The Philadelphia Eagles are 9-1. Wonder what that feels like.
“The players right now just have that confident mind-set when they take the field on game day that they’re not going to be denied,” second-year Coach Doug Pederson told reporters after Sunday night’s trouncing of the Cowboys in Dallas. “That’s something that’s special that this group really has.”
Meanwhile, down I-95 in the Washington burbs, Jay Gruden considered the mood in the building where he works. He ticked off the disappointments: late losses to Kansas City and Minnesota and Dallas, the crowbar to the shins he just took against New Orleans. He rubbed his hand over his face, and wiped nothing away.
“It’s hard,” he said.
Gruden’s Redskins enter Thanksgiving as the Redskins — nothing more, nothing less, exactly as would be expected. You can believe the roster and the front office are fundamentally more stable than they have been in a generation, and that injuries have stunted the growth we otherwise would be seeing. You can accept that Kirk Cousins is playing the best quarterback Washington has seen since — pick a time, Brad Johnson or Mark Rypien or Doug Williams or Joe Theismann — and retain hope that he will remain here for the entirety of his career. And you can think that looking back to previous iterations of this bumbling franchise has no impact on Gruden’s team or Gruden’s future.
But if you’re a fan of this group and it feels like you have been here before, it’s because you have. This is the NFL team that, every fall, puts its supporters through wash-rinse-repeat torture. If you’re a fan of this team, you must look around the league and wonder, “Why can’t we, just once, have the start the Eagles are having? Or the Vikings? Or the Saints or Patriots or Steelers or — for goodness sake — the &%$#@! Jaguars?”
“It doesn’t matter what our record is or who we are playing,” Gruden said Tuesday.
Except that record at this point in the season is almost always the same.
Consider that, after the entire league has completed 10 games, eight teams are 7-3 or better. Those teams, be they the old-hat Patriots or the upstart Jaguars, engender some measure of hope for those who follow them. It might be muted — such as, say, in Carolina, where 7-3 has the Panthers only looking up in the NFC South at the Saints. But any of those eight teams can reasonably say, “We’re good. Doesn’t guarantee anything over the next month-and-a-half. But we’re good.”
The last time, 10 games into a season, Washington was 7-3 or better?
Bill Clinton was president, Gruden was a quarterback for the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Football League, “ER” beat out “Seinfeld” as the top-rated television show long before “The Apprentice” was even a concept, let alone a path to the presidency.
And it’s not just that Washington hasn’t returned to that point, confidently poised for the playoffs with the holidays not yet here. It’s that nearly everyone else has been there. Of the 32 NFL teams, only the Cleveland Browns haven’t posted a start of at least 7-3 since 1996. Shoot, more than half the teams in the league have been 7-3 or better at least once in the past three seasons.
The NFL is built for parity. It’s just that parity leaves Washington behind.
Yes, Gruden’s team from a year ago started 6-3-1, and if you want to nitpick that such a start was just a hair away from an arbitrary 7-3 point of demarcation, fine. If you want to say that what happened in 1997 under Norv Turner or 2001 under Marty Schottenheimer or 2003 under Steve Spurrier or 2005 under Joe Gibbs or 2008 under Jim Zorn or 2012 under Mike Shanahan has no bearing on what happens under Gruden in 2017, you have a case.
But I’d make three points: Such consistently mediocre starts set up what a fan base expects from its team; and those middling-to-pessimistic expectations can contribute to the (lousy) environment at its home games; and it necessitates runs to the postseason that are both desperate and unlikely, even if they (occasionally) work out.
“It starts with this,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “If we get these guys, then it’s a domino effect.”
Norman said this on a Tuesday in November 2017, and he was talking about Thursday’s Thanksgiving game against the New York Giants — and then the five winnable games that follow. But he could have been any Redskins cornerback from any season over the past 20 years, essentially addressing the same scenario. In the 21 seasons since they last started 7-3, the Redskins have been somewhere between 3-7 and 6-4 19 times. They don’t invite confidence. They invite, at best, trepidation.
So tell me that doesn’t have an impact on the home crowds, on their spirit and optimism. It has to. Since 1996, just three teams have fewer home wins in December than Washington (excluding the Texans, who only entered the league in 2002).
The middling starts lead to invariably middling finishes. Washington’s last season with at least 11 victories came in 1991, the season that led to its most recent Super Bowl title. Since then, the 31 other teams have produced 172 seasons with at least 11 victories, at least one from every franchise. Washington has zero.
That’s not Jay Gruden’s fault. It’s not Doug Williams’s fault. It’s not Kirk Cousins’s fault.
But it also completely absolves fans of feeling at fault for annually feeling defeated entering December. Their team’s playoff appearances are invariably scrambles: a 5-1 finish to snare a division title in 2015, a 7-0 sprint behind Robert Griffin III in 2012, Todd Collins stepping in for Jason Campbell to win the last four games in 2007, Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis helping finish 2005 with five straight wins including the last three against NFC East foes.
Maybe those runs could produce some optimism that it can happen again. None of Washington’s remaining opponents — the Giants twice, Cowboys, Cardinals, Chargers and Broncos — has a winning record. So . . . maybe. That’s repeatedly the best that can be hoped around here.
So whatever the specifics, here we are. Again. The particulars this time: Giants (2-8) at Redskins (4-6) on Thanksgiving night.
“What more could you want?” Cousins asked.
You could want a season like virtually every other franchise has enjoyed. You could want what the Eagles and Patriots and Vikings and Saints and — for goodness sake — the Rams have right now: that confident mind-set when they take the field on game day that they’re not going to be denied. That’s something special that Washington, for a generation, never has.
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