LANDOVER – The keys to Washington fans enjoying the 2015 NFL season are simple.
Manage your expectations. Realize the journey to respectability is arduous. Savor the bright spots in a half-full glass instead of lamenting what’s missing.
That was the mindset Sunday with 6:05 remaining as Washington began its final drive, needing a touchdown to beat Philadelphia. There had been some good, more bad and plenty of ugly at that point, which is actually an improvement. A couple of late scores often wouldn’t have made a difference in last couple of seasons.
This year has been different, with Washington showing more bits and pieces of progress while opening a 1-2. The team followed the same script through 54 minutes against the Eagles but had a golden opportunity – albeit 90 yards away – to pour some gravy by actually winning.
Fifteen plays later, 10 of them pressure-packed passes from quarterback Kirk Cousins, and Washington had managed a come-from-behind victory, 23-20.
“We said we can’t let this (losing) happen,” left tackle Trent Williams said in a joyful locker room. “This wasn’t a situation where we wanted come in and say, ‘Let’s learn from this.’ This was a situation we had to own.”
They did so in the most nerve-wracking fashion imaginable, depending on Cousins’ arm and decisions to cover the final 42 yards. We have been conditioned to fear the worse when he cocks his arm and fires, holding our breath and wincing on picks and near-misses.
Now the game was in his hands and he delivered. Washington passed on its final eight plays from scrimmage and the crowd at FedEx Field never let out a collective groan. Cousins completed five of those throws – including a couple where he jammed the ball into Pierre Garcon between two defenders. Garcon was in the end zone on the latter of those bang-bang plays, a 4-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left on the clock.
“There are probably some passes today that I’ll look back and say, ‘Boy, I got away with one there and didn’t get picked,” Cousins said. If we get worried about results and ‘Oh, I didn’t throw any interceptions and now I’m good,’ I’m going to get exposed pretty quickly. I focus on the process.”
The entire organization is in the midst of a process, attempting to transform itself from disreputable to credible. No one outside the locker room expects it to happen overnight, which is why most reasonable predications pegged Washington for about a half-dozen wins … one fewer than the last two seasons combined.
To help break the cycle of depression this year, Washington fans need to embrace a “look-at-the-bright-side” mentality. They must be content that the situation isn’t as bad as before and includes legitimate hope for the future.
There’s second-year halfback Chris Thompson, who broke off a 42-yarder on third-and-19 in the first quarter. There’s rookie wideout Jamison Crowder, who led Washington with 65 receiving yards and tied Garcon with a team-high seven receptions. There’s a playbook that creates open receivers and allowed Washington to score on three of its first four possessions.
There’s defensive end Chris Baker, who recorded two of Washington’s five sacks. There’s rookie defensive back Kyoshen Jarrett, whose versatility helped the injury-depleted secondary remain competitive. There’s a unit that yielded just 14 first downs for the game and no points in the first half.
All of those elements would be just as promising if the last drive sputtered and the team dropped to 1-3. Washington is putting ingredients in place, even if each meal doesn’t turn out just right.
The win was scrumptious, but the resiliency alone was tasty.
Washington overcame 10 penalties, including an egregious unnecessary roughness call on safety Trenton Robinson one play before Philly went ahead, 20-16 early in the fourth quarter. The team overcame a rushing attack that didn’t get untracked until the final drive and a near-collapse in the second half.
Washington’s ability to march down the field and close the deal as time winded down provided more ammunition for optimists. It’s another reason to believe the flavor is changing under coach Jay Gruden and Cousins.
“It’s a different feel; it’s not the same,” defensive end Jason Hatcher said. “We’re one of the those teams that have to earn our respect in this league. We haven’t been one of the premier teams and we have to make our own way.”
Chances are they’re establishing a pattern. A so-so-game, followed by a good outing and then a bad. Lose a game, win one, lose again. Since 8-8 would be a monumental improvement, such inconsistency wouldn’t be a terrible thing.
In fact, it’s great if you don’t get carried away. Recognize the long haul ahead. Focus on competitiveness, not exclusively on final scores.
When you look at Washington with the right perspective, there’s more to like now.
The last two seasons were empty. This one looks to be at least half-full.