“Well, you know, hats off to the [Indianapolis] Colts. Credit to [NFL rookie] Coach [Frank] Reich on his first win. They came in here and outplayed us on both sides of the ball and special teams,” said the stunned Gruden, whose favored team had lost 21-9 at FedEx Field to a Colts team that, on paper, appears to be the second worst it will face all year (unless that smear belongs to the New York Giants). With new quarterback Alex Smith, Washington failed to score a touchdown.
Gruden answered autopsy inquiries about his nonexistent running game — “a lot of negative plays” — and how Indianapolis had anticipated and negated his game plan, which included long passes. The Colts played a deep shell with two safeties and deep drops by linebackers. “Obviously, we should have been less ambitious with our deep game,” he said. “As it turned out, we failed.”
Then Gruden glanced at that TV again, just in time to see Cousins throw his third scoring pass of the quarter and fourth of the game. Moments later, a two-point conversion sent the game to overtime. Cousins ended up 35-for-48 passing for 425 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. With the kind of gifted wide receivers he only could dream of last season with Gruden, Cousins completed 23 passes just to his wideouts for 282 yards.
After a nearly perfect first half (21-0) in its opener in Arizona on the way to a 24-6 win, Washington misused Sunday at FedEx Field to squander one of its easiest early-season schedules in years. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had a mediocre game (77.2 passer rating) and was intercepted twice by D.J. Swearinger.
That assistance wasn’t enough. So much for 2-0. Hello, 1-1, with consecutive games on tap against teams quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan.
As irony would have it, and this day was packed with it, Washington’s Smith came to the same podium about a half-hour later to say, “Chemistry, rhythm, we didn’t have any of that. Stalled in the red zone. We had a ton of opportunities.”
Meanwhile, on that TV, Cousins was marching Minnesota down the field for an easy 35-yard field goal attempt to win the game on what would be the last play of overtime. As Smith walked out, he too glanced up — just in time to see the Vikings choke their kick and settle for a 29-29 tie.
So everything’s not perfect in Captain Kirk’s world, either.
When Smith checks out the Sunday scores, he will see that his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, who traded him despite an excellent 2017 season, may look smart anyhow. They dealt him to make way for gifted young Patrick Mahomes, who had a stunning performance Sunday with more touchdown passes — six — than incomplete passes — five — in torching the Steelers.
For the Redskins, this was a miserable blown opportunity. The Colts were forced to shuffle their offensive line for this game after losing left tackle Anthony Costanzo. And the Colts are little threat to run when healthy. Yet Washington, dead last against the run last season, allowed Indianapolis to amass a useful 104 yards rushing.
In other words, after playing their best, dominating both lines of scrimmage, in Arizona, the Redskins followed an all-too-familiar pattern — they had a cheerful week at practice, then played their flattest Sunday. Afterward, several players were laughing together in the locker room afterward — not the best look.
“It’s terrible. It makes you want to throw up,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “To have a big letdown in front of your home fans after that win last week — it’s tough. It’s going to be tough to sleep. But we’ve got to stay together.”
Fans booed the Redskins before halftime, then hooted them again as they left at intermission, trailing listlessly 14-3. What was left of the crowd gave them one final blast late in the second half. Those boos might have been louder, but the announced crowd of 57,013 was 21,672 smaller than the crowd the team claimed for its opening game last year against the Eagles.
Considering the beautiful weather, the lack of competing sports events in D.C. on Sunday, the appearance of Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin on the field before the game and the team’s win in its opener, this may have been the most disappointing crowd I have seen at a Redskins game since sometime in the 1970s. In fact, the real carbon-dating may go back 50 years to 1968, the last season before Vince Lombardi came to D.C. to coach the team.
Perhaps there was a game or even a few games played under unusual circumstances — perhaps an approaching hurricane threat — or in some dismal year when neither Lombardi, George Allen nor Joe Gibbs was the team’s coach when a crowd at RFK Stadium — capacity around 55,000 — was less filled or less enthusiastic in the hour before kickoff.
What is clear is that, after 20 years under owner Daniel Snyder with little success, balanced against many embarrassments, this franchise finds itself trying to regain the affection of a significant portion of its fan base, which, for decades, never would have dreamed of leaving so many empty seats on a gorgeous fall day to see the home debut of a quarterback who led the NFL in passer rating last season.
Smith is too fine and polished a quarterback — too similar, in fact, to Cousins — for this team not to rebound. But NFL seasons can get slippery in a hurry. A 2-0 start can be a cushion against lost morale for many weeks. Now that pillow is gone. Instead, a series of fine quarterbacks, most of them surrounded by better teams than Luck had at his disposal, will confront Washington.
On Friday, several Washington linemen wore dress shirts under their pads during practice. They put on black ties, too. They called it “Business Friday.” Gruden went along with the happy little stunt at 1-0.
After this performance against the Colts, put away the black ties. Search for a different wardrobe. Maybe something that signifies: “Show Up Ready on Sunday.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.