The old NFL saw that says every NFL game counts the same in the standings is true, but it’s also true that not every game counts the same in determining the arc of a season.
One could make the case, for instance, that the only measurable impact of the Washington Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night will be determining whether they head into the 2008 season's stretch run at 6-4 or 7-3. But that would be tunnel vision.
The Redskins aren’t going to play just another game this weekend. They aren’t going to play just another division game. They’re not even going to play just another division game against their fiercest rival. Way I see it, they’re going to play the 2008 season’s defining game.
Overstating the case? You decide.
The Redskins recovered quickly from their season-opening clunker against the NY Giants, sprinting to a 4-1 start. They earned solid consecutive road wins over two favored division opponents along the way, and in doing so, reset the expectations bar for head coach Jim Zorn’s debut season.
Back in August, the idea of a start like that would have slapped a goofy grin on even the dourest Redskins fan's mug. After Washington dispatched Philadelphia on the road to go 4-1, with three “beatable opponents” in a row upcoming on their schedule, any lid there might have been on 2008 expectations blew off.
With the winless St. Louis Rams coming to town, all was right in the Redskins universe, and while fans didn’t do it openly (much), I suspect more than a few found themselves entertaining January dreams.
A slow return to earth began that next week, with the self-immolation home loss to the Rams in which the Redskins quite literally let a game they dominated slip through their fingers. Then came two, shall we say, less-than-artful wins over Cleveland and Detroit. The Redskins won behind solid defense and just enough offense, but neither was the kind of game likely to end up in your permanent DVD library.
And then, at 6-2 and facing their first Big Stage game since the opener, they slipped on a black and yellow banana peel on Monday Night Football. The thud you heard was Redskins Nation’s 2008 expectation level...re-adjusting. Remember the feeling right after the Philadelphia game, as surprise turned to elation turned to brimming, exuberant confidence? I won’t say it’s gone...but it can see gone from here.
The Redskins had an opportunity on the national stage last Monday night to announce their arrival to themselves and to the world. To prove they were a contender this season, despite all the odds arrayed against it. Instead, agonizingly, they wilted under the bright lights and pressure of the big stage. They could not summon that one last ounce of energy, or that one last bit of focus, that inevitably spell the difference in big games.
Defensively they were stellar...until they weren’t, when it mattered most. They dropped another potential game-changing interception; one that had touchdown and a 13-3 second quarter lead written all over it.
And, in an ironic twist of fate, they knocked Steelers starting QB Ben Roethlisberger out of the game, only to see his backup, DC’s own Byron Leftwich, come out firing with a “nothing to lose, let it fly” mentality...and couldn’t stop him.
Offensively, the Redskins were bested mentally and physically all night. We’ll never know how much of that was attributable to their own poor play, or how much was Pittsburgh simply playing lights out, but the result were the same. Washington was unable to sustain drives, nor make the “big play”—the kind of play that instantly changes the complexion of a game.
And so they lost. Convincingly. And suddenly the 6-3 record, given the heightened expectations just a month ago, looks a whole lot better in print than it feels in the gut.
Which brings us to Dallas. At home. Once again under the bright national lights.
My instinct is telling me that how they come out of this one will set the tone for the rest of the season.
If the Redskins lose, it will confirm what I’m sure many, like me, are quietly fearing; that the 6-2 start was misleading. That while it showed the team has the personnel to be a contender, the early success gave a false impression they could sustain that level in 2008.
And I think it would portend a weekly scratch and claw battle just to qualify for the playoffs as low-seed wild card.
Not bad considering preseason expectations, but a definite letdown given the early power play.
If the Redskins play well and beat the Cowboys, however, and show signs of coming out of the offensive shell (funk?) they have settled into the last few weeks, at 7-3 and having finally cleared the “big game” hurdle, they’re right smack dab back in the middle of things. Re-energized. Walking tall. Looking good. And, barring a total collapse, right on the Giants’ heels, fighting for the NFC East title until the snow flies.
Okay, so maybe I've convinced you it's a big game. Duh, right? What matters now is how are they are going to win it.
I wrote last week that for the Redskins to beat Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell was going to have to raise his game. He did not. Surprisingly, he regressed, playing his worst football since opening night.
And it wasn’t just about the pass rush, either. Sure Pittsburgh pressed him—it’s what they do, and they’re good at it. Thing is, Dallas tried that back in week four, too. Only in that game Campbell made the Cowboys pay for it, stepping up, avoiding pressure and hitting passes downfield until he forced them to back off.
Against the Steelers, Jason had opportunities to beat the pressure as well, he just didn’t make the plays. Most glaringly, he badly under threw an open Santana Moss at the goal line on the Redskins' second possession, after Cornelius Griffin’s interception set them up at the Cowboys 30-yard line, already holding 3-0 lead.
Had he been on target, the Redskins would have been up 10-0, with all the confidence and momentum in the world, and we might be talking about a very different game this week. And it wasn’t just that play, either. Jason simply had a bad night, mentally and physically.
Well, he has a chance Sunday night to show it was an anomaly. Because like he was against Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell is again the Redskins key to winning.
Particularly so given that Clinton Portis, if he plays at all, will be at less than full speed.
Particularly so because the same seeds of doubt about how good this 2008 really is that many fans are feeling right now are probably finding purchase in the locker room as well.
This is what big time quarterbacks do—they’re at the best in the biggest games, when their team needs them most.
So what will Jason do? The answer to that question will determine what we're talking about Monday morning.
I don’t think the Redskins can go into this game planning to pound Dallas with the run—not with a gimpy Portis, Ladell Betts seeing his first action in a month and an off-the-street Shawn Alexander being, well...not a hammer.
Much of the Redskins early success this year, including their two “quality wins” over Dallas and Philadelphia, came because the defense was stingy and the offense was unpredictable and aggressive. The last few weeks, however, offensively they have started to look like a unit that believes it can simply line up, run the ball, drive methodically down the field and score touchdowns. They aren’t. Not yet.
Nine games have not been long enough to ramp up Zorn’s modified “west coast” passing game. And that’s not an indictment—it was unrealistic to expect it before the season started, and it’s unrealistic to expect it today. What would be an indictment is if they were unwilling to adjust to changed circumstances at midstream.
To beat Dallas, and be a factor in late December, the Redskins will need Jason Campbell to play like the loose, confident player we saw earlier this year, not the overthinking, tight player we saw against Pittsburgh. They’re going to have to force the Dallas defense to react to them, as opposed to the other way around as we saw last Monday night.
We don’t know what caused the change. One the one hand, it could have been Campbell simply having a bad night, tightening up under the bright lights and in the face of a superior Pittsburgh defensive effort. On the other hand, it could have been he was trying too hard to do what he thought Coach Zorn wanted, and as a result too careful with the ball, unable to pull the trigger.
You might get away with that against average defenses—not against the best.
Maybe Zorn has seen something different on film, but from where I sit, it’s a no-brainer how the Redskins should approach Sunday night offensively. Forget “balance” early—I’d come out firing.
I’d put Campbell in the shotgun right from the start, with an unequivocal green light to attack downfield.
I’d make damn sure Dallas is aware of Santana Moss.
I’d target Chris Cooley early.
I’d even send the rookies, Devin Thomas and the Malcolm “Rumor” Kelly, up the sidelines deep a couple of times. I don’t even really care if they’re open. If they get single coverage, throw it up and let them try to make a play. If not, throw it five yards over their heads. I’d just like to see, and more importantly have the opposition see, that the Redskins are willing to test them.
I don’t expect Dallas to come out playing the Redskins honest Sunday night. I expect them to drop one or both safeties, crowd the line of scrimmage with everyone else and (can’t believe we’re here again) force Washington to show they can stretch the field vertically. Or are at least willing to try.
If the Redskins can’t, or won’t, and instead continue to compress their offense into a 15-yard window beyond the line of scrimmage, I fully expect to see more and more blitzes coming after Campbell as the game progresses, looking to force him into the same kind of mistakes he made against the Steelers.
The defense has given no reason to doubt they’ll play well and, at worst, keep Washington in the game. Until they show me otherwise, they've earned the benefit of the doubt.
And the odds are increasingly in their favor as the weeks go by that at some point they’ll hold on to a ball and if not score themselves, at least give Campbell and the offense a short field to work with.
It’s up to Jim Zorn to put Campbell in the right situations and allow or encourage him—depending on which is necessary—to trust his reads and his arm. But, ultimately, inasmuch as any can come down to the performance of any one player...as goes Jason Campbell Sunday night, so will go the Redskins.
Come Monday morning, we’ll know a lot more about the 2008 version of Jason Campbell. And unless my crystal ball is totally messing with me, we'll have a much clearer sense of how the rest of the 2008 season will play out for the burgundy and gold.
Hey, it’s Redskins-Cowboys.
It’s supposed to be big.