On the record, and for the record, NFL players and coaches insist that they never consider the upcoming opponent’s ledger as game day approaches. They know that any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday.
Yet, human nature being what is, players and coaches can’t help feeling at least slightly better about their chances when they’re facing, say, an 1-8 team versus an 8-1 team.
But enough about Washington’s football team.
Tampa Bay had to be licking its chops, too, flying to D.C. with thoughts of discarding a five-game losing streak like empty cups and used tape in the locker room before boarding a return flight. Misson accomplished.
Washington and Tampa Bay have little in common as cities and their football teams are fairly dissimilar as well – except when it comes to winning percentage. While Oakland has the inside track in the NFL’s Race to Wretchedness (and the No.1 draft pick), the squads that battled Sunday at FedEx Field aren’t far behind.
But instead of Washington picking up its fourth victory of the season, Tampa Bay flew home with its second, in a 27-7 game that felt worse than the final score.
Beating the Cowboys on Monday Night Football in Dallas was great. That was winning a game you’re supposed to lose. Alas, it doesn’t matter when you lose games you’re expected to win.
No one told Tampa Bay that Washington was supposed to win. The Bucs figured it was their turn after blowing fourth-quarter leads in three consecutive games and five times overall this season.
“We feel like we’re better than a 1-8 football team,” Bucs coach Lovie Smith said afterward, probably while counterpart Jay Gruden espoused the same thoughts about his 3-7 outfit. “We haven’t been able to finish games, but at times I have seen progress and at times we have looked like a really good football team.
“Coming in, we saw an opportunity and for us, we needed to finish the game and play 60 minutes. They did that.”
Tackle Demar Dotson spat out a politically correct comment at first, talking about how it doesn’t matter if an opponent is 9-2 or 3-8. Whatever.
It wasn’t long before the truth came out.
“We know we can be a good football team,” he said in a statement that can’t be verified based on Sunday’s results, due to the lack of competition.
But here’s what he couldn’t deny: “We knew we had a good chance today.”
The difference between a win and a loss often hinges on a handful of plays, which is why most losing teams talk about being “close” if not for a few “breaks” that didn’t go their way. A bad play here, a turnover there and untimely penalties all over.
Washington knows that routine all too well, as does Tampa Bay. But no matter how good a team looks in practice or how competitive it is in games, it’s all for naught without a victory to show at week’s end.
In his first year as Bucs coach, Smith was feeling some heat as fans and media grew tired of excuses that sound pretty familiar in these parts. Gruden likely can relate.
“We evaluate the video each week and we have seen improvement from week to week,” Smith said. “We have also seen some stupid penalties and bad plays in critical situations. As a whole, I think our football team has seen how we are getting better and we’re in it. We just need to get the wins.”
This won’t make Washington feel better about the killer turnovers (including a pick-six), leaky offensive line (six sacks), porous secondary (209 receiving yards from rookie Mike Evans) or shaky quarterback play (73.3 rating for RG3), but the Bucs said it wasn’t about the opponent.
“It was about our preparation and the way we worked,” said quarterback Josh McCown, whose team didn’t have a bye week like you know who. “Obviously we went through our normal game plan and all that, but there wasn’t a whole lot of Redskins talk.
“It was more of, ‘Do what we are supped to do; let’s execute the way we’re supposed to execute.’ The majority of the time when you cut on a tape, it’s you, not them.”
There you have it, folks.
This team is the problem and facing 1-8 foes won’t solve it.
That said, Washington was the perfect remedy for what ailed Tampa Bay.