Occasionally, football coaches claim that no one believes in them. Like, only once or twice an hour, usually. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney did this on Thursday night, after his team moved into the national championship game.
“You ain’t favored to win the damn game, but we ain’t no underdog,” Swinney said he told his team. “Nobody believes in this team except these guys, and they’ve just got a great heart.”
Now, this is somewhat silly, in that the College Football Playoff rankings put Clemson No. 1 in the country every single week they were released this season. So the list of people who didn’t believe in this team did not include the very most important people in college football.
If you really want a team that no one believed in, you could look at, say, Tulane. Nobody believed in Tulane. Alternatively, you could look at the Redskins. Rather deservedly, Washington’s NFL team was ranked near the bottom of just about every preseason power ranking this season, and remained NFC East underdogs as recently as a month ago, before finally winning on the road, finally putting together a winning streak, and finally achieving a modest level of respect.
“There’s a lot of doubters and a lot of haters that really had a lot of negative things to say about this franchise before the season — about this team,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said last week. “And you should take it personally.”
There might not be a ton of haters remaining. But there are still plenty of doubters. And thus, here’s Mel Kiper, on ESPN Radio, after Washington clinched the division.
“We’re not talking about the Redskins if this division wasn’t so bad, and we’re not talking about the Redskins if [Tony] Romo plays,” Kiper said. “If Romo plays all year, we’re not discussing the Redskins in the playoffs.”
It was suggested to Kiper that at least the Redskins are playing well now.
“Are they?” he responded. “They’re a non-factor. Now, can they win a playoff game? I don’t think so. Can they win two? No. So are they going to be a factor in the playoffs? No, they’re not. They’re in the playoffs because of a bad division. … My point is they’re not where they are if it wasn’t for this incredibly horrible division, and lucking out with the injury to Romo, which killed Dallas’s chances.”
This, of course, presumes that the Cowboys would be at least 10-5 right now with Romo in the fold, rendering this weekend’s finale against the 8-7 Redskins moot. The Redskins surely benefited from major problems in their division, but I’m not sure how you can feel certain that a 4-11 team would be 10-5, barring injury. And it’s not outlandish for an 8-7 team to be in the playoff mix with one game remaining.
Regardless, if Gruden needs help convincing his team that the doubters remain, I’m here to assist.
“This year’s NFC East made me sick,” Skip Bayless said this week. “The Washington Redskins won it by default. They were simply the last team standing. I’m going to say it one last time: If Tony Romo and Dez Bryant had been healthy the whole year, my Cowboys would have run away with the NFC East, then made a run at this year’s Super Bowl.”
Ron Jaworski praised Washington’s offense this week, saying that Kirk Cousins has elevated his game beyond anyone’s expectations, that Jordan Reed may be the hottest tight end in the league, and that they have every offensive dimension you need. He still called them the playoff team he worries most about.
” You know, I applaud the Redskins for winning the NFC East, but it really has been the NFC Least this year. It’s not been a very good division,” Jaworski said. “Defensively, they are flawed. That’s my biggest concern.”
NFL Network analysts were more kind, praising Gruden for winning the division and the team for exceeding expectations. Still, the playoff hopes were low.
“I don’t think they’re going to go very far,” Steve Mariucci said. “Probably one and done.”
“Let’s be honest, they’re not good enough to go far in the playoffs,” Marshall Faulk said, before adding that the Redskins could be dangerous if their defense forces turnovers. “You can win a playoff game [as an underdog] at home or on the road,” Faulk said. “That can happen in this league. I’m not going to discount the fact that yes, they can win a playoff game, it can happen.”
“Can they win a playoff game?” asked Michael Irvin. “I always say any given Sunday, any team can win, because this is the National Football League. But I wouldn’t go out and bet my mortgage on it.”
If you’re compiling a list of doubters, though, cross out Adam Schefter’s name.
“If Jordan Reed is healthy, to me they can play with just about anybody,” Schefter said on ESPN 980 this week. “I don’t expect them to have a long playoff run, but there’s very few games they couldn’t win. I’m just being honest: I don’t believe in them enough to think that they’re going to string together three wins in a row against three tough teams. I don’t think that’s happening. But listen, the quarterback is hot, the tight end is a force, they have play-making wide receivers. If they’re running the ball well, it’s a good team. I mean, it’s a good team. So I think they could provide some playoff fun for Washington.”
(Thanks to my pals at 980 for helping with the audio.)