Cornerback Josh Norman reacts on the bench in the final minutes of Thursday’s game. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Thomas Boswell

Those who still follow Washington's NFL team may not, even after all these years, have internalized the true context in which this franchise should be viewed.

As a result, when Washington gets clobbered 38-14 by the Cowboys, some view it as an embarrassment or aberration. It's not. It's just what a bad night looks like for a team that can be competitive when it plays its fiercest, low-mistake football but simply gets crushed when it gets outmuscled or has blunders.

When Coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins agree that "the effort was there . . . [but] we just make mistakes . . . and got beaten," many local fans and analysts get indigestion because they hate to internalize the implications of those candid evaluations.

Gruden and Cousins are conceding that, even as 1½ -point favorite against a slumping Cowboys team, they can try as hard as they darn well please, but with their limited able bodies, they don't just lose if they make a bunch of mistakes. They lose by 24.

That's just what this team is. And likely what it will remain for years.


Offensive linemen Trent Williams and Arie Kouandjio walk off the field after Thursday’s loss. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the past 16 seasons, they are 104-147-1. In the 32-team NFL, just five teams have fewer wins. The five: Browns, Lions, Raiders, Rams and Jaguars at 76, 91, 91, 95 and 100.

In the NFC East, the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants have won 147 , 137 and 129.

Washington probably won't move up relative to the league in the next few years. They are headed down toward being the second-worst team over a 20-year period. Jacksonville has a stellar defense and Detroit, Oakland and Los Angeles have Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr and Jared Goff as their quarterbacks, while the Redskins probably will lose Cousins, so it's not hard to guess which teams are headed in which direction.

The Browns exist in a special ring of NFL hell. But if Cousins leaves in 2018 or 2019, it will start a long dismal trek down toward "Cleveland, here we come."

Washington is not a "mediocre" franchise, as its fans like to say, as if that were criticism and showed how clear-eyed they are. Mediocre would be "average," which would be .500. This franchise is, over any five-year time frame, awful. For example, in the past five years, they are 29-46-1. In the five years before that 33-47. And the five before that: 35-45. The progression, the constant cycling downward, actually gets worse the longer Daniel Snyder owns the team.

When Washington goes 9-7 and makes the playoffs, as it did in 2015, that is glory. When it goes 10-6, as it did in 2012, and gets knocked out in the wild-card round of the playoffs, that is the equivalent of a Super Bowl run.

When they win 11 games . . . well, they haven't won 11 or more in a season in 26 years. Every other franchise in the NFL has had at least one 11-win season, including young franchises that didn't even exist a quarter-century ago.

The only one that hasn't is the team Snyder has owned for 18 years.

When your entire vision of your universe is utterly distorted, you make horrid decisions. For example, you worry that if you sign Cousins, one of the dozen best quarterbacks in the NFL and maybe one of the six or eight best, to a long-term, Stafford-like contract that costs $130 million, you will not have enough salary cap room left to "contend for a title."

This is insanity. You sign Cousins, if you still can, because you haven't had a quarterback who ranked as highly in passing yardage and quarterback rating over a three-year period . . . ever. You don't make nonsensical projections about how that impacts your Super Bowl chances.

YOU HAVE NO SUPER BOWL CHANCES.

Not until you are a whole lot better. Cousins is essential to "better," even if that is a five-year period when you are "only" 40-40 or 45-35. You break your back to sign him, do your best to cope with the cap and draft like hell. And hope.

You can't build a plausible future until you have a sane view of your past and present. Seen in proper context, the previous two years of 9-7 and 8-7-1 with Cousins and Gruden in the two most important jobs were major progress toward escaping Joke Team status. This 5-7 season, with a couple of more wins a possibility, continues that climb to We Really Are Finally Mediocre, especially when you factor in the worst injury blight in my lifetime of watching this team.

Until Snyder and his team understand that what happened Thursday night in Dallas is not a disgrace, not an aberration but simply "a bad night" — the kind to be expected a few times a season for the sixth-worst franchise in the NFL — there won't be much progress in Ashburn.

Just wait. It won't be long until you hear the muttering — or leaking — that "Cousins isn't good enough to take us to the Super Bowl" any time soon. So we need to "go another way" at quarterback.

That is the kind of lunatic reasoning, based in con-the-fans fantasy, rather than NFL facts, that keeps churning out the declining cycle of five-year spirals.

Right now, Gruden and Cousins are helping hold together a team that is still 104-147-1 to its core. Ripping this team, calling the players names because they had a bad night with a demolished roster shows a lack of any sense of context. Or respect for several games this year in which they have punched above their weight.

Look back five, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years and add it up. Face the truth. Then, maybe, you can start having responses — and making decisions — that are appropriate, not delusional.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.