September 19, 2008

Opportunity Game

If last Sunday against the Saints was about confidence, this Sunday against Arizona is about opportunity. In all shapes and sizes.

Opportunity to slap down the nagging voice in the back of every single Redskins fan's mind, and probably in the minds of some of its players, reminding them that over past decade-and-a-half, the Washington Redskins have far too infrequently dealt well with success. How many times in recent years have the Redskins won a game in inspiring fashion, run off the field aglow with success and primed to build on that success ... only to slip on the proverbial banana peel the following week and fall right back on their collective keester?

Answer: too many.

Opportunity for Jason Campbell to build on his dramatic turn as a clutch, big-play finisher. He doesn’t have to go 300+ again to consolidate his confidence gains, but he does have to turn in another competent, professional effort of decision-making, field generalship, converting key third downs ... and most of all, leading his team in the end zone rather than settling for field goals. After last week, his teammates know he’s capable of doing it. If he can deliver again while that good buzz is fresh ... well, you do the math.

My gut over/under on points needed to win this week: 24

Opportunity for Jim Zorn to continue to show what appears after 2 weeks to be a pretty quick learning curve. Game-management; clock management, keeping the other defense off balance, continuing the process of syncing up with his quarterback ... Zorn made big strides in those areas from week one to week two. He too doesn’t have to be a genius on Sunday, just turn in another competent, professional sideline performance. After the tumult his rookie-ness caused in game one, he has the chance in week 3 to silence the “in over his head” altogether by simply showing he belongs.

Okay, not really--some will continue to say it no matter what. But he sure would make it easier to ignore them.

Opportunity for Greg Blatche and his defense to show they can contain a veteran, accurate QB with a dangerously quick release for a third straight week ... preferably without having to rely on the blitz to generate pressure. One thing about a guy like Kurt Warner–if you’re going to blitz him, you dams well better get there ... because he WILL hit the open man. Forget sacks–if the Redskins front four can simply generate enough consistent pressure to force Warner move his feet and throw before he wants to more often than he wants to, they’ll have a good chance at keeping the Cardinals in check.

The defense got to Eli Manning in the second half in the opener, and they got to Drew Brees enough to keep him in check last week. With the likes of Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb coming up, containing a cagey pro like Warner would be a great sign that the Redskins defense might be a unit capable of keeping the team in even the toughest games.

Opportunity for the Washington offense to finally, after many years, begin to earn enough respect from opposing defenses to get them to play the Redskins honestly. Clinton Portis alluded to it the other day in the comments that got him into so much heat this week. In the four years he has been here (and going back well before), defenses have flooded the line of scrimmage against the Redskins to stop the run. Why? Because they don’t fear the Redskins passing game.

It’s a simple formula, really. Stack the box to take away the run and short pass, force 3rd and longs, and dare the quarterback to make you pay. It’s why the NFL axiom about “balanced” offense exists in the first place. Until you can punish teams for cheating the line of scrimmage, they aren’t going to stop.

Rest assured that what Jason and the offense did in the 4th quarter against New Orleans did not go unnoticed. Cardinals DC Clancy Pendergast (due respect, but, someone screwed up in Central Casting) and his staff will probably start the game the same way teams have against the Redskins forever–crowding the box and daring them to go downfield. I know I would after all these years. But my guess is that having watched what Campbell did late against the Saints, they’ll be prepared to start backing off if he burns them once or twice early.

Doesn’t have to be bombs away--though one or two of those wouldn’t hurt. But successfully attacking the deep sidelines with Moss or Randle El, or isolating Cooley on a linebacker intermediate middle a couple times, could send the loud, clear message that you’d better not sleep on the Washington passing game any longer. You don’t need me, Portis or anyone else to tell you what the effect of at long last facing an honest defensive front to run against could have on this team.

Opportunity for the Redskins–once again in search of an identity, under yet another new head coach, running yet another new offensive system–to show themselves, the league and the football world that the NFC East isn’t just the best division in the league, but legitimately a four-team division.

The difference between heading off to Dallas and Philadelphia in two weeks at 2-1 coming off two consecutive wins, and 1-2 and having lost a winnable game at home, is monumental. At 2-1, all the Redskins have to do is steal one of two on the road, a not impossible task in a division scenario, to emerge 3-2 and feeling pretty damn good about themselves. Worst case, even at 2-3 if they lose but are competitive in both those games, they'd know they’re on the right track and have a chance to make a run down the stretch.

But heading off to Dallas and Philly at 1-2 would be a very different deal. They’d be looking at almost having to steal one just to stay afloat, trying to keep the demons and voices of doom–internal and external–from rearing their foul heads yet again. A 1-4 start in this year’s NFC East would be nothing short of a death sentence to any realistic playoff hopes, and worse, could turn the rest of the season into more of a proving ground for 2009 than a competitive season in 2008. Of turning 2008 into the kind of up-and-down, week-to-week, feast-or-famine rollercoaster that has bedeviled this team seemingly without a break since Joe Gibbs first retired after the 1992 season.

So ... is this a “must win?” Not really. Must wins are reserved for teams with serious, objective playoff expectations. I don’t believe the 2008 Redskins came into the season with that kind of label. They came in with hopes, but too many major questions to label them with "expectations." But coming off a stirring comeback win over the Saints to even their record at .500, with an eminently winnable home game on tap, the Redskins have definitely crafted themselves a clear opportunity to create some.

The Redskins have had a lot of similar games over the past 15 years. Dozens of them. And all too often, they have allowed those opportunities to slip through their fingers. All too often they have headed into this kind of game saying all the right things, then hitting the field inexplicably, infuriatingly flat, then sounding mystified as to why in the losing locker room afterwards.

Opportunity is definitely knocking on the Washington Redskins’ door this week. Question is, are they up, dressed, fed and ready to rock ... or did they hit the snooze button one time too many again, and find themselves with bed-head, one pant leg on and a surprised look on their face?

You can do without the extra nine minutes, gentlemen.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises." - Demosthenes


Happy Birthday, Kelsey.


Lizkauai said...

Go 'Skins!
Thanks, OM!

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Back at you. Nothing more depressing in blogworld than "0 Comments." ;)

Anonymous said...

great read Om! This definitely is a game of opportunity. And you hit the nail on the head about them being flat in these type of games in years past.

Hopefully, that is past the team now, and I have a feeling it is. I think Zorn will know how to get them ready to be competitive.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Zorn's definitely a different cat. It's hard not to like him as "a guy" ... if he can find a way to put a few wins together early in his tenure, it's not hard to envision his team really falling in behind him.

We always hear how key it is for a team to "buy in" to what its coach is selling. Seems to me a little early success would be one helluva downpayment.