Redskins vs. Eagles 1 p.m., Fox Brewer: Don’t hope for a comeback.
The answer escapes Jay Gruden. He shakes his head, disappointed that his team’s lack of resilience is a legitimate question. For a Washington Redskins coach whose football story is a trail of hurdles leaped, it’s unfamiliar and odd to lead a team deficient in mettle.
“That’s a great question,” Gruden said, which is a coach’s favorite verbal filler when a perplexing topic is broached. “That’s something we have to figure out.”
There are two basic characteristics a team must possess to survive in the NFL: moxie in the fourth quarter and the mental toughness to recover after falling behind early. Washington stinks at both. It’s the simplest way to explain how the team has lost 27 of its past 35 games in a league legislated for parity.
Before even getting to the quarterback situation, you can measure progress— and Gruden’s job security— by the team’s development in those areas. In the fourth quarter, there has been a breakthrough: After failing in the clutch during a Week 1 loss to Miami, Washington played its best football late the next week to put away St. Louis. Now, after falling behind 12-0 early and falling apart against the New York Giants in Week 3, can the Redskins show similar improvement when they have to play from behind?
It’s essential to how Gruden will be perceived. As a rookie coach last season, he lost some infuriating close games in the fourth quarter, which triggered eye rolls and same-old-Redskins dismissiveness. But a bigger problem was that Washington suffered eight of its 12 losses by double figures. That’s a startling lack of competitiveness, indicative of a glass-jaw team that can’t handle adversity. It was troubling to see that tired story line resurface against New York, especially because Washington focused this offseason on adding players who are physically and mentally tough.
The next three weeks should provide a clearer view of whether the Redskins are truly tougher. On Sunday, Philadelphia visits Fed Ex Field, carrying loads of explosive offensive potential that has yet to emerge this season. There’s no telling how this game will play out because Chip Kelly’s teams often have slow starts, and with heavy rain leaving a wet field in its wake, Washington is preparing for a game of unexpected occurrences that will test its resolve in some manner. And when it’s over, road games against Atlanta and the New York Jets await.
In the next three weeks, Gruden’s team could face multiple situations in which it must recover from early deficits.
“I don’t know if we’ve had a come-from-behind victory yet since I’ve been here,” Gruden said. “Wemay have. I can’t remember.”
He was right the first time. It hasn’t happened, not a major comeback. In fact, since 2010, the franchise has rallied from a double-digit deficit just three times. The last came against the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 29, 2013. In that game, Robert Griffin III helped Washington overcome a 14-0 deficit in a 24-14 victory. Key play in that one? A 45-yard interception return touchdown from David Amerson, a promising rookie who lost his confidence and was cut recently, only to be claimed by the Raiders.
When the Redskins fall behind, they panic. Their shoulders slump. Gruden often abandons the run too soon. The defense doesn’t create turnovers that change the momentum. The offense gives away the ball trying too hard to make plays.
It’s not that hard to stay in games. Most teams aren’t good enough to sustain a high level of play for four quarters. There are opportunities to recover if a team has belief and composure.
To be allowed the patience to rebuild this team, Gruden— the college quarterback who helped Howard Schnellenberger build an improbable winner at Louisville, the Arena Football League legend who forged a route to acceptance and success as an NFL offensive guru— must develop its will now.
“Everybody has to come back the next play and fight just as hard, regardless of the situation,” defensive lineman Stephen Paea said. “The pride is there. We have so much pride. But we have to know we’re not going to be perfect and play through that.”
Kelly’s methods are heavily criticized, but in college at Oregon and in the pros with the Eagles, his teams keep attacking. In just more than two seasons with Philadelphia, Kelly has watched the Eagles post three victories after trailing by 14 points or more.
It’s not just about the Eagles’ fast pace. There’s a consistency in effort and a commitment to the style of play that transcends the scoreboard. The Redskins may have a more plodding offensive style, but in their own way, they’re playing in a system that is supposed to wear down opponents. They have to be more focused on competing for four quarters.
“I just say it all comes back to the players,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some very mentally strong players here. I’ve been fortunate everywhere I’ve been that we’ve had players that are very mentally strong. You’re going to be up, and you’re going to be down, but you have to really play consistent throughout and not really pay attention to what the score of the game is. Sometimes you end up on top, sometimes you don’t end up on top, but what’s going on from a score standpoint shouldn’t dictate how you’re playing.”
Gruden wants to develop a similar mind-set quickly. For more than a week, he has responded to the Giants loss by using the words “resilient” and “adversity” so much that you thought he had endorsement deals to utter them.
He needs quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw two interceptions and missed two potential touchdown passes to Jordan Reed, to be better when the offense can’t play off the run. But more than anything, Gruden needs success that he can refer to and build upon.
“It’s very important for us to be resilient,” Gruden said. “We preach it all the time. How you bounce back from these down moments is how you are as a person, as a team. We have to be mentally tough. We have to understand that we’re all fighting together. As long as we understand that and do that, then we will dig out of some of these holes. I think we do have that belief. We’ve just got to have some results.”
There’s no doubt Gruden is emphasizing the problem. Will his message be received? Consider it the latest test to evaluate the power of his authority.