TAMPA — A depth chart with no depth is just a chart, and that’s kind of what the Washington Redskins presented Sunday — a piece of paper without much to back it up. There’s no Trent Williams for the time being. There’s no Brandon Scherff or Shawn Lauvao for the rest of the year. When the offensive line is defined more by the players who aren’t dressed than those who are, well, that’s just a lousy place to start.
And yet late Sunday afternoon, Jonathan Cooper looked over at Ty Nsekhe and Tony Bergstrom in the locker room, squirted some cologne in the air, stepped into it and said: “There it is. Very aromatic.”
It smelled better than it looked Sunday, but who cares? Washington made it as fragrant as flowers. The Redskins beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 16-3, at Raymond James Stadium, and while you take some time to ponder how a team gained 501 yards of offense and scored only three points, as the Bucs did, consider also how a team that started three backups up front managed to win a game and climb to — woo, this is getting heady now — 6-3 on the year.
Don’t go too far with that record, though. Forget what this means in the big picture for a moment and just give Washington credit for what’s at the core of the NFL anyway: survival.
“Right now, we’re winning ugly,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “But I don’t know if there’s such a thing as winning ugly.”
This is how they’re going to have to do it, and if it’s unsightly to watch, it can still bring smiles in the locker room and, presumably, to the fans. On Sunday, Nsekhe was the starting left tackle, replacing Williams, probably Washington’s best offensive player, who sat out a second straight week with a thumb injury. Bergstrom was the starting right guard, replacing Scherff, who might trail only Williams in the pecking order but is done with a torn pectoral muscle.
And the left guard in place of Lauvao — who (checks notes) tore an ACL — was Cooper. The journeyman spent the previous Sunday as not only not a member of Washington’s team, but not a member of any team. Rather, he was driving to Charlotte after attending homecoming at the University of North Carolina, his alma mater. He planned to fly home to Arizona because he was still unemployed. Instead, he took a phone call, flew to Washington, worked out for team officials Monday, signed a contract Monday afternoon, spent the rest of the week in meetings — and started against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“He’s balling out on Day One,” Bergstrom said. “It’s like, ‘What was he doing on the couch?’ ”
There is no couch for these guys, no comfort. Even if they’re 6-3 for the first time in a decade — hello, Jim Zorn’s first season! — there is fragility everywhere. The linemen could laugh and talk about their newly formed relationship Sunday because Washington’s defense somehow came up with four turnovers and the Bucs gifted them a pair of missed field goals. That’s six empty trips that could have easily yielded, say, 24 points, and if that happened, the tenor of this conversation is so much different.
There’s an easy trap here: The Redskins won, so the line became cohesive quickly. There’s some truth in that. But next week against Houston, it’s possible that three sacks allowed and just 286 total yards — Washington’s output against Tampa Bay — could be pointed to as the reason for a loss. The margin in the NFL is thin by design. The margin for Washington is thinner than a flamingo’s leg.
“I’ll save the fantasy football for the guys who play that,” Gruden said. “ . . . I told our team last night: ‘[If] we win, 6-3 or 50-49, I don’t care.’ ”
And he shouldn’t. He should praise the guys who performed the jobs that the team would prefer to be carried out by other people — and coach them to be better next week.
“The big thing for offensive linemen is there aren’t prima donnas,” said Cooper, who five years ago was the seventh pick in the draft before he broke his leg in a preseason game, wiping out his rookie season and derailing his career. “Just plug and play, honestly.”
This is perilous, of course, because there’s really no one left to plug. The coaches can mitigate the damage by manipulating the game plan, and Washington’s offense isn’t exactly designed to have quarterback Alex Smith stand in the pocket for six or seven seconds before heaving it downfield. But the players who are plugged in, they have to do it.
“There’s five of us out there,” center Chase Roullier said. “And a lot of what we do depends a lot on the timing of the guys around you.”
This isn’t uncharted territory, if that helps at all. “Deja vu,” Bergstrom said. “Last year, I was that guy coming in on the fly.” Almost exactly a year ago, the Redskins played in Seattle with T.J. Clemmings at left tackle and Arie Kouandjio and Tyler Catalina as the guards — and won. Then they proceeded to lose four out of five.
So Sunday’s result is Sunday’s result. It makes for a hold on the NFC East lead. But it’s a precursor to nothing. This Washington team has withstood just about all the injuries it can, because in addition to the linemen, wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. is done for the year, and running back Chris Thompson and wide receiver Jamison Crowder haven’t played in so long that it’s easy to forget their impact when they do. (Psst, don’t tell anyone, but tight end Jordan Reed hasn’t missed a game. Cross your fingers and hold your breath.)
What you’re left with Sunday: satisfaction that a dizzying week concluded with a positive result. “Hectic,” Cooper called it. “Difficult,” Roullier allowed.
They could be better going forward because each practice together is meaningful. They need to be better going forward. This is who the Redskins have. This is who the Redskins are. They won that way Sunday, so for another week, things smell just lovely.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.