And then when they finally took the field Monday night, the T-shirts went away and their true pinballing personality came out. The Redskins threw the ball on 14 of their first 19 plays. They came out of the locker room after halftime and actually increased their passing; 15 of their first 18 plays in the second half involved Kirk Cousins dropping back. The Redskins matched Pittsburgh’s clock-churning drives with incomplete passes into the ground, or missed connections out the back of the end zone, ultimately leading to a 38-16 blowout. Hogs 2.0? This was more like a croque monsieur.
Or maybe a croak monsieur. You know how many times Washington tried to run the ball Monday night? Try 12. Now guess how many attempts the next most run-shy NFL team had this week. How about 19?
“That’s the one thing we’ve really got to look at,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “We’ve really got to get the running game going to take some pressure off the quarterback.We get a little bit too giddy sometimes with the weapons that we have. … You forget about the bread and butter of this football team, and it needs to be the running game.”
But what do you do when the bread is crusty and the butter’s gone bad? This is the offense that Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay built, and they think Cousins has the talent (and the receivers) to pull it off. But can he pull it off when his running backs combine for 47 rushing yards? Will he be able to repeat his 2015 magic, when he managed to sling more than 230 straight passes at home without an interception? That’s what you’re asking him to do if you can’t run the ball at all.
Cousins and crew gave it a whirl Monday night, and it didn’t quite work. The quarterback reached 300 yards passing for the fifth straight game he finished, counting the playoff loss. Because for all that talk of assembling a physical Scot McCloughan team that mashes opponents and reeks of the old NFC East, this is a thoroughly 2016 operation — maybe the most 2016 operation. Cousins says he wants to keep his attempts in the mid-to-high 20s, but Monday night probably won’t be the last time he chucks the ball 43 times, a total that puts him in the league’s top five after Week 1.
The question is whether the Redskins can garnish those aerial tricks with even the slightest running game, just a feeble imitation of the successful attacks that still exist in the new-look league. Washington and Pittsburgh had nearly identical passing statistics Monday. The team that won added 147 running yards. The team that lost managed 55.
If that felt familiar, it should have. The Redskins failed to average three yards a carry in half their games last season — the highest total in the NFL. They failed to gain even 60 yards on the ground five times last season, an almost unimaginable struggle for a division winner. They went 1-4 in those games, by the way.
So none of Monday night’s flailing felt like a surprise. Their first-string running game looked as fluid as a block of concrete in the preseason. They’ve insisted that they believe in Matt Jones, but their lead back has now failed to reach 30 yards in nine of his 14 career games. You know who had more than 30 yards this week? The Dallas backup. A guy named Alfred Morris.
“Having a productive running game is very, very important,” Cousins said this summer. “And that’s kind of elementary to say, but it’s true. And since you asked me, I’ll make that clear. Having a great defense, having a great running game, being able to control the line of scrimmage … the fundamental principles of football that have always been there are very important. Obviously, there are ways around it. You can still throw the ball effectively, use quick game and other things, but you’re going to be more consistent as a football team if you can control the line of scrimmage and run the football successfully.”
The Redskins, by all appearances, cannot. This wasn’t just about falling behind and having to chase the Steelers in the second half, although Cousins blamed game situations for the limited rushing attempts. But in the three plays before Washington’s first field goal, they went run, pass pass. Before the second field goal? Pass, pass, pass. Before the third field goal? Pass, pass, pass.
Yes, this is the modern NFL; after Washington’s result, 15 of the league’s starting quarterbacks had thrown the ball at least 36 times in Week 1. But what this means is that Washington’s offense rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Cousins. If he’s sharp, finding his receivers on all those high-percentage quick-strike routes, the Redskins can control the clock and move the ball.
But when he’s even slightly off, as he was Monday night, there’s not much of an alternative. What are you going to do, smash Jones into the line three times in a row? Rob Kelley, the great hope of the preseason — whose exhibition highlights ran on the big screen late Monday night — didn’t even touch the ball.
And if the Redskins are going to have any chance to move the ball on the ground, they’ll have to stay out of bad-yardage situations, which they seemed to actively seek out on Monday. One holding penalty eliminated a 10-yard Jones gain. Another eliminated a zero-yard Jones gain, which wouldn’t have been his worst carry of the game. There were five false-start calls, including one on Jones himself. How does a running back get a false start? By trying to get an early departure on his two-yard journey?
Cousins and his arm won plenty of games for Washington last season, and it all felt like gravy. That wasn’t supposed to be a playoff season, and Cousins wasn’t supposed to erase the franchise passing marks.
The expectations are higher this year. The Redskins still seem intent on their bold experiment: trying to win with no running game whatsoever. Maybe that will work at some point. It sure didn’t in the first go-around.
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