This November feels all too familiar for LaVar Arrington. He has been here before with the Washington Redskins, longing for potential to translate into victories, to finally live up to expectations, then fighting to keep a season from spiraling away. Since being drafted in the first round in 2000, Arrington has yet to experience a winning season, but knows all too well the aura of a football team on the playoff periphery and needing to right itself.
The Redskins overcame some of their mental hurdles to success in the opening weeks of the season, going 3-0 with wins over NFC teams with strong playoff chances -- Chicago, Dallas and Seattle -- by a total of six points. Two bombs from Mark Brunell to Santana Moss in the final minutes provided a stunning, 14-13 win at Dallas, their first victory there since 1995, and Washington staved off Seattle in overtime the following week, with Brunell repeatedly shining on third and long down the stretch.
Confidence was soaring, and it seemed the team had finally hit its stride under Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. Instead, Washington is 2-5 since then, matching its worst stretch from 2004, losing repeated close games in the most heartbreaking fashion. Those three straight wins to open 2005 mark the only time this franchise has won consecutive games since this staff took over, and a loss to San Diego Sunday might render another December insignificant, even with three divisional games still looming.
"I think we took some real good strides early in the season," said Arrington, whose tenure here is surpassed only by 1999 draft pick Jon Jansen, "and for us not to capitalize on such a fast start is kind of disheartening. The season is far from over, and you would like to think we got our wake-up call way before [Sunday's 16-13 loss to Oakland], but obviously we haven't quite turned that corner on realizing we can win these games, even though we won some big games early.
"We have to regroup. We're 5-5, and as bad as that sounds we still have an opportunity to be a wildcard contender at this point. I get tired of saying this every year, because every year we sit there and have great potential, and we think we've got what we need to go where we're trying to go, but we don't quite turn the corner. And then by the time we realize we can do it, it seems like we're going into an offseason and then we've got to do it all over again and figure out who's going to be here and what's going to be what, and then start all over."
It is a vicious cycle, indeed. The coaches were bolstered by last year's 3-2 finish to a 6-10 campaign, but even then the team had a penchant for losing close games. That has continued this season, with eight games basically coming down to the final play or final drive. Washington has dropped four of those last five tight contests -- the only exception being safety Ryan Clark's game-preserving interception on a fourth down near the goal line against Philadelphia Nov. 6 -- and the last two defeats have prompted reflection and soul searching.
The Redskins twice took late leads on Tampa Bay, a team reeling at the time, yet the defense surrendered those, and the Buccaneers won on a controversial two-point conversion on their last drive. Last Sunday the Redskins blew a 10-point halftime lead against another team it had outplayed and this time complained about a last-minute fumble at the goal line that was not reviewed in a three-point loss. They did not score an offensive touchdown and lost despite Oakland rushing for 1.7 yards per carry and accumulating 101 yards worth of penalties.
"I think our approach this week is going to be just, 'Hey, we need to win a football game,' " Gibbs said, "because we've lost two close ones -- a high-scoring game and this one, where we didn't score points."
Lately, the Redskins have been finding ways to lose games down the stretch. They have only 37 fourth-quarter points this season (14 came at Dallas) and have scored in that period in just four of their games. For the most part, they were superior to Kansas City, Denver, Tampa Bay and Oakland, but dropped all four contests.
"The thing that drives you nuts is that we didn't win [Sunday]," H-back Chris Cooley said. "It seems like we're a great team, but every week we say, 'Let's play these guys to the last play and see what happens,' when I really feel like we could be beating these teams by two or three touchdowns. We just need to finish it up; at some point in the fourth quarter we need to score and finish teams off."
Washington has been unable to thrive in multiple aspects of the game, save for in the 52-17 blowout of lowly San Francisco. The defense cost the Redskins games by allowing big plays following the 3-0 start, and more recently the offense has faltered, unable to score enough to win. The Redskins have surpassed 21 points only twice this season despite improving in many areas of the offense, and have been held to 17 points or less in three of the last four weeks.
"The margin between winning and losing is so small," said Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who guided the Redskins from an 0-5 start to an 8-8 record in 2001 before being fired. "I know the Redskins for example have been involved in a bunch of close games, and we've been involved in a bunch of close games, and it comes down to making one play, if you will, in a timely fashion to ultimately just turn the thing where you'd like it to go. At the end of the day you're going to have an opportunity to make two or three plays, and if you make them you will prevail in most cases, and if you don't you're in trouble."
If anything, these last seven games have reinforced lessons Gibbs has long sought to instill. With a league-worst minus-13 turnover ratio, there is little mystery to what is holding the team back.
"We have to find a way to keep the ball in our hands and not commit stupid penalties," Jansen said, "and if do that we're going to be a good team, and if we don't we're going to continue to be 5-5 or 6-6 or whatever." Through 10 games, Washington is mediocre again, needing a late surge to stay alive for its first playoff appearance since 1999.
"How quickly things change," running back Clinton Portis said. "We could be sitting here 7-3. In the last two weeks those are games that we definitely should have won, but we didn't and we're sitting here 5-5 with the sad song and sad faces like it's the end of the world. We know we're going to be in the game, and we've got six games to prove it, and we've got to go 5-1 down the stretch. We put our backs up against the wall, and now it's time for us to come out and do what we have to do."