The Washington Redskins have committed fewer turnovers than their opponent just once this season, and committed fewer penalties than their opponent only three times, yet remain firmly in the playoff hunt.
The Redskins (5-4) are bucking the odds. For all of their tough losses and replay controversies, players and coaches concede they are fortunate to have a winning record given their turnover and penalty ratios. To expect to continue winning games with such a formula would be delusional, they say.
"If you would have told me that we would be 5-4 with all of that, I'd think you're crazy," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "Coach [Joe] Gibbs always says that we have to win the turnover ratio. It's proven that teams that don't win that, they don't win games. You can't keep playing roulette with it, because there's going to be a bullet that ends up in your chamber."
Washington's three early turnovers Sunday in Tampa Bay altered the course of the game and resulted in a 36-35 loss, and the Redskins were the more penalized team, as they have been in all five road games this season (1-4). They have a minus-11 turnover ratio, tied for second-worst in the NFL, and while greatly reducing the penalty woes of a year ago, the Redskins continue to give away field position by committing more penalties than their opponents.
"It's frustrating, because we keep doing it to ourselves," tackle Jon Jansen said. "We turn it over early and give them the ball on a short field, and then we fight to come back and have a chance to win it and it doesn't come through in the end. The scenario keeps playing itself out, and we've got to do something to change it."
The Redskins are one of eight teams in the NFL at minus-7 or worse in turnover ratio; Washington and New England (5-4) are the only two with winning records. The Redskins have not been particularly egregious -- their 18 give-aways are only one more than Carolina, which leads the NFC with a plus-9 ratio -- but the turnovers early in games have caused the team to stray from its run-first mantra.
"It's something that has haunted us," Gibbs said. "With all the emphasis we put on it, it's been something that's constantly been there. I think it's been a frustration for all of us."
Forcing turnovers is the Redskins' primary deficiency: They have only four interceptions and none by their cornerbacks, third worst in the league, and are tied for the fewest take-aways (seven).
The problems are magnified on the road, where the Redskins are minus-11 in five games. Couple that with their penalty problems -- they have been the more penalized team in every road game -- and the ability to win games is further compromised.
"There are certain battles in a game you need to win," Jansen said. "The biggest one is the turnover battle. Then you think about the time of possession, and then you go to penalties. And those are three big things, and the majority of the time we've won the time of possession pretty handily, but the other two we've lost, and you can't do that and win games."
Washington has held the ball longer than its opponent in seven games -- the exceptions were a 14-13 victory over Dallas, when they were outplayed for 55 minutes, and a 36-0 thrashing by New York -- and that generally bodes well for victory. The turnovers and penalties have undermined that.
Last season the Redskins were penalized 1,047 yards, a franchise record. Personal fouls and procedural penalties have been curtailed, and the team is on pace for a more a manageable 853 penalty yards. Yet they still suffer on a game-by-game basis. The only times Washington has been penalized for fewer yards than the opposition all came at home, in victories over Chicago, Seattle and Philadelphia.
"Penalties, we stress that a lot," end Phillip Daniels said. ". . . All I can say about that is for us to keep playing hard and playing aggressive and don't let it change the way we play. But at the same time, you're going to get penalties every now and then, and being aggressive, sometimes you're going to get more penalties."
The bright side for the Redskins is that they have managed to overcome what could have been a devastating combinations of events.
"It's a tribute to the way we play," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "Even when it seem like we don't have a chance to win it, you see guys wheeling and still firing off the line. We did that last year and we got that type of mentality where sometimes things are not going too good, but we keep fighting and keep fighting, and you never know. Sometimes something good will happen when you play that way.
"Unfortunately, we are negative-11 in the turnovers and we've committed some penalties. We're not just being nonchalant about those things; we're working and doing things in practice to try to improve on that, and I think if we focus on the little things and continue to work and stay the course, I think things will turn around for us, I really do."