BALTIMORE — Football is back! Huzzah and hurrah, football has arrived! Professional football — our prized autumn diversion, our soap opera in shoulder pads, our gladiators on grass — has finally, lovingly arrived. And, huh, actually, this initial rendition was kind of awful.
There are two ways to interpret the Washington Redskins’ long-awaited return to the field Thursday night, a 23-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Maybe the whole thing meant absolutely nothing — not in the grander we’re-all-gonna-die sense but in the first-preseason-games-are-pointless sense. In that reading, let’s hope you only checked in on the Redskins and Ravens during baseball commercial breaks. (Please see D1 for more on the Nats’ 3-2 win, and sheesh, how about that bullpen?)
But if you put any stock at all in what happened on the (football) field, you’d have to be at least mildly disappointed. By Washington’s first-team offense — or much of it, anyhow — losing one yard on six plays and failing to gain a first down. By Washington’s first- and second-string offensive linemen getting pushed around and blitzed into confusion. By the offense needing nearly 13 minutes to get its initial first down and finishing the first half with 47 yards on 27 plays.
By outside linebacker Trent Murphy, already suspended the first four games of the regular season, spraining his left knee and leaving on crutches. By safety Su’a Cravens also needing a knee MRI. By free agent defensive lineman Stacy McGee getting penalized for illegal formation on a missed field goal attempt, which led to a Baltimore touchdown. By backup quarterback Colt McCoy throwing a second-quarter interception. By rookie running back Samaje Perine fumbling and then dropping a pass on consecutive plays. By the stadium being out of both veggie dogs and veggie patty sandwiches. By the great books you might have read over those three hours.
“We didn’t play very well,” Coach Jay Gruden said, accurately. “To start, not a good start.”
The Redskins, in fact, looked as sloppy as they had in last season’s preseason opener, when they committed 14 penalties for 123 yards and averaged just over three yards a carry. This time around, it was seven penalties for 91 yards and an average of barely two yards a carry. They converted 2 of 13 third downs. They fumbled three times, and nearly had a fourth that was overturned by replay. They looked like day campers on the first morning of summer, before the name tags arrived: like none of them had ever met.
“I think it’s a realization that we’ve got a long way to go,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose postgame media session lasted longer than his time on the field. “In the long run it’s probably a good thing, [but] obviously we don’t want it to persist through the preseason. It needs to be fixed.”
You’d be tempted to think none of this matters — in the football sense, not the existential sense — except for how the Redskins started the 2016 regular season. They looked anemic in back-to-back home losses against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, losses that had them chasing the season until that final January disappointment against the New York Giants. An NFL campaign is far too short to allocate two weeks toward finding your groove.
To be fair, Cousins and his first-team offense were without starting tight end Jordan Reed and key wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson. (And, also, they had just six plays. Please don’t draw conclusions about six plays.) But as we’ve plotted out this coming season, there’s been an increasingly confident assumption that the fulcrum will be Washington’s rebuilt defense, and just how much it can improve over last year’s ineffective unit. There has been optimism about the deeper defensive line, and the depth at safety, and the young talent acquired over the past two drafts. If the defense can only be adequate…
The corresponding assumption is that Washington’s offense will maintain its pace, even after it lost its offensive coordinator and play-caller in Sean McVay, even after it said goodbye to a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, even with running back Robert Kelley struggling in 2016’s final weeks. Thursday night’s (incredibly brief) (practice) (not real) (how can they charge money for this) exhibition isn’t a reliable barometer, but if the offense takes even a half-step back this season, that could offset the presumed defensive gains.
And so, will the three injured receivers be at full strength for the opener? Will Gruden need a few weeks to settle into his new play-calling duties? Will Kelley rediscover his form? They’re fair questions, anyhow.
That’s still no reason to flirt with disaster in a game like this, even as Gruden has wrestled the perennial question: whether creating a positive impression is worth the injury risk. In this first week, his answer was obviously no.
“If you ask me what keeps me up at night, that’s what keeps me up at night, because I can’t be right,” he told a radio program during the week. “If I play ’em too much and somebody gets hurt, I’m an idiot. If I don’t play ’em enough and we come out flat Week 1 [of the regular season], then I’m an idiot. So that’s the fine line.”
And even with this offensive dud, there were still the requisite bursts of optimism. First-round draft pick Jonathan Allen — working against Baltimore backups — showed both a burst and persistence in recording his first (preseason) (practice) (not real) sack. Free agent linebacker Zach Brown zipped from side to side; he seems certain to make an impact. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, so shaky at the end of 2016, hit a 49-yard field goal. The weather was perfect. And hey, how about that Kintzler-Madson-Doolittle trio?
Look, none of this matters until it does. Cornerback Josh Norman spoke for all of this about this brush with sort-of-football, this brief whiff of something that smelled right but looked very wrong.
“You get set up, you know?” he said. “You get up set up for that cake you think you’re about to eat, and then you can’t devour it. Like, it sucks. That’s kind of how I feel.”
He’s right, and you’ll forget about this game soon enough. But the Redskins have never won a regular season opener under Gruden. They have never had a winning record through three games under Gruden. They fall behind in September, and then they chase.
So welcome back, football. Sure, we’ve missed you. But maybe next time you can look a tad more put-together.
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