in the league."
But here came the Redskins right back, on a 67-yard, 12-play drive that culminated in Brunell's 11-yard scoring pass to Cooley with 36 seconds left in the quarter.
"Not so fast," one hand said.
Four plays later, the Chiefs scored the winning touchdown. It was another one of those sequences in which small breakdowns made the difference. Trent Green faked a reverse and then lobbed the ball to Priest Holmes, who took off as a succession of Skins lunged at him. Warrick Holdman just missed. Cornelius Griffin waved at him. Carlos Rogers slipped as he went by.
Afterward, the Redskins could only shake their heads at their lapses and missed opportunities. Once again, they were one play away. When Brunell's deep pass to Moss in the end zone just slipped through his fingers on their last play, they got what they deserved.
"We'll find out what kind of character this team has," Brunell said. "We made some plays. But obviously, we've got to clean up some mistakes. As we go on, we'll get better."
On the one hand, you say, "No, they won't." The other hand says, "Sure, they will."