Upon review, the booth has concluded that the 2016 Washington Redskins are better than I thought. I’m overturning myself. And maybe they’re better than you believed, too. In particular, they’ve made more dramatic progress since last year than many grasp. Any misleading similarity between Washington’s 9-7 record last year and its 8-6-1 mark now is a big fat fib. We’ll explain why in a moment.
When Coach Jay Gruden said, “We’re building something special here,” after a 41-21 win over the lowly Bears in Chicago on Christmas Eve, maybe he wasn’t just drinking spiked eggnog. The football feeling here by Sunday, when the Giants come to D.C. with a Washington playoff spot at stake, really does deserve to be “Happy New Year!”
Did I hear, “Bah, humbug”? Just wait. You may get converted.
This week, Washington will wring its hands, waiting to find out whether the Redskins make the playoffs on the season’s last day. For many, those results will define whether Washington had a successful season that improved on 2015. Is the long-troubled franchise finally headed in the right direction?
Everyone will be evaluated, especially those in the NFL’s most important jobs. Is quarterback Kirk Cousins worth a long-term contract for more than $100 million? Is Gruden the correct leader for the future? Even General Manager Scot McCloughan will be graded, although back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996 and 1997 should speak for themselves.
However, unless this team finds a way to embarrass itself as the season ends, this year has already been a big step in the proper direction.
First, candor. The 2015 Redskins were ungodly lucky. As a reward for finishing last in 2014, they got the benefits of the NFL’s soft parity scheduling. Last year, the Redskins played only two playoff teams, plus a third in the postseason itself — and got crushed by a combined 106-44. Of 16 regular season games, 13 were against teams that finished at .500 or below. The NFC East was pathetic, with the 4-12 Cowboys, 6-10 Giants and 7-9 Eagles. Two teams changed coaches.
Last year, Washington faced such quarterbacks as Kellen Moore, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jay Cutler. Only Taylor is now a starter. Washington went 4-2 against them.
So last season, though pleasant, proved almost nothing. Regression to lousy was possible. But this season has proved a lot. The parity schedule flipped. As a defending champ, the Redskins got the tough row to hoe. If the season were to end with the standings as they are now, the Redskins would have played seven games in 2016 against playoff teams — a huge jump from two! — plus an eighth winning team, the Ravens, whom they beat in Baltimore.
Their combined scores against all those winning teams thus far: The Redskins have been outscored 177-169. That’s a long way from 106-44.
Washington has faced only two lame quarterbacks all year — Cody Kessler of the Browns and poor Matt Barkley of the Bears, whom they intercepted five times Saturday. Look at the other slingers they’ve faced: Likely Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning (twice, by Sunday night). Quality quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Cam Newton (the 2015 NFL MVP), Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford and Carson Palmer. And hot rookies Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz twice each, who are the anointed future leaders of the Cowboys and Eagles.
The Washington pass defense has stunk this season. But it will also have faced 14 good-to-Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in 16 games this season. At least it has been shredded by some of the best.
In retrospect, what will probably hurt most about this season was the team’s squandering. It’s possible it didn’t quite grasp how much it had grown and didn’t take advantage of it. Everybody knows Dustin Hopkins missed a 34-yard field goal try — practically extra-point length — in an overtime tie in London to trash what should’ve been a 30-27 win over the Bengals. No excuse making, please. Extra-point kicks aren’t as easy as they used to be. But NFL kickers still make those 33-yarders 93.3 percent of the time.
Here’s the real haunter: With 73 seconds to play in Detroit, Washington had a 99.54 percent probability of winning. The Lions were 200-to-1. Then Stafford drove them 75 yards in 49 seconds to win.
Washington also had a 94.5 percent chance to beat the Cowboys in Week 2 when, in the fourth quarter, they had first and goal at the Dallas 6-yard line. Then Kirk Cousins threw a third-down pick in the end zone.
NFL teams rarely trash three potential wins when they had such winning positions. Compared with other major sports, the NFL’s not really a “comeback” league. None of the Redskins’ wins this season came after they were in statistically dire situations. So 2015 was 9-7 with total good luck, but 2016 is 8-6-1 that should have been 10-5, or better, if all the magic dust hadn’t been used last season.
Perhaps most important this year, the team has, gradually and almost grudgingly, discovered its offensive identity. It is a yard-gobbling offensive monster. Through Sunday’s games, Washington ranked third in the NFL in total yards. How rare is that? Since World War II, the Redskins have only been in the top three in 1999, 1991, 1984, 1983 and 1966. Why hasn’t all that mileage translated into more than a ninth-best ranking in points?
In part because it has taken Washington so long to realize it should be throwing deep more often. How much more? Just dial it up, Jay, and we can all find out together. According to official NFL game sheets, Washington has thrown only 97 “deep” passes all season — throws that travel more than 15 yards past scrimmage in the air. Granted, the NFL is now a dink-and-dunk league. But with six dangerous targets, Washington should not have a short-to-long pass ratio of 475 to 97.
Cousins has completed more than 50 percent of those long passes (49 of 97) for an astronomical 1,533 yards. That’s 31.3 yards per catch and 15.8 yards per attempt. No, you can’t just heave it. Every play in an offensive system sets up every other play. And surprise is a key to success. But letting Cousins air it out 11 times on “deep” throws in Chicago was one reason Washington scored 41 points.
Washington’s rebuilding project still has miles to go. For example, it would be nice to have a safety — you know, just one of ’em — for starters. But this team is close to a season that is as solid a progression from 2015 as should have been hoped. And with just a bit of good fortune this week, the fun may not be over yet.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.