Jerry Brewer: Positive signs don’t surprise Redskins.
I stood before an irritated Terrance Knighton, and so I can empathize now with the offensive linemen he tosses around weekly. The man with the clever nickname Pot Roast is usually 354 (or so) pounds of jolly, but he has an angry switch. Flick it by accident, and he’ll act like dinner is an hour late.
“You sound surprised,” the nose tackle harrumphed. “We’re an NFL team. We’re capable. Don’t underestimate us.”
We were talking about the Washington Redskins’ most charming trait this season: Just when you wonder if they’re terminally deficient in an area, they show signs of rapid improvement.
In Week 1, they couldn’t finish and lost to Miami, following a fourth-quarter script that has plagued them for years. The next game, they finished and did it again in Week 4. In Week 3, they lost composure on the road after falling behind 12- 0 early. The next game, they showed resilience with a little fourthquarter comeback against Philadelphia.
Go even deeper, and you see the positive signs this team has shown in four former weak spots that Coach Jay Gruden emphasized throughout the offseason: the run game (offense ranks first in NFL at 139.5 rushing yards per game), defense (fourth in the league in total D, surrendering 288 yards per game), third-down conversions (fourth at 46.8 percent success rate) and the red zone (12th with 60 percent touchdown rate).
The season is only four games old, and a 2-2 record is nothing to start pounding the chest about, but Washington is well on its way to a striking level of tangible improvement. It’s the ability to adjust and correct quickly that is so encouraging.
Just don’t act flabbergasted by all this when you go to Pot Roast — who was brought in as a free agent to help change the losing culture — for insight.
“This is a different team,” he said.
Promise to respect it as such, and then Knighton will soften and turn thoughtful.
“The change is about leadership and coaching,” he said. “I think our leadership is showing on the field. Nobody is giving up. Coach Gruden is sending the right message through the locker room right now, and the leaders are reiterating it in the locker room. It’s just a mentality that we have right now. We’re just going to keep punching, no matter what the score is.”
Of course, when undergoing an incremental transformation, there are fresh challenges every week, more weaknesses to expunge and new questions to answer. On Sunday, against an undefeated Atlanta squad that new Coach Dan Quinn has reenergized in a hurry, the theme will be consistency.
It would be classic Redskins — sorry, Pot Roast, old habits have more lives than cats — to come off the Eagles win and lay an egg on the road. They did it at New York after beating St. Louis. If the culture really has changed, they should be competitive.
Yes, this is a bad matchup for Washington with starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and DeAngelo Hall unavailable to play against Julio Jones and Atlanta’s diverse passing game. Former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has quarterback Matt Ryan playing at an elite level in Atlanta, and running back Devonta Freeman has been an early-season revelation. Even at full strength, this would be a huge task for the Redskins’ defense.
If the most positive pattern in the first quarter of the season was the swift, self-correcting nature of this team, the most negative was the erratic manner in which it performed. The inconsistency hasn’t just occurred from game to game. From quarter to quarter, this team remains a mystery.
Washington has played three of its first four games at home, and it has led by double figures in all of those contests. But it surrendered two of those leads and also allowed St. Louis back into the game after getting ahead 17- 0.
The biggest problem has been the third quarter, when opponents have outscored Washington, 26-3.
Gruden preached overcoming adversity last week, and his team responded against Philadelphia. His new sermon is about consistency. The results might come a little slower this time, however, because he’s starting to rely on so many young players and because consistency is a broad concept that affects every facet of the team.
It includes depth. The team didn’t have ideal depth to start the season, but now that injuries have mounted, it’s a major concern. Eight projected starters from the preseason won’t play Sunday. Quality reserves have been lost, too. The attrition is alarming for this early in the season, and as I theorized back in training camp, the team’s new commitment to a highly aggressive, physical style could cause it to fizzle late in the season. This strategy is the right direction to go, but until General Manager Scot McCloughan can fully stock the roster, the team might wear down before it can enjoy the fruits of an approach designed to wear down opponents.
Still, Gruden can sense that he’s getting through to these guys. Messages are being received. Many of these players are quick learners. So he can advance past rudimentary coaching tactics.
“It’s up to the players to go out there and actually perform,” Gruden said. “Then you rely on your captains to really push the younger guys into being in good situations. Then, of course, the coaching staff has done an excellent job of stressing the important things from a fundamental standpoint to a scheme standpoint to an effort standpoint. When you do that the correct way, you’ll get good results, but we have to maintain that level.
“We can’t play well one quarter and not well the next quarter. We’ve got to maintain our effort through four quarters, obviously our fundamentals through four quarters, especially against a good team like Atlanta.”
If they don’t do it, then Atlanta will embarrass them. The Falcons have outscored opponents by an average of 11 points per game this season. Their plus-44 point differential is tied for second in the NFL.
The second quarter of the season will also test the team’s ability to sustain its improvement. The schedule is much tougher and will be a greater indicator of how much better the Redskins truly are. After playing three of the first four games at FedEx Field, Sunday starts a stretch of three of four games on the road. Those road opponents — Atlanta, the New York Jets and New England — are 10-1. If not for Tampa Bay being wedged into this fourpack, it would be the most suffocating stretch possible.
For fear of Knighton flattening you, heed his advice: Don’t underestimate his improving team.
But how much more can you expect?
Washington football, in 2015: Chucking skepticism one redeeming act at a time.