And yet, be assured of this: It doesn’t get much better than this, not in 21st century Washington football. The season began with a laugher, a 24-6 dissection of the Arizona Cardinals that was how-you-draw-it-up enjoyable. The last opener that elicited the most dangerous of emotions around the Beltway — hope — had to be 2012, when a certain Heisman-winning rookie quarterback led us to believe anything was possible.
That unveiling of Robert Griffin III in New Orleans, where he hung 40 on the Saints, was electric and mesmerizing. Sunday’s dissection, led by new quarterback Alex Smith, was efficient and monotonous. But don’t discount its beauty, particularly for that first half.
Halftime is made for adjustments. What do you do when there’s nothing to adjust?
“It was crazy,” linebacker Mason Foster said.
Throughout the NFL, maybe the only scores Sunday crazier than Washington 21, Arizona 0 at the half were Baltimore 47, Buffalo 3; Pittsburgh 21, Cleveland 21 (OT); and Tampa Bay 48, New Orleans 40. In a game lacking national-TV significance, it had to at least make people look twice and say, “Hmmmmm. Interesting.”
Now, what does it mean in three months, or even one? Who knows? “It counts as one game,” said Coach Jay Gruden, uttering the only permissible platitudes.
So let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. There is no context to an NFL season on Sept. 9, none. Three weeks from now, we might realize this game said more about the Cardinals — who played both stupidly and flaccidly, to remarkable degrees, under first-year Coach Steve Wilks — than it did about Washington. Health will still be the largest factor in determining success this season, and other than injuries to a couple of rookie wide receivers, the fragile parts here — tight end Jordan Reed, running back Chris Thompson, tackle Trent Williams — did their jobs and emerged unscathed.
But for one Monday morning around the water cooler, you can talk — with confidence, backed by actual evidence — about the best version of what Washington could look like. For the first 30 minutes, the difference in these two teams was just staggering. One looked like a juggernaut, the other a joke.
Blink your eyes, shake your head and remember: Washington was the juggernaut. File the stats away. First-half first downs: Washington 22, Arizona two. First-half yards: Washington 261, Arizona 36. First-half time of possession: Washington 22 minutes 57 seconds, Arizona 7:03. First-half points: Washington 21, Arizona 0.
“It’s nice any time you’re moving the chains like that,” said Smith, finally unveiled in full. “It’s easy to get in a rhythm.”
Now, Gruden has an it’s-right-there-on-film blueprint as to how he wants his offense to run, what a rhythm looks and feels like. On Sunday, Washington — down rookie Derrius Guice, who has such an upside but is out for the year — used two backs with remarkable effectiveness. The Hall of Famer off the scrapheap, Adrian Peterson, showed he can still bring something, using his 26 carries to crank out 96 yards and a score, rumbling for 52 yards on a little pass. The third-down back, Thompson, showed all-down skills, running for 65 yards and catching passes for 63 more and a touchdown.
They played tough-up-the-middle defense that held all-pro back David Johnson to 13 yards over the final three quarters. They made veteran quarterback Sam Bradford look overwhelmed at times, generating boos from the crowd that may head to Week 2 pleading for rookie Josh Rosen. On nine of the Cardinals’ 10 possessions, Washington allowed two or fewer first downs.
And when the Redskins were pressed — and we use that term loosely — in the third quarter, Ryan Anderson came up with a sack on second down, all-over-the-place cornerback Quinton Dunbar made an easy pick on third down, and they handed the ball back to Smith, who was adept at orchestrating Gruden’s vision.
What would that vision be? Washington’s three touchdown drives in the first half encompassed 36 plays, covered 245 yards and chewed 18:10 off the clock. There were 20 runs and 16 passes. “A great balance,” Gruden said. He’s understating it. That’s the stuff that makes coaches wake up from their dreams, wondering if they’re real. It’s not quick-strike explosive; Washington had no wideout catch a pass for more than 17 yards. But Smith now knows exactly how defenses can be kept off-kilter in this offense.
“I don’t think I saw a tired face in the huddle,” Smith said.
On Smith: He was, more than anything else, competent. That’s a compliment, because it’s what he was hired for. He completed 21 of 30 throws for 255 yards with no picks and two touchdowns, the first to Thompson, the second to Reed. Tell the truth: Did you peek at the stats of the man Smith replaced, Kirk Cousins, off as a sexy free agent with the Vikings? No? Well, here they are: 20 of 36 for 244 yards and two scores without an interception.
“I thought he was sensational,” Gruden said of Smith. And it was interesting, for once, not to have a what-does-this-mean-for-the-quarterback’s-future tenor hanging over such a postgame analysis.
This was significant for Gruden, too, for sure. In his four decidedly mediocre seasons in Washington — a 28-35-1 record — the first head coach to reach a fifth season under owner Daniel Snyder had been horrid in season openers. Not only was he 0-4, but he had been outscored by an average of roughly 25-12 — nearly two touchdowns.
So for once in Gruden’s career, he’s not chasing the season by mid-September. Now, next week’s home opener against Indianapolis — good seats still available! — doesn’t have the pressure of must-win. Rather, it looks like an opportunity, an opportunity to start 2-0 for just the second time in a decade.
“It wasn’t about the plays,” Gruden said. “It was about the players.”
Honestly, though, the plays on Sunday fit the players Washington has. It makes you think . . .
Stop. There’s no way to determine, right now at least, whether this means Washington can contend for the playoffs. But even as you rein in the enthusiasm about Sunday, acknowledge what it was: a competent, professional football team that looked as if it not only had a game plan but knew how to execute it. That may only count for one game in the standings. But in terms of emotions — in terms of hope — it counts for a little bit more.