At this point only the real burgundy-bleeders, the ones who sit in traffic to park in a littered pay lot and watch the Washington Redskins from the far reaches of the upper deck, who decorate their houses with Redskins door-knockers and table lamps, and their cars with antenna flags, believe that this can still be a deserving playoff team.
No, the season's not over. Yes, they've got five games left. But this is the time of year when teams get better, or they get worse, and the Redskins at 5-6 have gotten decidedly worse. The trends are not good, and after 11 games, trends are the truth. What you are now is probably what you are, period.
If you listen to Mr. Tony's radio show, you've heard his message of hope. If the Redskins can win at St. Louis and Arizona, they will be 7-6, and then anything is possible, especially with the NFC East still in a tumult. They could even run the table. The trouble is that nothing in the Redskins' recent play would lead you to think they can do it. If you believe they can, you probably wear a Redskins belt buckle.
Playoff-bound teams, ascendant ones as opposed to deteriorating ones, don't look as if they've been stricken by bird flu. They haven't lost six of their last eight and blown three straight fourth-quarter leads, or dropped two in a row at home. Nor are they carping about officiating, bad luck and injuries. They're winning the close ones by doing the little things right instead of hoping for help from the opponents or the guys in striped shirts, or a sudden twist of fate.
It's not just the big trends, the 5-6 mark against the fifth-weakest schedule in the league, and the fourth-quarter collapses that provoke skepticism. (As one of our headlines put it so aptly Monday, "Redskins Come From Ahead to Lose Again, in OT This Time.") It's the smaller, sickly trends that make it difficult to believe the Redskins can reverse the larger trends. Joe Gibbs has coached the Redskins for 27 games, and they've managed to score more than 21 points just four times. Clinton Portis has yet to rush for consecutive 100-yard games. On third-down conversions against San Diego on Sunday, they were 3 for 14, and in the fourth quarter alone they were 1 for 6.
It's officially a trend when you get the ball at the opponent's 31-yard line -- and can't get close enough to kick a field goal.
Watching the Redskins' offense has become a mental chore. For a quarter or two, it looks all right. You see some promise, you really do. And then the three-and-outs become numbing, and you find your mind wandering to other, more interesting things, like, how you need to recycle the dry-cleaning hangers in the closet, and clean the oven grease trap.
Compare those trends to what some other teams are doing, trend-wise. Seattle, an early-season victim of the Redskins, has won seven straight. So has Chicago. Denver has won four in a row. So have the Chargers, who incidentally have managed to score at least 17 points in 25 straight games. Even Minnesota has won four in a row with Brad Johnson and is above .500 for the first time this season, and has a chance to get to 7-5 with the Lions coming up. As for the NFC East, the New York Giants and Eli Manning had won four of their previous five before their soul-searing loss in overtime to the Seahawks on Sunday, and if place kicker Jay Feely's leg works at all, they've won five of six. If you watched that game with any detachment, you thought, "I just watched two playoff teams."
The Redskins by comparison are a vague, blurry team with no clear identity. They're a ball-control team that can't control the ball, a big-play defense that hasn't made enough game-winning stops. They do a lot of good things, but they do as many bad things -- Casey Rabach didn't just hold that guy, he calf-roped him. Or they founder in the middle of the field doing nothing at all. They've been flat and cautious when it counted most, and their play-calling is indecipherable. The Redskins' lack of any distinguishing feature, of hard edges, has become their most defining characteristic. They are unremarkable.
Predictably so. And that brings us to the most chronic trend of all, the trend that has lasted more than five years now: The Redskins are in danger of becoming consistently, repeatedly, systematically, season after season, through changes in coaches, players, etc., etc., a losing franchise. You get the uneasy sense that what has happened to them in the last few games is part of some larger, long-term malaise for which they're not entirely responsible. You feel for Gibbs and his players, it's difficult to watch all that hard work and hard play disappear into the gloom that has marked Daniel Snyder's ownership. The Redskins put teams on the field under Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer that managed to lose critical close games . . . and now they've turned around and put a team on the field that lost critical close games to Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer.
Worst of all, their chronic struggle to be better than a .500 team has not been especially interesting to watch. To find the Redskins interesting, you have to be strangely fascinated by malfunctions. You have to have a weird interest in the forensics of failure. Or you have to find their various capricious ways of losing suspenseful.
And that trend is perhaps finally beginning to tell in the stands. There were 8,400 announced no-shows at FedEx Field on Sunday, which suggests that a fan base that has been historically one of the most passionate and loyal in all of pro football, may finally be feeling a tad fed up. It's a measure of Washingtonians' devotion and emotional generosity that so many keep showing up.
There is only one way to spin this into a hopeful situation, and that's to point out that the NFL is so unpredictable that anything can happen, the games are so close week in and week out, and decided by such small margins of error, that the Redskins can still turn it around. If they cure those untimely mistakes and play decently in fourth quarters, maybe they can wind up 10-6. But it's a pretty thin argument. The Redskins are a team that won all the close games in September but lost most of them in November, so if you're laying odds on December it doesn't look good. Still, it's something for fans to hope for. And believing, after all, is the job of a die-hard, which is why you should take every drink from now to the end of the season from your Redskins mug while wearing your burgundy and gold necktie, or your Indian-head logo earrings.