LONDON — In its continuing efforts to woo a British audience, the NFL is stunningly transparent. It doesn’t flirt with lies. It doesn’t present only the most virtuous representatives of its product. If it did, the Washington Redskins surely wouldn’t be here.
Look at the cross section of NFL reality offered in recent London games. The Jacksonville Jaguars, a hairball in the league’s stomach, are an annual featured attraction. A year ago, the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, came across the pond. The New England Patriots, the sport’s current standard-bearer, visited four years ago. The Dallas Cowboys, supposedly America’s team, has stopped by recently, too. And this year, the Los Angeles Rams made a trip, fresh off relocation from St. Louis.
On Sunday, however, Washington will provide the truest glimpse of the NFL, at least in 2016, when it plays the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium. Daniel Snyder’s franchise is absolutely the average NFL team right now.
Washington is the Middle America of the league. It is drenched in okay: The talent is okay, the coaching is okay, the overall direction of the franchise is okay. After this game, the season will arrive at its midpoint, and it has been every bit the walkway to the future that it was designed to be. On the field, the players are the defending NFC East champions, and they hope to have enough pieces to continue the momentum into another postseason. But right now, they’re stuck in the quicksand of mediocrity.
“We’re a 50-50 team,” linebacker Will Compton likes to say. “And that’s not a good place to stay.”
Half the time, they’ll impress. Half the time, they’ll frustrate. Layers upon layers of that mediocrity neutralize them. The NFL is a force that pulls all its teams to the middle, and Washington is the perfect example. When the players start trailing, they have the ability to catch up. When they start to get ahead, they stumble and fall back. They are exactly what their record indicates. At 4-3, they have survived an 0-2 start and enjoyed a four-game winning streak, but last week, they weren’t good enough to extend it to five. They had a chance to improve to 5-2 and get way ahead, but a sobering and heartbreaking loss at Detroit showed they’re not ready for prosperity.
Now comes another chance to finish the first half above .500. It seems essential to Washington’s playoff hopes. After next week’s bye, it plays the toughest part of its schedule. The next five opponents — Minnesota (5-1), Green Bay (4-2), Dallas (5-1), Arizona (3-3-1) and Philadelphia (4-2) — have a combined record of 21-9-1. The last three games of that cluster are on the road. Washington already trails Dallas by two games in the division. Despite a winning record, it is tied with the New York Giants for last place.
At roughly this point a year ago, Washington was about to show dramatic improvement. It had posted its largest comeback ever in a 31-30 victory over Tampa Bay in Week 7, and though it would lose its next game to New England and fall to a 3-5 record, the team was ready to rise from bad to good. A poor division helped, but Washington still went 6-2 in the second half to win the NFC East.
That run represented a developmental uptick, but the franchise has been in neutral since. In mid-August, Coach Jay Gruden stopped practice to scold his team and declare that mediocrity wouldn’t be accepted. However, he has had to digest plenty of it. Can Gruden inspire his team to take another developmental step? Or will “meh” remain the default reaction?
Gruden preaches resilience publicly, preferring to praise his players for competing through their mistakes rather than constantly calling them out for them. But in private, the players will tell you that the message is much sterner. The demands of the coaches are much higher. The players hold themselves accountable, too.
Still, there’s not enough experienced talent to produce fast results. And for as much as the organization has improved with Scot McCloughan as the general manager and Gruden as a competent young coach, there remains a disheveled manner about the franchise that contributes to the inconsistency. There are still some random loose ends to the way Washington functions. You see it in their struggles to find an identity. Do they want to pass and play finesse? Or be physical and defensive-minded? You see it in some of the mismatched personnel. And you see it on Sundays, when the team vacillates between giving playing time to players who aren’t ready for big roles (i.e. Matt Jones) and utilizing the proper personnel for right now.
Midway through the second season of a general manager’s rebuilding effort, Washington is in a fine position. But this is a sport of weekly evaluation, and it’s no fun to witness how slow progress can be. Climbing from average to consistently good is an incredible task in the NFL. The only thing harder is the final step — becoming great.
How long will Washington be stuck in mediocrity? The way this season ends will be the best indicator. There’s plenty of reason for optimism, but there’s also this: The franchise’s prime leaders, including McCloughan, haven’t been in charge before to see through a process like this. McCloughan is praised for accumulating great talent from 2005 to 2009 that San Francisco eventually won with, but he was gone before the 49ers became a contender. He has contributed to building championship clubs, but he’s never led a project from foundation to welcome mat. Everyone has something to prove.
On Sunday, the average NFL team plays the Bengals (3-4) in another game that figures to be good and bad and then decided at the end. To get ahead in the season, Washington needs this win badly. And that’s the frightening part, because this is exactly when the magnet likes to pull the team back to NFL reality.
Enjoy, London. This is the league at its mercurial zenith. This is the league at its most authentic.