To Washington rookie Coach Jay Gruden, the afternoon in Lincoln Financial Field simply looked like an exasperating 37-34 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles that plausibly might have been an upset victory over the defending NFC East champions. Because he has not been part of Washington’s annual psycho-dramas with its NFL franchise, he saw this as a wild-and-woolly — yet still normal — game.

If his team had not given up a 102-yard kickoff return for a score, if his quarterback had not thrown a fourth-quarter interception, if place kicker Kai Forbath had not missed a simple 33-yard field goal attempt and if 325-pound defensive lineman Chris Baker had not ignited a 92-man sideline rumble by flattening the Eagles’ quarterback near midfield, the day might have ended in victory.

In particular, if his team — and his own play calls — had been able to make just one first down to set up a potential game-tying field goal after Washington got the ball back at the Philadelphia 41-yard line with two minutes to play, then every mistake could have been forgotten and every simple sin forgiven. Even a potentially serious injury to the team’s best defensive back, DeAngelo Hall, who said, “They tell me I have a torn Achilles’,” might have receded temporarily.

Instead, three passes fell incomplete, and Gruden was left as grim-jawed as many of his team’s fans may have been borderline giddy after watching Kirk Cousins pass for 427 yards. Where Gruden saw flaws, many who follow his team may see light in darkness. Or a flicker. Something a lot better than a 3-13 record. How bad can NFL life be if you go toe-to-toe with your division’s best and scare ’em silly?

“I like the way we battled back. . . . We flexed our muscles a little bit in the second half when we were 10 points down. . . . I’m very proud of Kirk — the way he played and the way he battled,” Gruden said of his backup quarterback, who threw for three touchdowns and a 103.4 quarterback rating in place of injured Robert Griffin III. “But in the end, we all had a hand in this [defeat], the coaches, too. . . .Very frustrating, very disappointing.”

Luckily for Gruden, he lacks a sense of context. For him, the world is a disappointing 1-2 record in a season when, with fewer mental mistakes and special teams blunders, his team could be 3-0.

What he may not grasp is how abysmally demoralizing 2013 was for a city that obsesses over his team. In that 3-13 year, which ended with eight straight defeats and the firing of coach Mike Shanahan, Washington seemed determined to suck the joy and excitement — as well as any chance for victory — out of its weekly NFL battles and replace them with dreary intrigue. Now, instead of venom splashing between the owner and the coach, D.C. actually gets to look at a tough loss and perhaps see some progress.

The brightest light was Cousins, who completed 30 of 48 passes in one of the NFL’s most hostile environments. Cousins can insist, as he did last week after the 41-10 victory over Jacksonville in which Griffin dislocated his ankle, that “this is Robert’s team.” But if any quarterback plays well enough, ownership can change.

One of Griffin’s biggest challenges has been getting deep passes to his long-ball threats. On Sunday, Cousins — and Gruden with his game planning — seemed content to stick to short, safe passes after quick reads. But the handcuffs gradually came off. And Cousins went deep.

The most memorable of his five completions to ex-Eagle DeSean Jackson was an 81-yard scoring strike behind the Philadelphia secondary that tied the score at 27 late in the third quarter. The flamboyant Jackson danced into the end zone running backward, then did a mocking “fly, Eagles, fly” flap with both arms — the same way he used to tweak Washington when he infiltrated its end zone.

That moment silenced the crowd temporarily but may have inflamed the Eagles. Just seven minutes later, with the score still tied, Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles threw a pass near midfield that Washington appeared to intercept. Replay later showed the pass fell incomplete. But both teams played on — oh, did they. The enormous Baker spotted Foles nearby and, in a long-running NFL tradition, used the accidental interception-return meeting to — “oh, I’m sorry, did I do that?”— flatten Foles.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Baker maintained afterward, simply considering Foles an Eagle very much in need of being blocked. Others, perhaps even most of mankind, differed with his view — including officials who gave him a 15-yard penalty and threw him out of the game.

Suddenly, almost all 92 uniformed employees of the two contestants decided to shove, punch ineffectively, curse and grab one another’s face masks in an enormous mastodon mating dance. The victors, it is said, get to write the history books. That’s how it works in Philadelphia, for sure.

“Yeah, if you see your quarterback get hit in a dirty way — it was obviously dirty — that kind of charged us up,” Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said. “It fired us up, especially the offensive linemen.”

Foles lay motionless for some time. “I thought the guy [Bashaud Breeland who might have intercepted his pass] was down, so that’s why I wasn’t looking for anyone,” said Foles, who definitely wasn’t looking for a large condominium about to collide with him. “The next thing I know, I’m just obliterated.”

Foles, who wasn’t knocked out, merely blasted in the ribs, got up and led the Eagles to a 34-27 lead with a 27-yard bullet of a scoring strike over the middle to Jeremy Maclin. The wide receiver had slipped behind Brandon Meriweather, the unsafe safety who was victimized on two touchdown passes. Baker has no reputation for dirty play. The same can’t be said of the often-penalized, fined and suspended Meriweather who, if he couldn’t play dirty, couldn’t play at all.

The NFL has been in the spotlight for several years for various image-tarnishing issues, many of them serious, from an epidemic of concussions among players to recent problems — and ineffectual league responses — to players charged with domestic and child abuse.

Large players insulting each other, vowing dire retribution for symbolic affronts and generally engaging in traditional football fun presumably isn’t within the current clean-up-the-game purview. Or as Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo said, “That’s just NFC East football. That’s how it be sometimes.”

Last year, Washington could seldom be accused of actually engaging in “NFC East football” — at least the intensely competitive kind. This game, against the clear front-runner in the division, showed the new Gruden team in a far better light.

The emergence of Cousins as a genuine rival for Griffin — and this makes two impressive showings in a row — will create controversy around the team but within the organization itself almost certainly will be seen as a wonderful embarrassment of riches. Just a week ago, Cousins came to a postgame news conference dressed casually. On Sunday, he arrived in a dark suit, white shirt and burgundy tie. Part of the difference in attire is due to home vs. road dress norms. But the suit was eloquent.

So was Cousins when he picked apart his fourth-quarter interception. “If I had it to do over, I’d throw it to Andre Roberts standing all by himself in the flat,” he said. Cousins added that he would work to remove such poor decisions “so two years from now those mistakes aren’t still there. . . .

“We did a great job battling. We just came up short at the end. And there’s nobody to blame there but me.”

Harsh, far too harsh. It’s unlikely that even one of the 45 other men on his team would agree.

By the end of last season, many wondered whether imagining this franchise “in two years” was an exercise in being a fan or a masochist. On days like this, even in defeat, even in a game full of goofy screw-ups and ugly sideline rumble, the future again looks like a place that Washington, its football team and its new coach might want to venture together.

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