Washington Redskins: Becoming the Hunted

Mark Steven@@omstevenCorrespondent IOctober 8, 2008

“Every NFC team will be hunting for us …” - Jim Zorn

So much for stealth.

Two short weeks ago, the 2-1 Washington Redskins were background scenery. Mayonnaise. Filler in the lineup of sexier early-season NFL headlines:

Patriots Lose Brady for Season
Favre Goes Gotham Green
Browns Crash Back to Earth
We Love Us Some Dallas Cowboys
Redskins Recover from Ugly Opener, Go 2-1

Well, as of this past Sunday, Washington is a supporting cast no more.

After summarily dispatching a desperate Philadelphia Eagles team on the road, a week after turning in a physically dominating win over the presumptive Super Bowl favorite Cowboys in Dallas, the Redskins went from bit player in the NFL drama to central character in the blink of an eye.

Tune in to SportsCenter’s NFL segments and the NFL Channel heading into Week Five. The burgundy and gold will be everywhere, referenced in “I’ll tell you what” tones by many of the same experts who, if they talked about them at all, were dismissing the Redskins as an NFC East afterthought less than a month ago.

When the new “power rankings” are all out this week, see how many you can find that don’t have the Redskins in the top three (think about that...the Redskins...top three). And if you do find any, check to make sure they aren't written by Dallas fans, Philly fans, or Jason La Canfora.

(Sorry, Jason. I know these last few weeks have been tough on you.)

But here’s the thing. Redskins fans are suddenly having fun finding their favorite team getting the “media respect” we (for some reason) crave. And it is undeniably cool to flip on the tube to find burgundy and gold splashed all over the NFL highlights and promos.

But regardless of the pride we take in having our team, at long last, a central figure in serious national pro-football discussions, we’re going to notice a change in the tenor of that conversation.

And it won’t take long.

Say the Redskins lost close, tough games to Dallas and Philly, and entered this week's Rams game 2-3, things would be different. The Redskins would still be an “after the break” teaser segment on the talk shows and still generally be considered an interesting little story about a team breaking in a quirky new coach and probably about to even its record at 3-3 and wouldn’t that be nice.

Well, the Redskins screwed that up.

By smacking down two heavily favored, assumed playoff contenders in a row, on the road no less, in old-school smash-mouth fashion, the Redskins skipped right over “the Next” and became the hunted.

Washington is done sneaking up on anybody. They’re done being prohibitive underdogs (until and unless they get steamrolled a couple times, which, given the immediate schedule, seems unlikely to happen anytime soon). They’re done being the team with the spiky-haired, old/new-school rookie head coach and rangy, quiet QB with the bad moustache learning his seventh offensive system in eight years.

No mas. Honeymoon over. Even as we speak, evildoers are anticipating the Redskins' demise.

Yeah, I went there.

Somewhere, even as you read this, “official” NFL talking heads and writers are singing the Redskins praises, while secretly planning to tune in Sunday to see if it's time yet to rip 'em. To see if the team that's been so unexpectedly impressive the last couple weeks can sustain the intensity they’ve shown in crashing the NFL party. To see how they handle the role of favorite. To see how the team reacts should the underdog Rams (gasp) make a game of it.

And, since some of those writers consider it their sacred mission to first build up “the Next,” then proceed immediately to tearing it down to make room for the next “Next,” they’ll be eyeballing the Redskins for even the slightest hint of weakness.

If you’re a fan of the 0-4 St. Louis Rams fan this week (first, condolences) and second—correct me if I’m wrong—you’re looking at the 4-1, new-money, media darling Redskins and thinking, “I don’t buy it. Good wins the past two weeks, but you sneaked up on Dallas and Philly. That’s over. We’re coming to town with nothing to lose and our hair on fire, and if we take you down, people will stop snickering at mention of the Rams for a few days.”

If you’re a Rams coach or player that has an ounce of pride in your team and your profession, your thoughts are much the same. You don't fear the Redskins. You resent them. And you’re looking at them as nothing more or less than an opportunity to shut your critics up for a couple news cycles.

If you’re a Redskins fan resigned to assuming the worst, looking at the 4-1 start with all the confidence of a drinking doe at high-hunting season, you’re looking at the Rams game with the same sense of certain impending doom you’ve had since Norv Turner’s teams routinely mailed it in (and they didn’t even use FedEx) in games like this.

As you will the week after this, should the Redskins beat the Rams and head into the Cleveland game a week from Sunday at 5-1. It's sad, but it's true.

Oh, and if you’re Donovan McNabb, you’re dismissing the Redskins entirely and excusing the woodshed job they laid on you as a function of your team simply not showing up. Because that’s what you do when the downside of an almost-great career suddenly slaps you across the face.

You get the idea.

This Redskins team, with its out-of-nowhere cruising rookie head coach, unproven quarterback, new defensive coordinator, and 15-year history of underachievement broke from the gate far faster, and far more impressively, than even their most optimistic fans expected.

They ran a gauntlet almost unthinkable just 10 days ago, beating two of the three teams in their division the NFL world universally trumpeted as superior teams, and did so convincingly.

And it’s been no mirage. There’s been no smoke and mirrors—the Redskins have won with muscle, smarts, poise, and a killer instinct not in evidence around here since the climax of the Glory Years, when Joe Gibbs and Co. cut a swath through the league in their last championship run 17 years ago.

No, I’m not equating this team to that one. The Redskins have at least 14 more games to play before that’s even a legit topic of conversation. What I am saying is this: As of today, as they emerge from the early part of the 2008 season thrust essentially overnight into the spotlight among the league’s elite, they are now a target. A measuring stick for other teams. A team taking the field with "expectations," a position that is both compliment and curse.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m loving every damn second of this. More than any (somewhat) mentally sound adult probably should. But the honeymoon is going to be a short one. It’s the way of the NFL world. All week long, heading into the Rams game, the momentum will build. The hype machine loves “the Next”...and right now we’re it. So enjoy it. Soak it in.

But by virtue of crashing the party as fast as they have, don't expect it to last long.

The Redskins will take the field against the Rams as prohibitive favorites, propelled by a week’s worth of hype and consistently building expectation.

What if the Rams, under new Head Coach Jim Haslett—a team with literally nothing to lose—comes in like Dallas did in ’91, with onside kicks, Hail Mary’s, going for it on 4th-and-5 from midfield, etc.? What if they actually make a game of it?

There are those out there poised and ready to set the stage—whispering about what dark portents this game might carry. Count on it.

Welcome back to the other side, Washington. Your days as the hunter are numbered.

Are you ready?


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