I’m not sure whether it qualifies as comforting to realize, in nail-gnawing victory, that you’re even closer to absolute misery than imagined. The Dolphins, who have traded away their best players over the past six weeks, aren’t really trying to win. Consider them effortlessly terrible. The Redskins, on the other hand, exerted themselves quite a bit in losing their first five games. Consider them diligently terrible. It’s hard to know which is better (or worse): To execute a cockamamie losing plan, or to stumble into hopelessness?
Decide for yourself. But in a 17-16 victory Sunday, Washington survived the humiliation of falling to an opponent that probably would have shed tears during the postgame prayer circle if it had won. To end a week that started with the firing of Coach Jay Gruden, Washington improved to 1-5 in this lost season. Miami, which hadn’t come within 20 points of victory in its previous four games, actually improved its record, too. At 0-5, it plods on a long journey toward clinching the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft.
In February, Hard Rock Stadium will host Super Bowl LIV. So, clearly, this game was an odd form of pre-Super Bowl hazing. The Dolphins announced that 59,808 tickets were distributed Sunday, but 20,000 of those must have been thrown directly into trash cans. It was a bland atmosphere befitting two winless teams.
For the most part, the game lived down to expectations. The first six possessions resulted in punts. Washington gained just 311 yards, Miami just 271. But there were enough splashes of good football to keep it interesting. Washington rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin was spectacular again, finishing with 100 yards on four receptions. As fantastic as those stats were, his impact was greater. He scored two long touchdowns. If Washington had been able to finish the game properly on offense, his 32-yard reception with 3:59 remaining would have resonated as an even bigger play.
But after all the misfortune to start the 2019 season, the Redskins weren’t going to win without some drama. They led 17-3 entering the fourth quarter, but Miami replaced ineffective and battered quarterback Josh Rosen with Ryan Fitzpatrick. And he turned into FitzMagic one more time, throwing for 132 yards in the final quarter and leading the Dolphins on two touchdown drives.
After Fitzgerald threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker with six seconds remaining, Miami Coach Brian Flores didn’t want to settle for a game-tying extra point. He went for two, and the play had no chance. Washington snuffed out a screen pass to Kenyan Drake, who dropped the ball. And just like that, it was over. The game had gone from awful to one-sided to thrilling, but thank heavens, it didn’t advance to overtime.
To be fair, the tankin’ Dolphins went for it when they realized they could win this game. They executed a fake punt. They tried an onside kick. Instead of extending the game, they went for the win at the end, which is a questionable decision to make at home, especially considering Miami had the momentum of a hot quarterback. It was also a merciful decision. There’s only so much of this game that anyone — coaches included — should be subjected to.
“It’s really interesting when you have two winless teams,” said Bill Callahan, the interim Washington head coach. “Everybody pulls out all the stops.”
Of the two-point attempt, Flores said: “We were trying to win the game, pretty much. We talked about it. We felt good about the play. It’s something we worked on all week.”
On the Washington sideline, McLaurin remembered feeling confident when he saw Drake go in motion. The defense had been preparing all week for what the Dolphins do out of that formation. Safety Landon Collins, who had his best game so far in Washington, said the defense knew the Dolphins had only two options in that situation: throw to Parker or a screen to Drake. Even if Drake had caught the pass, he would have been stopped easily.
“A breath of fresh air,” cornerback Josh Norman said of the win. “We’re headed in the right direction. We have a long way to go, but it feels good to get that win.”
The pessimist, or maybe even the realist, in you will declare that this accomplishment is merely one notch above the worst-case, cancel-the-season-right-now outcome. A loss to the Dolphins would have been devastating because, even as the team fell apart and fired Gruden, it still didn’t believe it was irredeemable. During his clumsy and tone-deaf news conference last Monday, team president Bruce Allen lauded the team’s young talent and made the instantly infamous remark, “The culture is actually damn good.”
Despite the results, the Redskins didn’t think they were 0-5 bad. They’re still not of the mind-set that they are 4-12 or worse. They’re still on that “we are close” vibe. It’s foolish, but that is what they believe. So a loss Sunday — which would have triggered debates about whether 0-16 was possible — would have forced them to rethink everything. It might have ensured Callahan would have no chance of salvaging this season. Actually, when you lay it all out, perhaps a humiliating defeat would have been better for an organization burdened by disturbing levels of arrogance at the top.
They will have to settle for being almost a complete disaster. They are not the worst team in the NFL, but they are still the definitive second-worst squad right now.
“I’m not jumping for joy,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We won. We were supposed to win.”
This Blooper Bowl presented a challenge to the notion of what Washington is “supposed to” do. Perhaps a proud player cannot find great joy in winning a game like this, but without question, there is relief.