Tell the Redskins they stink. Tell them it’s hopeless. Remind them that the alternative to the injured backup’s injured backup is also an injured backup. Show them those little TV graphics of everyone picking against them. Tell them to give up. Tell them to tank.
Because the best moments from this odd era of Redskins football have virtually all come in games Washington was supposed to lose.
About the only highlight of Jay Gruden’s first season was that Monday night miracle in Dallas, when Colt McCoy engineered a magical overtime win as a nearly 10-point underdog. The 2015 playoff run arrived after a they’ll-probably-lose-this-one streak in which the Redskins never lost, rattling off four straight wins to end the season, all as underdogs. This season’s three best showings were all unexpected: when the Redskins won as underdogs to the Rams, underdogs to the Raiders — and massive underdogs Sunday against the Seahawks, who were not going to lose to that dilapidated burgundy-and-gold hospital ward masquerading as an NFL team.
This being the Redskins, though, the reverse is also true. The two worst blotches on the now-substantial Gruden/Kirk Cousins tableau came when they were favored by at least a touchdown: last year’s home losses to the Panthers and Giants. Maybe they needed more players to be injured. Or a mid-week bout of food poisoning. Or a yukking studio analyst planted on the sideline, reminding them that they had no chance.
“Does everybody really expect us to lose all the time or what?” Gruden asked Monday afternoon.
Um, sort of, Coach! Washington has been an underdog seven times in eight games this season, a ratio up there in Browns and Colts territory. The worst odds arrived Sunday, when the Skins nevertheless went toe-to-toe with one of the NFC’s presumed favorites, in one of the NFL’s scariest venues, and came out on top.
Fans of every team, in every town, in every sport, believe that their team plays both down and up to the competition. It’s a pillar of fandom, like hating local radio hosts, cursing out biased officials, and believing hometown players to be uniquely charming men of great sophistication.
Still, I’m not about to tell Redskins fans they’re wrong. Since Gruden and Cousins took over, this team is 16-22-1 as an underdog, which actually ranks in the top half of the league. But they’re only 9-8 when they’re not an underdog — in the NFL’s bottom third. The trend gets more pronounced at the extremes: In those four seasons, the Redskins are the league’s only team to win at least 30 percent of the time as a touchdown underdog while also failing to win even half their games as seven-point favorites.
Some of this is just the modern NFL, which for all its faults, remains compelling in its utter unpredictability. And some of this is fun with sample sizes. Washington has been a big favorite just five times under Gruden, winning twice.
But some of this seems emblematic of what this team has become: scrappy, competitive and unwilling ever to roll over — led by a quarterback and a cornerback of substantial courage — but not remarkable enough to make anything easy. When seasons are slipping away — down 24 to the Buccaneers in 2015, or down 11 in the Meadowlands last September and staring at an 0-3 start, or trailing Sunday in Seattle with a roster wrapped in gauze — they display an improbable and impressive backbone. When seasons are presented on a platter — as massive home favorites against the Panthers and Giants last winter — systems fizzle.
Look at what happened Sunday. The injury-ravaged defense more effectively controlled Russell Wilson than it had San Francisco rookie C.J. Beathard in his first NFL action. And Cousins — without 80 percent of his offensive line and his two most reliable pass catchers, in a building where the Seahawks have been almost untouchable — did what he failed to do at home against the Giants reserves last January: drive the length of the field inside two minutes for a winning score. How does any of that make sense?
Gruden professed innocence of the odds after the win, but it’s hard not to give the coach credit for keeping his team afloat in a week when fans were earnestly suggesting the Redskins rest everyone against Seattle and try to heal in time for the Vikings. (Or just rest everyone until 2018.)
“My job is to instill confidence in these guys, to make sure they understand that we can go out and compete against anybody, [with] whoever’s playing on our football team,” Gruden said Monday. “We still have some good players on offense. It’s not like we’re totally inept. … I mean, we have a good football team. Our depth is challenged a little bit, and special teams a little bit, but we feel like we can go out there and compete with anybody with the talent that we have still available.”
Apparently so, at least with the benefit of three missed field-goal attempts and 16 penalties. Sunday’s victory pushed Gruden past Mike Shanahan’s win total in Washington, and in eight fewer games, too. And his public posture — the friendly, self-deprecating guy-next-door, such a refreshing novelty in the dour NFL — seems to play well in his locker room, which has remained upbeat under the deluge of daily diagnoses.
“Great football mind but even better person,” already-out-for-the-season linebacker Mason Foster wrote of Gruden on Monday. “Guys on this team will run through brick walls for him.”
The thing is, they might not have to if the Redskins can take care of the other part of their personality: winning when they should. Six of their first eight opponents currently have winning records. They survived that stretch with a .500 record, encyclopedic injury list and all. At this moment, the second-half schedule seems far more forgiving, with just three of the final eight opponents above .500. Washington figures to be favored in many of those games. Can they stand that prosperity?
Just in case, someone better start telling them they have no chance.
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