And then there are the Washington Redskins.
They're just on the outskirts of playoff contention with a 3-4 record, but because injuries have decimated the roster, it feels like they don't even exist in this season anymore. On Sunday, their disappointing state could haunt them more than it already has.
While Washington was trying to fill out the roster with temps, the Seattle Seahawks were one of those trade deadline winners. They addressed their most obvious weakness by calling the Houston Texans and making a deal for left tackle Duane Brown. Now the Seahawks (5-2) appear to be ascending at the right time heading into Sunday's game against Washington, and with a championship core still intact, this could be their best chance to return to their old Super Bowl form.
It would be foolish to suggest that, if not for injuries, Washington could be in a similar position. Even with a weak offensive line, the Seahawks are superior to their burgundy-and-gold counterparts in many ways. But if this flawed Seattle team just vaulted itself from playoff to championship contender, perhaps Washington — in a less cruel situation — could have been in a midseason position to execute a trade and make itself a solid wild-card playoff bet.
Instead, Redskins Park is an infirmary.
This is, undoubtedly, the worst season to have such bad luck.
Sunday could make clear the contrast between what Washington is and what it could have been. This should be a big game — or at least a chance for the Redskins to measure themselves against a franchise that has made the playoffs in five straight seasons and 11 of the past 14. But it could become the moment when Washington — which had been straddling the have/have-nots line — retreats for the season, even though half of the year remains.
For now, this team remains refreshingly full of hope.
"Keep fighting," tight end Vernon Davis said, as if trying to give a pep talk. "Just fight to win. Fight to win and keep pounding. Stay optimistic."
When asked about team morale, Coach Jay Gruden acknowledged the challenges and the potential for recovery. Aside from solving the quarterback dilemma by benching Robert Griffin III and turning to Kirk Cousins, this might be the hardest situation Gruden has managed in his four seasons. After back-to-back winning seasons, this was supposed to be the year that Washington made a huge leap. It isn't happening. And there's no clear timeline for when the team will have decent health. It could be in survival mode for the rest of the season.
But this being the NFL — and this being a season of extreme parity — Washington is still just one big win from hope. It needs to play 60 minutes of overachieving football against the Seahawks on Sunday or against Minnesota at home next week. And it's on Gruden to inspire such an effort. Despite all the injuries, the head coach isn't exactly being graded on a curve.
"I think everybody's a little disappointed," Gruden said. "The last couple of weeks, we had a great opportunity against two division opponents, especially the home game against the Cowboys. Monday night against the Eagles, we didn't get it done, so everybody's a little disappointed. We understand it's a 16-game season. It's a long, long season, and there's a lot of games left, a lot of good things we can still accomplish.
"Our goals are still in reach, and I think we're in a good place. We're obviously concerned about the guys that are injured — we want our guys back and we want them healthy — but we also feel like we have enough good players to go out there and compete with anybody. I think morale is fine. It's my job to keep them upbeat and keep them positive, and I think they're in a good place."
On the surface, it's laughable to think they're in a good place. But it is interesting to consider the dynamic of a football team and how it reacts to a rash of injuries. The players aren't just programmed to think about the next man up. On a 53-man roster, there are always players who want more opportunity, and while they don't celebrate their teammates' misfortune, they don't get depressed about it, either. The mentality: "We're all big boys. Bodies heal. In the meantime, I'm going to show what I can do."
Guard Arie Kouandjio has been given a second chance with the team that drafted him because of these injuries. He won't pretend to be conflicted.
"These guys are fighters," he said. "They'll be all right. I'm going to try to help as much as I can and earn my place again."
In a sense, when Gruden refers to being in "good shape," he means that he still has enough players eager to accomplish something. So his team, now a massive underdog, has a competitor's chance that you have to respect. But there's quite a difference between being in good shape in a coach's myopic view and actually being a good team.
Washington doesn't have enough good, healthy players to be trusted, even in a season with so few trustworthy teams. That's a bitter reality to combat.
"I'm just a happy guy," Gruden said. "I am going to stay upbeat, and I have got a great group of guys who are all paying attention and practicing hard. The guys are going to be given a great opportunity, the ones that are going to play, and the veteran guys — the players that have some experience — are the ones that are going to have to carry us and lead. I think we've got great leaders in here still available to us. They are going to have to carry the way, pave the way for us. We're in good shape."
It's a nice sentiment without context. Here's the problem, though: On the other side Sunday, the Seahawks' definition of good shape will look vastly different.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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