Tell the Washington Redskins they can’t do something. Go ahead. This ought to be fun. This ought to be revealing, too.
Remember the old notion that they can’t win on the road with Coach Jay Gruden in charge? They’re 5-1-1 in their past seven games away from FedEx Field, including 2-1-1 this season.
Remember, for years, how they couldn’t recover when their depth was tested? Not a huge factor anymore. In fact, they’re amid a four-game stretch without their best player, left tackle Trent Williams, and they have won the first two. Can’t win a big game in prime time? Crossed that off the list Sunday. Can’t find a stable, productive quarterback? Hello, Kirk Cousins. Can’t beat teams with winning records? They’re 2-2 this season against teams currently above .500. (For what it’s worth, they’re 2-1 against teams that currently have a .500 record and 2-0-1 against losing squads. So when you evaluate their strength of victory, their 6-3-1 record is as balanced as it gets.)
Can’t rush the passer without a fearsome defensive line? They have 27 sacks, sixth in the NFL, just four off the league lead.
Can’t win a Thanksgiving road game against the NFC East rival Dallas Cowboys, winners of nine in a row and owners of the NFL’s best record, roughly 89 hours after a Sunday night showdown with Green Bay?
Don’t count them out so easily.
The point isn’t that Washington is now complete and on the doorstep of juggernaut status. The team is still several major roster moves from dominant, but the players are far enough down the road of competitiveness that you can’t dismiss them so easily anymore. This is an important checkpoint along the journey, a token of tangible progress and a sign that the chaos-plagued, can’t-have-nice-things franchise of the past is diminishing.
If you consider this a capricious football team, it’s not meant solely as a negative. The players fluctuate in good ways, too. The surest way to provoke them to show their positive side is to assert they’re incapable of fixing their weakness du jour.
Gruden doesn’t just preach resilience; he coaches it well, too. Give his team a challenge, give it reason to buckle under the weight of the task, and somehow it finds a way to improve.
It’s frustrating to watch Washington be so erratic each week. It’s confusing to see some of this team’s strengths and wonder why it can’t separate from the rest of the league. But such misgivings result from judging a project still under construction.
Right now, you’re witnessing a team in the final stages of mastering the ability to compete. That’s why Washington is in every game. It has lost just once by more than four points, the 38-16 season-opening setback to Pittsburgh. Four of its six victories have been by seven points or fewer. I have poked plenty of fun at Washington for being so committed to mediocrity, but the truth is, in Year 2 of General Manager Scot McCloughan’s roster overhaul, it likely couldn’t have been much better than this. Washington could have reached average in a more consistent and less maddening way, but it would have ended up in roughly the same place.
What’s important is that, in the second half of the season, the team is making a playoff push and playing its best football of the season.
This is supposed to be the most difficult stretch on the schedule. When you schedule-surfed before the year began, you saw a gantlet, starting with the London game against Cincinnati on Oct. 30. Washington was to begin with three games against teams that made the playoffs last season: Cincinnati, Minnesota and Green Bay. A tough three-game road trip against Dallas, Arizona and Philadelphia would continue the challenge. And when the players finally made it back to FedEx Field on Dec. 19, the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers would be waiting for them. It had the potential to be a seven-game stretch that would bury Washington.
Instead, you see a team that has a 2-0-1 record to start the gantlet. While it’s still a difficult schedule, it is breaking Washington’s way. Cincinnati and Green Bay have struggled with injuries and underachieved. Minnesota was at the end of a four-game losing streak when it played Washington. The Cowboys are much better than imagined, but Arizona and Carolina — participants in the NFC title game last season — have a combined 8-11-1 record.
Washington can’t survive this gantlet? Yeah, okay, on to something else.
There are many other inadequate areas, of course. Red-zone offense. Third-down defense. Blown assignments on defense. The play of the safeties. Run defense. (Good luck, fellas, dealing with Week 12 Ezekiel Elliott, way more dangerous than his Week 2 self, even though he managed 83 yards and a touchdown in that game.)
The list of things to improve or upgrade remains considerable. From Washington’s perspective, the mystery of this season is how far it can go while still plugging so many holes.
Washington is good enough to be in position to earn a wild-card playoff spot. Last season, in a weaker NFC East, it was good enough to win the division. But in any season, the final stretch is telling.
On Thanksgiving, it’s time to see how much Dallas and Washington have improved since the Cowboys’ 27-23 Week 2 victory. If the Cowboys are truly an elite team, it will be difficult for Washington to keep pace, traveling all the way to play in Texas less than four days after a tough game. Then again, if Washington is truly a playoff team, it will be difficult for Dallas to run over its rival and continue its easygoing streak under rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
Can Washington rise to the occasion? Or is Dallas special? Or is this really an NFL season in which no great team will emerge?
The league basically scheduled a loss for Washington, making it travel for a Thanksgiving game after playing Sunday night. But if there’s a team capable of summoning unpredictability again, it’s this one.
It doesn’t have to make sense. This capricious group ditched logic long ago.