The average score of a Redskins game this season is approximately Washington 24, Somebody 23. But do they all have to resemble 24-23 so closely, going down to the last play or final minute? Do they all have to twist stomachs like Washington’s 26-20 win over Minnesota at FedEx Field on Sunday that wasn’t decided until a last Vikings drive, which reached the Washington 21-yard line with 40 seconds left, finally failed?
“Now my poor mom and dad are going to call and yell at me again,” said a relieved Coach Jay Gruden after a fourth-quarter interception by Preston Smith squashed one Minnesota drive and a pair of sacks, by Trent Murphy and Smith, killed the last Minnesota hope. “These games drive them crazy. . . .
“My dad can’t stand it,” said Gruden, whose father, Jim, played and coached in college and was an NFL administrator and scout for many years. “He walks around the block and comes back to stick his head in and find out [what’s happening].”
Perhaps the most reassuring characteristic of the current team is that, after many seasons of collective self-delusion, of proclaiming how splendiferously wonderful they should or would be — usually just minutes after losing to a crummy team — they now actually try to live in reality. It’s refreshingly sane, and necessary, for a team that’s already had final scores of 23-27, 29-27, 16-10, 27-20, 17-20 and 27-27 . And will have more. It’s how pro teams get better over time — with internal honesty.
“This week, Coach actually had a meeting where he told us that 70 to 75 percent of all NFL games are decided in the last two minutes,” said rookie Su’a Cravens, who is one of the symbolic pieces of the new regime of General Manager Scot McCloughan. “When we jumped out ahead 14-0, we knew. We always expect it to come down to the end. You have to be ready for that. Sure enough, they dropped 20 points on us in the blink of an eye.”
True to a form that is now firmly established, Gruden seldom flies off the handle in halftime situations where others might.
“Coach Gruden didn’t put us down at half,” said Rob Kelley, who has won the starting running back job from fumble-prone Matt Jones and gained 97 yards Sunday in 22 determined carries. “There was no cryin’ and moanin’.”
Actually, Gruden met at the half with quarterback Kirk Cousins, who finished 22 for 33 for 262 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 110.9 quarterback rating. “[Gruden] said, ‘We don’t have the momentum now. We have to have a little more emotion. So, let’s fake it ’til we make it,’ ” Cousins said.
That might be the whole team’s motto, both last season (9-7) and this (5-3-1). Cousins — quite good, not great — resembles the whole team under this regime. They’re self-aware, candid about their limits and conscious of their need to grow. After this win, at least a half-dozen players talked about how they understand, accept and now almost relish these close games, provided they pull out enough of ’em.
In what might be considered their typical fashion — only pretty good, but very determined — Washington and Cousins generated time-eating drives of 55, 49, 60 and 32 yards in their first four possessions of the second half, each one ending in a field goal by Dustin Hopkins. One of those kicks was a 50-yarder that, if you’re the generous type, partly atoned for the 34-yarder in overtime that he blew two weeks ago in London during a tie that should have been a win.
Would a better team, or quarterback, have gotten more points out of those drives? Probably. But those four drives, humble as they were, frustrated the Vikings. Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford, who’d been 16 for 20 for 202 yards in the first half, including three consecutive sudden-strike touchdown drives to end the first half, only had the ball for eight snaps in the first 20 minutes of the second half. He and his offense lost their rhythm and never rediscovered it.
“I missed a pass, took a sack. There you have it. Drive ends,” said Bradford, whose team has now lost four in a row after starting with five wins. Of the 6-foot-5, 268-pound Smith and his leaping, one-handed interception, Bradford said, “Just didn’t see it. He made a good play. They brought internal pressure and dropped him out.”
At least for now, this is who Washington is — Team 24-23 — flawed but resilient, young and energetic, one minute looking as if it will blow a likely win, the next seeing Smith, a second-year player, have late-game impact. After the final Smith sack , Cravens said, “I’m flippin’. I’m fallin’. I’m screamin.’ ” See, winning games that make Jay’s parents temporarily miserable isn’t so bad.
There is fun, though never certainty, with a team that’s talented on offense but inconsistent on defense, one that constantly has to patch holes because of injuries. This week, DeSean Jackson, who’s been a disappointing non-deep threat this season, was out. And so was “co-captain” Trent Williams, perhaps the team’s best player, who was suspended for four games — for the second time in his Washington career — for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
“We’ve had to respond to a lot of difficulties this year,” said Gruden, walking back to his locker room. “All the way back to OTAs and preseason, we tried to get snaps for players who weren’t starters. We wanted depth so players wouldn’t be overwhelmed in the moment when they were asked to perform. And they’ve stepped up.”
Next Sunday night, Washington faces Green Bay, a team much like the Vikings, expected to be a contender but currently in a desperate slump. Yes, the same Pack that clobbered the Redskins out of the playoffs at FedEx in the first round last season.
It’ll probably be close. And, as always, for this growing but short-handed and only partly formed team, there will be especially intense pressure to beat the Packers because the toughest part of Washington’s schedule — at Dallas, at Arizona and at Philadelphia — quickly follows.
So, fake it ’til you make it. Expect 24-23. And tell Jay’s mom to give Jay’s dad a thumbs up or thumbs down every time he goes around the block.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell
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