About 90 minutes after his first win in burgundy and gold, D.J. Swearinger had a message. The garrulous safety Sunday night posted an image on Twitter familiar to fans who were scanning social media that morning — or on most fall Sunday mornings over the past decade, really: a television studio, a bunch of yukking anchors, and some colorful icons illustrating that every single one of them had just picked against the Redskins.
In this case, the pick was the Rams, the yukking culprits worked for NFL Network, and Washington’s defensive captain was happy to point out their folly.
“GREAT TEAM WIN!!!” he wrote. “That’s How You Go On The Road And Get A Win And Defeat The Odds!”
Well, he isn’t wrong. The Redskins were underdogs by about a field goal Sunday. About two-thirds of the 113 football analysts monitored by NFL Pick Watch had them losing that game to drop to 0-2. If you played out the first quarter of Washington’s schedule by probabilities, you would have come up with something like this: an 0-4 record, a locker room in chaos, a coach and a quarterback under fire, and a whole lot more studio yuks.
But there’s a reason so many people who cover this team predicted a win Sunday, a reason my eyes have started skipping over those familiar expert picks. Since Washington turned its fate over to Jay Gruden and Kirk Cousins two years ago, no team has won more often when it was supposed to lose. And yeah, you know what’s coming next: In that same span, few teams have played as poorly as the Redskins in games they were supposed to win.
Sunday was the 12th time the Redskins have won as true underdogs under Gruden and Cousins, two more than any other team in the NFL in that span. They’re one of just seven teams with a record of at least .500 as underdogs since 2015, and their company is elite: Those seven teams include all four Super Bowl participants (New England, Atlanta, Denver and Carolina), plus two undefeated teams coming off 12-win seasons (Kansas City and Oakland). And the Redskins. Which team is different and doesn’t belong?
“Hopefully that can be a stat that we continue to bring forth, because I think it’s something that says a lot about the resiliency and the character of our football team,” Cousins said during his Monday appearance with Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan. “The more we can try to find ways to win when people just don’t think we can do it, that’s when you can really build an identity and create a following and a support, have a city really believe in you.”
It demonstrates a certain amount of courage, anyhow. We all hurried to point out an unmistakable trend last week: that Gruden and Cousins are slow starters. Gruden is now 0-4 in season openers, and his teams have started 1-2 in each of his first three seasons. Cousins was poor last year in the opener against the Steelers, and poor last week in the opener against Philadelphia. The starter’s gun sounds, and Gruden and Cousins hit the deck.
There’s another trend that bothers the critics, too: the one about losing games they should win. The Redskins twice lost last season as favorites of at least seven points, costing themselves a playoff berth and ruining an otherwise promising season. (The Cardinals were the only other team to lose two such games last season.)
But if we’re going to hold the slow starts and gag jobs over them — and we should — let’s also give them credit for this: Few teams have been better with their backs against the wall. Maybe it’s all just coincidence, but it’s starting to feel like a pattern.
There was the upset win at Chicago in December 2015, which kicked off that season-ending four-game winning streak. The division-clinching win at Philadelphia a couple weeks later. The win at the Giants last September, when Washington was 0-2 and facing doomsday. The win at Baltimore a couple weeks later, in a game the Redskins had no business winning. Then came Sunday’s gutty performance, when an 0-2 start would have felt like a death sentence. That’s five crucial wins as road underdogs in a bit more than two seasons, and there have been more, too.
“That’s kind of par for the course with my story on the football field, going back to high school and college,” Cousins said Monday. “You have to value being underrated and trying to prove people wrong, and that’s kind of always been my story.”
That’s why I’m not sure I buy the talk about how the Redskins began establishing a new identity in that half-empty stadium Sunday. The defense seems both more aggressive and more talented. The running game was sublime. Free agent linebacker Zach Brown, who was somehow not needed in Buffalo, could tackle a cement mixer. Mason Foster made the game-clinching interception after popping his dislocated shoulder back into place, on the same afternoon I almost had a nervous breakdown because I got an ethernet cable stuck in my laptop. (It’s still there, by the way. If anyone pulls it out, you become King of The Bog.)
But even with the new additions and veteran departures, Washington’s performance felt familiar. This is a team that’s repeatedly excelled as underdogs, with the walls caving in. Cousins doesn’t fold under criticism (see his final drive Sunday, after a week of pundits saying he can’t close); Gruden doesn’t lose his locker room (for all that talk of his powder-puff training camp, which team showed more toughness Sunday?); and the apocalyptic sports-radio chatter doesn’t implode the practice bubble in a hailstorm of spittle (that we know of).
A new identity? That would require something different. Like maybe a couple consecutive strong showings in prime time. Even with last year’s Sunday night demolition of the Packers, sundown remains Washington’s saddest time. Since Joe Gibbs’s second retirement, the Redskins are 6-21 in night games, a dreadful mark that is third-worst in the league. They’re 3-6 in those night games under Gruden, with two duds last year sandwiched around that Packers win.
In any case, on Sunday evening, Swearinger might be in luck. The 2-0 Raiders will be favored in that nationally televised game. And my gut tells me there will be more than enough experts picking against the Redskins.
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