The day after the Redskins pulled off the biggest comeback in team history, clawing back from a 24-point first-half deficit that had fans jeering and heckling, Coach Jay Gruden was asked whether he had reflected on how things would be different had the rally failed.
“I’ll try not to think about that one,” Gruden said, a grin creeping across his face as he fielded questions from the dais at Redskins Park. “I probably wouldn’t be standing up here today. I might have done something crazy.”
Then he broke into a laugh.
As sweet as Sunday’s 31-30 victory over Tampa Bay was, it wasn’t all high-fives and high jinks at the team’s headquarters Monday, as injured players filed in for treatment and coaches reviewed all that had gone wrong in the nail-biter of a game.
Gruden knew well that the historic comeback would have ended in defeat had it not been for a series of improbables: had his third-quarter gamble on an onside kick failed; had the defense wilted on the crucial goal-line stand; had quarterback Kirk Cousins lost his composure on the final two-minute drive.
But for a welcome stretch, one that lasted 24 hours, at most, Sunday’s victory served as a release valve on the pressure, both real and perceived, building on the Redskins’ second-year head coach, his staff and the quarterback, who since being named a starter has been cast as the team’s least-bad option.
“It was a terrible start to a football game,” Gruden conceded of Sunday’s gut-check against Tampa Bay. “It really was.”
Then he turned to the most pressing order of business after game days, win or lose: taking stock of the injured.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins’ best hope for bolstering a pass rush that has been inadequate to date, underwent an early- morning surgery on his broken right hand, the coach reported. Kerrigan will be evaluated by his surgeon next week to determine if he’ll be able to play with some sort of protective cast when the Redskins return to competition Nov. 8 against the unbeaten New England Patriots.
The status of cornerback Bashaud Breeland remains in question following the hamstring injury he suffered in streaking across the field for a touchdown-saving tackle of Buccaneers running back Doug Martin — another game-changing moment that was improbable in the victory.
“There’s a concern there,” Gruden said of Breeland, 23, who has emerged as the biggest playmaker on a defense that’s struggling.
And the Redskins can do nothing but wait and hope that the upcoming bye week proves the best medicine for a host of ailing starters whose absence has hurt the team in recent weeks — wide receiver DeSean Jackson, center Kory Lichtensteiger and cornerback Chris Culliver among them.
Gruden will hold a brief practice Tuesday before dismissing players to rest up for the 6-0 Patriots, while he and his staff turn their focus to all that needs shoring up tactically.
With a 3-4 record, the list is long.
Poor tackling is the chief concern.
The defense gave up 479 yards to the struggling Buccaneers (2-4). Tampa Bay averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per play Sunday, and Martin became the third consecutive running back to rush for more than 100 yards against Washington’s much- ballyhooed front seven.
Martin tallied 136 yards, averaging 7.2 per carry. The week prior, Chris Ivory of the New York Jets gained 146 yards. The Sunday before, Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman torched Washington for 153 yards.
“We have to tackle better,” said Gruden, who intends to make tackling fundamentals a point of emphasis in Tuesday’s practice. “I think we’ll see teams continue to pound it because teams have had success three weeks in a row. We have to stand up and do something about it.”
On the flip side, the Redskins have failed miserably in their own rushing attack. The game plan against Tampa Bay called for an onslaught of running plays, with rookie Matt Jones expected to get the bulk of carries. But with first-down handoffs to Alfred Morris going nowhere and the passing game sputtering early, the Redskins’ offense was stuck in idle, never crossing midfield until midway through the second quarter.
Morris, who has topped 1,000 yards in each of his three previous seasons, has managed just 302 through the first seven games, putting him on pace for a 690-yard season. The past three games, he has rushed for just 25 yards total.
Asked if Morris remains the team’s “lead dog” of the running game, as Gruden had proclaimed earlier in the season, the coach waffled.
“We’ve got to get Alfred going, no question about it,” Gruden said, adding that both Morris and Jones would continue to share the workload. “We’re not giving up on Alfred just because he’s had three tough weeks in a row.”
While the Redskins eked out a victory Sunday without a running game or run defense of consequence, that’s no formula for sustained success. In fact, it’s the opposite of the identity Gruden and General Manager Scot McCloughan set out to forge through their offseason moves.
And that’s what Gruden must address during the bye, mindful that his team needs balance going forward. No team — and no coach — can survive on heart-stopping comebacks alone.