By DERON SNYDER
LANDOVER – When your team isn’t great and labors to be classified as good, it must contend with a few, inescapable truths every week.
The margin for error doesn’t include many turnovers, let along giveaways on back-to-back possessions. There’s no allowance for a slew of injuries that knocks out starters and extends into the depth chart.
And there’s certainly no room for spotty play on special teams, especially miscues that are returned 86 yards and produce 10-point swings.
Dallas wasn’t much better than Washington in Sunday’s game at FedEx Field. But the home team couldn’t overcome its mistakes and missing players in a 33-19 loss. That the contest wasn’t a worse blowout is either testament to the Skins’ grittiness or proof of the Cowboys’ own mediocrity. Probably both.
Washington entered the game as a MASH unit and excited like the Mayo Clinic. There was concern in the press box that coach Jay Gruden might run out of players before the final gun.
Already missing three starters on the offensive line – Trent Williams, Brandon Scherff and Spencer Long – the lost guard Shawn Lauvao during the game. Ditto for tight ends Jordan Reed and Niles Paul. The defense was shorthanded from the outset, too, without starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland (a late scratch) and starting linebacker Mason Foster (season-ending shoulder injury announced Friday).
Attrition and the NFL go together like sand and the beach. Each team is too worried about its own missing players to feel sorry about yours. The whole “next man up” philosophy suggests that fortunes shouldn’t change no matter which members of the 53-man roster are available.
Not sure if that includes players like Arie Kouandjio and Tyler Catalina, O-linemen who before Sunday were on a different team and making their NFL debut, respectively.
“Arie just got out of his car yesterday and he’s playing 50 snaps,” Gruden said. “Catalina had never played left tackle before. I don’t know how you can have more injuries on the offensive line. Really, it’s mind-boggling.”
The replacements allowed four sacks on Kirk Cousins and paved the way for a meager 49 rushing yards on 15 carries. But the offense still managed to build a 13-7 early in the second quarter and appeared ready to extend it when Nick Rose lined up for a 36-yard field goal.
But instead of going up by nine points, the Skins found themselves trailing by one after the kick was blocked and returned inside the 5-yard line. Cowboys halfback Ezekiel Elliott plunged in for the go-ahead touchdown two plays later and Dallas never trailed again.
“Obviously that was the pivotal play of the game,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said.
Give the Skins credit for hanging tough despite the absence of their top players. Washington was within 10 points as the third quarter ended, thanks to a defense that didn’t break. However, it was bent to the extent that Dallas kicker Mike Nugent hit four field goals.
Still, Washington kept fighting, with Cousins finding Josh Doctson for a short touchdown with 4:35 remaining. That brought the Skins to within a touchdown of tying the score, but Cousins’ pick-6 in the closing seconds prevented a miraculous comeback.
The loss drops Washington to 3-4 overall (0-3 in the NFC East), increasing the odds that preseason forecasts were accurate. Many had the Skins in the 7-9 to 9-7 range, where half the league seems destined to finish. A few plays here and there; that’s the story of Washington and 20 other teams this season.
If only the defense had gotten the ball back to Cousins with more than 54 seconds remaining. If only Cousins and halfback Chris Thompson hadn’t lost fumbles on consecutive second-half possessions – a sack and a kickoff return. If only the offense maintained momentum after another strong start.
But those are the differences between great teams and teams struggling to be good. Everything must be close to perfect on wet, nasty days, especially when four-fifths of your O-line and two-thirds of your top tight ends are unavailable.
The road doesn’t get easier with a trip to Seattle next week, but none of the reaming opponents appear to be world-beaters. Of course, they’re saying the same thing about Washington.
“There’s still a lot of ball left to play,” Gruden said. “Seattle’s in the playoff hunt, Minnesota’s in the playoff hunt and New Orleans is in the playoff hunt. We have a tough three games in front of us but if we take care of business we can be right back in it.”
Better health and fewer mistakes would be a great place to start.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.