The problem for the 2018 version of this team isn’t that it played such a bad second game — at home, no less — that it wiped away all the good feelings of an emphatic Week 1 victory. It’s that, as the players and coaches prepare for just the third of a 16-game slate, they also must deal with public doubt and disbelief, which are seemingly unconquerable foes for this franchise. They can’t just be one of about two dozen teams trying to figure out identity and consistency in a sport that lives off week-to-week mood swings. After so much failure and bad press and loss of faith, Washington is trapped in an existential crisis, and the burden is on this squad to get better, make the people following it feel better and do it before all the pent-up anger and pessimism pummels the hope that existed just a week ago.
It will be this way until Washington shows it can repeat success under owner Daniel Snyder. And it seems as if the most important fight for stability in the Snyder era has begun. The fan base, or at least the paying portion of it, is eroding, and the team can’t mask it anymore. The empty seats at FedEx Field became a national story last Sunday when the crowd for the home opener was announced at 57,013, the lowest season-starting audience in the team’s 21 years in the stadium.
Brian Lafemina, the new president of business operations, is trying to improve Washington’s game-presentation methods, and by being honest about some of the problems, he’s also appealing to the humanity of the burgundy-and-gold population. Sometimes it’s best to minimize the arrogance, come to the masses with humility and ask for help. There’s a sense that the franchise is listening now and willing to change for the people instead of assuming it always knows what’s best for them.
Right now, the team may seem like a laughingstock for having to own up to its problems, but in the long run, the transparency could be a good thing. But a piece of advice: Don’t recoil at the current criticism and get caught in a lie trying to soften the negativity by inflating the home attendance moving forward. Such a tactic would ruin any goodwill that honesty could create.
On Sunday, the crowd will be a story again because Green Bay fans travel as well as anyone in sports, and if Washington doesn’t play well, they will be much louder than the Indianapolis Colts fans whose cheers stood out late in the game last week. But this is what happens when a franchise both loses and humiliates itself with drama and dysfunction over a long period of time. If the organization is finally serious about making a correction, there is no shame in admitting the truth and opening the curtains during the transformation.
Of course, the big picture doesn’t exactly concern the current team. It just wants a win to erase the negativity of that 21-9 loss to Indianapolis. The schedule is getting tougher: The next three opponents (Green Bay, New Orleans and Carolina) have playoff track records and superior overall talent. There’s a legitimate risk of a slow start that would turn the job statuses of Coach Jay Gruden and President Bruce Allen into huge stories. But Gruden has done some of his best work during tense times. And while you know the team’s awful modern history, this season is young, and this 1-1 team has one dominant performance on its résumé. Every low makes the conversation turn dire around here. But it’s laughable to panic at this point.
“I don’t think anybody jumped to any conclusions after a Week 1 victory at Arizona,” Gruden said of his team. “We were happy about it, getting our first win, but we know it’s a long season, and a lot is going to happen. There’s going to be a lot of different types of adversity that we are going to hit throughout the year — injuries, wins and losses — and we’ve got to handle it better.
“We are still early in the season as far as finding our identity and what we are good at, especially on offense, but we’re working towards that. We feel pretty good about where we are from a skills standpoint, and now it’s about getting them in the right spots, getting them more comfortable and converting on third downs. I think it’s always going to be a work in progress. Each week is a different challenge.”
If you’re going to read too much into two games, it’s only fair to include this positive nugget: Washington, a bottom-feeding NFL defense for most of the past decade, entered Week 3 leading the league in total defense, allowing just 247 yards per game. Both Arizona and Indianapolis failed to reach 300 yards against Washington. Only the Los Angeles Rams, who have superhumans on defense, have allowed fewer points than Washington.
Sure, it’s easy to counter: The Cardinals and Colts figure to struggle against most defenses this season. But the point is that one overreaction doesn’t carry more or less legitimacy to another overreaction. You can talk about the lack of sacks; I can tell you that the defense is allowing just 161 passing yards, stingiest in the NFL, and if the objective is to limit passing offenses, the players are doing fine.
If Washington continues to lack identity and a vertical passing game on offense, it will suffer greatly this season. On the other hand, if the defense continues to play with the best in the league, the team will be highly competitive even if the offense struggles.
After two weeks, the only conclusion to make is that you should let more of the season play out before making any conclusions. That’s reasonable, but because Washington has been down for so long, it’s almost impossible.
So every unstable week feels like the future of the franchise is at stake. It’s the great thing about following a fickle team with a mercurial recent track record. And it’s the absolute worst thing about following a fickle team with a mercurial recent track record.
But, hey, if the franchise can still get you to watch — in the stadium or at home — that’s probably better than it deserves right now.