In order to really get into all the Redskins-related feelings I've had since our trouncing at the hands of the wretched Carolina Panthers, I'm going to have to deal in some concepts that are common on this blog, but certainly were not originated by me. Failure demons, [insert team name here] disease, raving psychotic breaks--you know the story. Neil deserves the credit for coming up with this stuff, but what he has really done with his outstanding work on Armchair Linebacker over the past several years is put a name to the sort of free-floating ideas that are present in the psychological history of any sports team that is not a perennial winner. People who like the New York Yankees or the LA Lakers may not know any of these concepts firsthand, but the vast majority of all sports teams spend significant epochs of their history, inbetween their occasional dominant runs, as cellar-dwellers. There are few teams of which that is more true than the Lions and the Redskins. Neil and other Lions fans may argue that our 5 Super Bowl appearances to their zero makes us less aware of what it's like, and they may be right, but the truth is that the Redskins have been garbage for multiple decade-plus eras of their existence. Don't just think of the time since Gibbs v 1.0 retired--look back, before Vince Lombardi and then George Allen Sr. came to town in the late 60s/early 70s. Sammy Baugh left after the 1952 season, and really, even his last few years with the team weren't too great. Between 1946 and 1971, the Redskins had four winning seasons and no playoff appearances. That's over the span of 26 years. That's an even longer and more terrible run than we've had since the departure of Gibbs v 1.0. We know about being a shitty team here in Redskins nation.
So yeah, I definitely fell victim to a vicious attack of acute Redskins disease after the Panthers loss. Mike Shanahan gave a press conference in which he said something about "I guess we'll spend the rest of the year evaluating talent," and I was feeling a much less sober version of the same thing. I'm sure I would have (and did) put it as "Same ol' Redskins." I started wondering how it could be that, with multiple promising young rookies performing at the peak of their abilities--RG3, Alfred Morris, but also Kai Forbath, who has been a godsend for a team with kicking woes that date back even longer than our quarterback troubles--we still looked like garbage out there on the field by midseason. The loss to the Steelers was worse than it seemed like it should have been, and was marked by specific errors from our receiving corps, but there was no one issue that had caused our ignominious defeat at the hands of the Panthers. Everybody looked terrible out there. RG3 and Morris were trying, and Forbath kicked everything we asked him to kick, but we couldn't put a drive together to save our lives. I found myself repeating the words of Dr. Thompson--"How long, oh lord, how long?" How much longer must we suffer with a team that finds a way to turn back into the same old sack of garbage by midseason, year in and year out, no matter how stacked with talent we are or how promising we look after the inevitable week one win?
It's comforting, though--that's the truly perverse part. When failure is what you know, the smackdowns from the failure demons that cause the disintegration of your ostensibly-amazing offense and the exposure of every weakness in your mediocrity-riddled defense start to feel strangely welcoming. "At least I know this feeling," you think. "It's familiar, and there's a comfort in its familiarity." It's like the way that, back before I was diagnosed with hypertension and the medicine I took had the happy side effect of making my chronic migraines go away, I started to kind of like the taste of BC powder. Anything, no matter how gross and awful, starts to feel strangely welcome when you're used to it. Familiarity may breed contempt, as they say, but more powerful than the contempt is that Stockholm Syndrome feeling that everyone encounters at some point in their lives (unless they're rich, I suppose. And if any rich people are reading this right now, give me some money). Sports fandom is weird, because there's no rational reason for you to even feel any sort of emotion about a professional sports team. And yet people do--and even if you wake up to the strange learned-helplessness dynamic that exists, in which you continue to show up for the beating even though you're free to leave at any time, just by turning off the TV, that emotional attachment will still be there. All it takes is news stories about your much-loved team experiencing some surprising late-season success to get dragged right back in--into a vortex of frequently-unfulfilling stress and emotion experienced in relation to a thing you have absolutely no control over.
Wow, well, that's enough psychobabble for one entry, I should think. But the point is that I had a certain set of expectations in place after two devastating losses marked by poor play and an overall inability to accomplish what we, as a team, had previously indicated was in our power to do. I figured it was time for the Skins to fold like a cheap suit, and before the year had run out, we might even be faced with the horrifying spectre of our franchise quarterback spending games holding a clipboard while we "see what we have" with less high-profile fellow rookie Kirk Cousins. It's a scenario we've all watched unfold way too many times. It's the kind of thing that made Raven quit his weekly Redskins chronicling after the crushing week two loss to the Rams--because how much more of this can we really take?
|Welcome to the NFL, Nick.|
It's amazing to think that, within a few weeks, my attitudes about the Redskins and their current season changed so quickly, but regardless, on the day after Thanksgiving, when the Redskins still had a losing record (5-6), I was talking about playoff chances with a friend of mine. At that point, I figured that if the Redskins won four of their last five games, they had a decent shot at taking the division. They'd have to beat the Giants, for one thing, and the Giants would have to lose to one other opponent--but with the Saints, Falcons, and Bengals on the schedule for the rest of their season, it seemed do-able. The game I saw the Redskins most likely losing was the one against the Ravens, but I thought that we could still potentially make the wildcard even if we did lose that game.
At the same time, it seemed really crazy to have the conversation. I thought then--and still think now--that the Redskins have played well enough this year that a decent number of total wins wouldn't be surprising or undeserved. But let's be honest--this squad hasn't done that much to indicate that they really deserve a playoff berth. Regardless of the fact that they've been good enough over the course of the year to pull out a whole bunch of wins that would have been losses for Sexy Rexy and the 2011 Skins, they've had quite a bit of trouble putting together 60 minutes of good football. The defense is "bend but don't break" at the best of times--meaning they can make a drive take a little longer, and force teams to settle for field goals a good bit of the time, but have trouble consistently making stops. Thankfully, the improvements in both the running and passing games have led to the offense being on the field longer, making the problems that plagued the defense late in games over the last couple of years (being tired, starting to make mistakes they wouldn't have made earlier in the game) show up far less often. But regardless, there are some glaring holes in team chemistry that mean, even if we could score a playoff berth, we're not gonna make it very far into the playoffs.
But as Clint Eastwood once said, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." If we can score a playoff berth, I don't think any of us are gonna turn it down, right? If we can win the division, I welcome that with open arms. I fully expected that the two games we played in the last two weeks would determine our fate--that either the Giants or the Ravens would end the winning streak and bring things back down to earth, leaving us with only the most ridiculously outside of shots at getting into the playoffs. Instead, we ground it out against the Giants, playing the kind of old-school football late in the game in which a team strives to shut down and outlast their opponent, rather than actively gunning for a high point total. 17-16 isn't a glamorous final score, but winning by one point is still winning, and I'm happy with it. If nothing else, it's nice to see the Redskins finally in one of those late-game lead-holding situations that we used to get in a lot over the last few years in which we end up successful. I can't count the amount of times I've watched the Redskins get about 7 or 8 minutes away from the end of the game, get the ball back with less than a one-score lead, and at exactly the time when they could put the game away with a long, clock-killing drive, they fail to get even one first down, and then the defense caves because they're at the tail end of a game in which they've spent 35 to 40 minutes on the field and they just don't have the energy to hold the other team back anymore. The 2012 Redskins offense is, more often than not, able to put together enough successful plays to push the ball down the field and finish up the game in proper fashion.
And now, after a truly miraculous win over the Baltimore Ravens--who I saw as the only team on our post-Thanksgiving schedule who was sure to beat us--the Redskins have a winning record for the first time since week one. The three games that remain are the ones that, back on Black Friday, I saw us as most likely to win. And yet, since the first of the three is the Cleveland Browns, I find myself fearing exactly what I feared when we headed into the Rams matchup in week 2. It's a trap!
|Why the hell can't I find any photoshopped pics of this guy in a Redskins uniform?|
And none of that mentions what is, for the second time this season, the elephant in the room. Is RG3 starting? Well, if you're asking me, going purely by my instincts, I'm going to say yes. I think the guy heals quickly due to his youth, loves to play, has a leader's heart, and is going to find his way onto the field anytime it's physically possible. The qualities I like most about him, both as a player and as a leader of the offensive division of our team, make me think that you'd have to do a lot more to keep him off the field than give him a sprained knee. The Shanahans are keeping their decision about whether to put him onto the field under wraps, and football pundits are saying shit like "If the Redskins are good enough to beat the Browns with RG3, they should bench RG3 and start Kirk Cousins. And if they're not good enough to beat the Browns with RG3, they should stop worrying about limping into the playoffs this year and make sure they'll be in better shape for next year by benching RG3 and starting Kirk Cousins." Which is easy to say when you aren't part of the organization and are therefore able to take a long view and concern yourself with the team's fortunes over the next several years. I'm sure RG3, the Shanahans, and anyone else involved in the organization--from Danny Snyder all the way down to some random fan who posts regularly on his facebook page about the Redskins and has RG3 as his avatar on twitter--finds the prospect of considering the game in those terms somewhat insulting. I'm way down at the low end of that particular totem pole, and therefore have much more emotion invested in the fortunes of the Redskins than I have any semblance of control over what the team does. But I will say this much, and I think I speak for everyone when I say this: This isn't about longterm fortunes. Every week, when the players suit up and we head for the stadium or turn on the TV, we're looking for a win. We might say "The team needs to rebuild, there's no way we'll make it past round two of the playoffs this year," but in that moment, when we're watching the game, we want to see the team do everything they can to win the game. There's a fine line between playing it safe and giving up, and nobody in the organization is going to be cool with giving up.
So yeah, if RG3 can't play because he's still hurt, then bench him. But if he can play, fuck this "if they can't win with Kirk Cousins, they don't deserve a playoff berth" attitude. The playoffs are an abstraction right now anyway. Even if we beat the Browns, we've still got two more games to win before we can even start thinking about them. Even then, if the Giants, Bears, and Seahawks all win out, we could finish the year 10-6 and still get eliminated. Whatever, fuck it. Worry about it later. This week, the mission is to beat the Browns, and we need to do everything in our power to do it.
Not that I'm saying Kirk Cousins is terrible, nor even that he's incapable of beating the Browns himself. I don't think he's RG3 by any means, but the kid is all right. It's nice to have a decent backup who can come in and spell the superstar if we need him to, and it's nice that he's calm under pressure and talented enough to, for the most part, deliver when we need him to. But really, he pulled off two very clutch plays in the Ravens game, and did a half-decent but not by any means perfect job in the fourth quarter of the Atlanta game, so we've got no reason to think he can play equivalently to RG3. And I'm not going to pretend that we don't need RG3's talent to win games right now. As I said earlier, there are a lot of holes in the team's performance right now. We need our upsides to compensate for our downsides. Fuck any idea of whether or not the Skins deserve to win this game if they can't do it without RG3. We're sick of waiting til next year. If there's an advantage we can have, we want to have it. We want to win.
Maybe this is just another manifestation of Redskins disease--pushing anything that seems remotely positive until it screams, until we wear it out and kill it because we're putting all of our other weaknesses on its back and hoping it can save us from them. I don't know right now. But I don't think that's it. Really, part of what has been happening since the team returned from the bye week and seemed to remember how to win games is that they now seem to be taking that next step. I could name all the players who have been playing well--the aforementioned rookie triumvirate, Pierre Garcon, London Fletcher, Ryan Kerrigan, even recent injury-replacements like outside linebacker Rob Jackson and new punt returner Richard Crawford--but it doesn't come across like the result of individual effort. It seems like the team is working together. We're not perfect, but we've figured out how to function and succeed as a unit.
Maybe the Redskins won't make the playoffs this year. Maybe they'll lose a game down the stretch, or maybe too many other teams will win and a 10-6 record won't be good enough to score them a wildcard spot. But right now, going into the Browns game, I feel good about things. RG3 or no RG3, trap game or no trap game, failure demons or no failure demons, I have become convinced that these really are not just the same old Redskins. I fell victim to Redskins Disease back in early November, and I'm not going to say I'm cured of it now, but it's definitely in remission. However, I'm not taking this Cleveland game for granted, by any means. Let's hope the team doesn't either.