The calendar flips in sports, a new year arrives, the evil old days disappear, the memories that haunted you are temporarily washed away, and every team in every sport is entitled to ask: “Is this our year?” Then, you must go out, often in the early weeks of a fresh season, to create a sense that things have subtly changed. You’re better, luckier. Because, sometimes it really is your year.
When it’s your football season, you get the freaky bounces, the barely-known penalties, to have the close games go your way, to stay healthy, or overcome injuries. Such things seldom happen to the Washington Redskins. At least not often in the past 26 years. But it is the right of fans, and the responsibility of pro athletes, to see great hope in early-season omens.
All these types of things, including an obscure “snapper infraction” penalty, happened in favor of the Redskins in their 20-17 win Sunday evening at FedEx Field, when a 52-yard Cowboys field goal to force overtime doinked off the left upright as time expired. A stadium that had been alive all night — perhaps the noisiest in a couple of years — exploded with hometown team cheers and Dallas groans.
After five straight wins by Dallas at FedEx, it was finally a night for “Hail, yeah!” and not “How ‘bout them Cowboys!”
Nobody knows yet if this is a Redskins year, not with a mere 4-2 early-season record, even though that mark does put them ahead of both Philadelphia and Dallas, who are 3-4 in the NFC East and looking mighty mortal. But, in today’s sports climate, everyone lives in the win-now present — and either feeds off it or gags on it. The feeling the Redskins have, after back-to-back, down-to-the-last-play wins, is exactly how teams feel when those special seasons — when you’re pretty good, nowhere near great, but also kind of lucky and very plucky — start to arrive.
It’s your year to have the other guy, in this case Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, fumble the ball on his goal line for an easy gift touchdown. This time Ryan Kerrigan did the sacking and Preston Smith scooped up the easy one-yard touchdown fumble-recovery “run” for a 20-10 lead with 4:55 left.
It’s your year to have the other team’s field goal snapper, Louis-Philippe Ladouceur, a 14-year veteran, be called for that “snap infraction” — for a minuscule movement of the ball as he prepared to snap. “I never had that [called] before. I do the exact same thing every time,” Ladouceur said in the Cowboys’ locker room.
That penalty pushed the Cowboys’ final kick back from 47 yards, quite makable, to 52 yards, where modern kickers, precise as they are, begin to wonder about the wind, which swirled strongly inside FexEx all night, and think how much they would love to be just five yards closer.
“You never know how big a difference five yards can be in a football game,” said a grinning Kerrigan. “It was damn close.” On TV replays, the kick by Brett Maher, with a slight draw, looked like it would probably have been good from 47 yards.
This game was a back-alley brawl, unlike previous years when a Jay Gruden-coached Washington team faced Dallas. “Our physicality was the difference in this game. That was the challenge,” Gruden said as he walked back to the locker room. “We kept pointing out, over and over, the way they have been dominating us in rushing yardage the last few years.”
Then Gruden rattled off all those ugly numbers one more time, as if they’d been lodged in his throat and now he could spit them out. This time, the rushing total was 130 yards to 73, Washington’s way.
Hall of Fame-bound Adrian Peterson, the Redskins’ desperation 33-year-old preseason pickup after other backs were injured, had his fourth powerful rushing night of the season with 99 yards on 24 carries. Who needs a 23-year-old Ezekiel Elliott, who came into the game averaging 102.3 yards for his three-year career, when you an aching yet determined AP?
“We weren’t expecting him to be on our team this year. He’s a Hall of Fame running back. He’s a physical freak who’s in great shape. When [injured running back] Chris Thompson gets back, we’ll try to lighten the load a little,” Gruden said. “But I don’t see [Peterson] slacking off. He’s hungry, strong, fast and he’s having a major impact on this football team.”
Part of that impact is simply an intimidating, relentless attitude as he bounces, bursts, bashes and bludgeons his way downfield, thrashing as much as slashing and turning first contact into his own form of personal attack.
One other key factor may have changed in this rivalry. Last year, the Cowboys won both games by a combined 71-33, including a 7-1 edge in turnovers. Ex-Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins had three interceptions and two lost fumbles. On Sunday night, led by careful game-manager Alex Smith (178 yards, 91.8 quarterback rating), Washington had zero turnovers while the Redskins’ improved defensive line forced two lost Prescott fumbles.
“That’s a big flip in the turnover battle. We needed it,” Gruden said. “That’s a big reason Alex was so appealing to us — that’s who he’s always been.”
Washington also won its previous game a week ago at FedEx when Cam Newton couldn’t produce a late score to beat them on four plays from the Washington 16-yard line as time and downs ran out. A 23-17 win that, with ill luck, could have been a one-point loss, has now been followed by a goal-post-width avoidance of a date with overtime.
As every Washington football fan knows — steeped in pain as they are for the past quarter century — there are only two kinds of luck that the Redskins cannot overcome: good luck and bad luck.
Just two years ago, Gruden’s team missed the playoffs because they lost their final home game to a Giants team that was resting its regulars.
The NFC East has been a muddle all season. On Sunday, it cleared up some as the Super Bowl champion Eagles lost again, this time to the same Carolina Panthers that Washington beat last week. So, guess who’s at the top — by a game-and-a-half? Yes, Washington. On tap, they face the putrid New York Giants (1-5) next week at the Meadowlands. Will that be a squandered opportunity, an “off” week, or a chance to start building a truly promising season?
When it’s Your Season — and this column is taking no such position, thought it is suddenly a sane and permissible thought — the hot and fortunate team in question should roll into New York ready to do dire deeds, involving the sacking of Eli Manning.
In bad seasons, there is no limit to bad fortune. In good years, the angels of good luck seldom rest — if you give them a chance.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.