By Jason Keidel
In a league that promotes parity, the NFL couldn’t ask for a more mixed-up playoff picture than what they have this year.
That’s particularly true in the NFC East, where it seems everyone has taken a turn as division darling except the team that actually won it last season. The Washington Redskins have become lost in the high-grade parity of a four-team race.
The Philadelphia Eagles dashed out the gate with three-straight wins, rebranding their commonwealth into Wentzylvania. But the Eagles have since fallen back into the pack, going 2-4 since starting 3-0.
The New York Giants are the blue bloods of the division, the only NFC East club to win a Super Bowl since the ’90s, with a Hall-of-Fame QB from football’s first family.
The Dallas Cowboys, of course, lost their first game, and haven’t lost since. Leading the 8-0 Cowboys? Two rookies. In the least likely ride to the stratosphere, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have flipped the NFL script.
But Washington? A healthy portion of the public refuses to even mouth the team’s handle, much less recognize them as a playoff contender.
Folks saw last year as a fluke, a blip on the NFL screen. And this year’s iteration doesn’t overwhelm you with stats. Though they rank fourth in the NFL in offense (407.8 YPG), they’ve only outscored their opponents by 13 total points. Their defense surrenders 365.4 yards per game, 21st in the league.
If anyone wondered, however, if Kirk Cousins was worth the $20 million franchise tag the team placed on him this season, his numbers answer in the affirmative. The Redskins quarterback is fourth in passing yards (2,716). Among quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts, he’s fourth in completion percentage (66.9) and seventh in yards per completion (7.7).
But in a division stuffed with clubs over .500, the 5-3-1 Redskins are in third place, a half-game behind the Giants (6-3). They last won a Super Bowl a quarter-century ago, when Joe Gibbs ran the circus. Gibbs, the emblem of the team’s only dynasty, returned, but left again before he could add to his glittering legacy.
Since Daniel Snyder bought the team, Washington has been a bit of a punchline. With a turnstile at the head coach’s office, the Redskins have been a picture of corporate dysfunction. They seemed ready to restore their place in the NFL fiefdom when Robert Griffin III won rookie of the year and led them to the playoffs. Then he famously fizzled out. Gone were Griffin and head coach Mike Shanahan.
So Washington had to reboot. Enter Jay Gruden, who is probably still called Jon, after his more famous brother. But Jay is the only one coaching an NFL club. And if the season ended today, Washington would make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-’92.
Gruden’s career, like that of most coaches, is hitched to his quarterback. Considering Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different signal-callers, the current coach could do much worse than Cousins, who is clearly better than Mark Rypien, the last QB in Washington to hoist a Lombardi Trophy.
If Washington breaks through to another January of football, they may find they have their franchise quarterback, and their franchise head coach.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.