It was eye-rubbing late Sunday night, and Jay Gruden had to put a monumental victory in perspective. Was it his best win as the Washington Redskins’ coach? His best win in athletics? In life? For eternity?
Gruden grinned slightly and offered nothing more than typical coachspeak: “The last is always the best one.”
He didn’t need to elaborate. The FedEx Field scoreboard spoke for itself: Washington 27, Oakland 10. It was the most dominant victory since Gruden became head coach, a destruction of a Raiders team with Super Bowl aspirations. It’s the kind of victory that can propel a franchise hoping to rise above mediocrity, but only if it stays grounded and keeps improving while waiting for the lift to arrive. Otherwise, momentum gets stranded easily in the weekly, stop-and-start NFL season.
It’s crazy, huh? Three weeks ago, Washington was playing from behind, after suspect performances in the preseason and a dispiriting home loss to Philadelphia in the season opener. Now that same lost team has won back-to-back games, outlasting the Los Angeles Rams on the road in Week 2 before making NFL lovers everywhere misplace their jaws during that Oakland beatdown.
It’s safe to say that Washington is no longer behind.
But is this team good? Like, throw-disbelief-to-the-wind good? Like, cut-up-my-skeptical-preseason-column-and-mail-it-to-me good?
It’s too soon to judge because it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions on everything that has happened with this team since training camp. But commence believing anyway. Don’t do it because your heart is certain to be protected; you know D.C. sports too well to be so foolish. Do it because you were robbed of too much preseason optimism because the team started slowly and made a troubling initial impression.
Go ahead. Dream a little. The defense, which has ranked 28th of 32 NFL teams the past two seasons, is currently fifth, allowing just 272 yards per game. The Raiders came to town with one of the league’s most formidable offensive attacks, but they needed 33 garbage-time yards on the game’s final drive just to crack triple digits in total yardage Sunday night. Gruden called it “as good a defensive performance as I’ve seen in a long time by anybody,” and it was actually inadequate praise. The Raiders didn’t play well, but they weren’t flat. Coach Jack Del Rio said his team’s effort was fine. But Oakland was steamrolled by a team that played with extraordinary passion and execution. If not for two Washington turnovers — Jamison Crowder’s muffed punt and Samaje Perine’s fumble — the Raiders likely wouldn’t have scored.
“We got our butts handed to us, man,” said Donald Penn, the Oakland left tackle who saw Washington limit his explosive offense to 128 yards and zero conversions in 11 third-down attempts.
Go ahead. Dream a little more. The offense awoke. Chris Thompson, who had 188 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, continues to impress. Gruden called a beautiful game for the second straight week, and the players followed the plan brilliantly. Kirk Cousins, who threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns, was almost flawless. But most impressive was that the offense is finally adjusting to its new personnel. The pieces fit better; the effort to make them fit is apparent. There’s not as much concern about what the team used to have, not as much scrutiny of what this current group doesn’t do well.
Go ahead. Keep imagining the possibilities. There’s not much time because a “Monday Night Football” affair with the Kansas City Chiefs looms in Week 4. But even if Washington loses at Arrowhead Stadium, it has clinched no worse than a 2-2 first month. That’s not a bad position to be in considering the heavyweights on this early schedule and the previous worry that the players weren’t prepared to start the season.
They weren’t ready, but they have adjusted. Pride has taken over. Real games have increased the urgency. And this team’s biggest upgrade — depth — has already proved to be an asset.
Did you ever imagine this struggling offense could produce 472 yards without Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Reed? It just did. The defense played its best game without inside linebacker Mason Foster, who had been essential so far. For all the controversy over Su’a Cravens’s fading commitment, there is now excitement about the playmaking ability of rookie safety Montae Nicholson, not to mention Deshazor Everett’s solid play. And the defensive line rotation is starting to elevate the play of every lineman who takes the field.
Washington is not a top-heavy team with eight surefire Pro Bowl players. It has good players spread throughout the roster. If they can accept roles and remain consistent, this can be a good football team. You’ve seen Washington’s flaws. Now you’re seeing some of its strengths. But most importantly, you’re watching a team start to believe in itself.
Said safety D.J. Swearinger: “We wanted to change the culture on the defense from last year to this year. I think we made a statement to the world. We’ve got to keep building. It’s only one game, but great game, a hell of a game, by our defense, by our team.”
Said linebacker Zach Brown: “We feel like, when our guys step on the field, it’s a fight. It’s a battle. Who’s going to come out on top? We’re a confident team. We might be losing by 10, losing by whatever. We might be winning. But we’re going to still keep our foot on your throat. There’s nothing out of reach for this team.”
I’d still say a championship, or even a deep playoff run, is out of reach. But go ahead. Dream a little. The results tell you if you have to curb your hopes.
In fact, the results are already saying that Washington has been greatly underestimated.
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