LONDON — For the perennially optimistic, it was possible to see in the Washington Redskins’ 27-27 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday a dynamic, potent offense that’s poised for a massive game.
The Redskins rolled up 546 yards of offense en route to the stalemate. And quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for a career-high 458 yards, with key assists from wide receiver Jamison Crowder and tight end Jordan Reed, who accounted for 206 receiving yards and two touchdowns between them.
But once again this season Redskins coaches, players and fans were left with the question that has defined the first half of the 2016 season: How could so much add up to so little?
Left tackle Trent Williams, who played hurt and hard throughout, saw no merit in second-guessing as the Redskins take a 4-3-1 record into their bye week.
“You can always look back and say we should have did that, we should have did that,” Williams said. “Hindsight is 20/20. You can’t really live in that world, especially in professional football, because you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
But that’s what Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan and Coach Jay Gruden are paid to do. And they ought to start by fixing the two glaring problems that explain the team’s slide from 2015 NFC East champions to last place in the division: The offense’s impotence in the red zone and the defense’s inadequacy on third down.
The Redskins’ offense ranked 11th in red-zone efficiency last season, coming away with touchdowns 58.5 percent of the time it pierced opponents’ 20.
Through the first half of 2016, the Redskins rank 31st in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns just 40.6 percent of the time they cross the 20. Sunday’s performance was their worst this season. Of four forays inside the Bengals’ 20, the Redskins scored just one touchdown, on their crisp, efficient opening drive, with rookie running back Rob Kelley plowing the final four yards for the score. On their other three red-zone opportunities, they turned the ball over on downs (after a failed fourth and one on the Bengals 18), made a 20-yard field goal and missed what would have been the game-winning 34-yard field goal.
“We have to get better in the red zone without a doubt,” Gruden said Monday afternoon. “The window is getting tighter. I think the running game will help. We had the play on third down and four or five, and [the Bengals] hadn’t shown any two-deep, drop eight at all, and they dropped eight and played two deep and took our play away, and we ended up kicking a field goal. We got stopped on fourth and a foot on another one and we took a knee on the other one.
“We just have to continue to work and get better. We’re not going to concede anything. We understand the importance of the red zone and converting drives into touchdowns. We’ve got to take a long look at it and find our best ways to get the ball to our best weapons down there and convert.”
But there are two sides to this bleak narrative. And the Redskins’ defense hasn’t done its part on third downs, particularly late in games.
In 2015, the defense ranked 12th on third down, allowing opponents to convert 37.7 percent of the time. So far this season, it ranks 29th , allowing conversions 45.9 percent of the time. That’s an improvement over the first four games, when the Redskins were the only NFL team that gave opponents better than even odds (57.4 percent) on converting third downs.
“No question that’s something we’ll look at,” Gruden said. “Red-zone offense, third-down defense, red-zone defense, that’s something we always look at. We really try to focus in on situational football. There’s goal line, red zone, short yardage, four-minute, all those that come up in a game that are crucial in the outcome. Those are big time, so we’re definitely going to look at third-down defense and red-zone offense and third-down offense, for that matter.”
Sunday’s tie was exceedingly well received at London’s Wembley Stadium, where soccer-crazed fans aren’t put off by draws. The Guardian newspaper declared it a “historic tie of rare entertainment” in its account in Monday’s sports section.
But for Gruden, the tie ought to trigger a code-red situation. For all the promise of the offense, his Redskins are doing little more than spinning their wheels. And when their season resumes Nov. 13, they won’t face a soft re-entry. They’ll face three winning teams in succession: Minnesota, Green Bay and Dallas .
Yet Gruden was stunningly sanguine after Sunday’s tie, noting that “we fought, we made some good plays, made some dumb plays, made some things happen but couldn’t get it done at the end.”
Intolerance would have been more in order from the head coach after his team found so many ways to let victory slip from its grasp for a second consecutive week. Defensive co-captain Will Compton had it right in saying: “You come here to win. You don’t come here for anything else but to win.”
So how can the Redskins return to their winning ways in the season’s second half?
Sticking with Kelley over second-year running back Matt Jones is one option. Kelley shows rare patience for a rookie. He also has a gift for spotting holes and the grit to keep plowing, as he did in scoring the Redskins’ lone touchdown Sunday from the red zone.
“He just kept going forward,” Williams said of Kelley, who averaged 4.1 yards on his 21 carries. “He’s one of those guys that’s tough to bring down. Going to run through arm tackles, going to give second, third, fourth, fifth efforts.”
The return of Reed, who missed two games to recover from the fifth diagnosed concussion of his career, should also help, giving Cousins another big red-zone target.
Regarding third-down defense, tackling has been a shortcoming of the defense all season. The promotion of 11-year veteran Donte Whitner to starting strong safety had added savvy and punch to the defensive backfield. Signed by the Redskins in Week 5, Whitner led the team in tackles against Detroit and was second to Compton against Cincinnati.
“Just watching the game, you can see that they’re playing extremely hard,” Gruden said of the defense.“I’m happy with the effort we’re getting. We’ve just got to try to figure out ways to make some more plays. . . . We need to figure out ways to get the ball back to the offense.”