Reporting David Elfin
Twenty one times, Detroit’s NFL team has visited Washington. Twenty one times, the Lions have headed home with their figurative tails between their legs after a defeat. Those 21 games include three playoff contests including the only one the Redskins have won in Landover.
But when the Lions come calling this Sunday, the Redskins are the team which has to be wondering whether it can win. After all, Washington trailed Philadelphia and Green Bay a collective 64-7 before the underdog Eagles and the favored Packers removed their cleats from the Redskins’ jugulars after halftime.
If Washington’s home dominance of Detroit ends on Sunday, the defending NFC East champions can just about forget about returning to postseason. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 115 teams have started 0-3 going back to 1990 and only San Diego in 1992, Detroit in 1995 and Buffalo in 1998 bounced back to make the playoffs.
“It’s a game where it’s as close to being a must-win as you can get,” said inside linebacker London Fletcher, the only Redskin who was active the last time an NFL team made such a turnaround.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. September was supposed to be Washington’s easy month with games against a trio of teams that went 4-12 last year: Philadelphia, Detroit and Oakland aside from the almost certain defeat at Lambeau Field where the Packers rarely lose. Sure, the Eagles were unveiling new coach Chip Kelly’s hurry-up offense and the Packers have the game’s top quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, but two blowout defeats?
“I’m shocked with the guys we have, the talent and the character, that we went out there and played as poorly as we have,” said eighth-year left end Kedric Golston, who has been part of Washington’s defense as long as anyone. “The Eagles didn’t do anything we thought they weren’t going to do. … Aaron Rodgers is a very good quarterback and any mistake you make he’s going to expose ‘em, but every team has playmakers.”
The Lions certainly do in the NFL’s top receiver, Calvin Johnson, 5,000-yard passer Matthew Stafford, and elusive running back Reggie Bush. Nose tackle Barry Cofield, Fletcher’s defensive co-captain, said that his beleaguered unit, which has been regularly gashed on the ground and dissected through the air to the tune of 511.5 yards per game, is looking forward to the challenge from Detroit’s talented troika.
“It’s when you’re punched in the mouth, that your mettle really gets tested,” said Cofield, who’s playing with a broken right hand. “We’ll see what this team is made of.”
Cornerback Josh Wilson said the defense will improve if each man does his own job instead of trying to do the next guy’s.
“It’s not a situation where you can throw some magic dust out there,” Fletcher agreed. “We’ve gotta back to sound, fundamental football.”
While the defense’s struggles aren’t anything new, Washington’s incompetence on offense when the games were still in doubt has been perplexing. With record-setting quarterback Robert Griffin III, top receiver Pierre Garcon and No. 1 tight end Fred Davis all apparently healthy again after going under the knife during the past year, the unit that ranked fifth in 2012 while setting a franchise rushing record was supposed to hum at an even better speed this season. Instead, the Redskins have been pipsqueaks when it has mattered.
“When you turn the football over as many as times as we did against Philly [three plus a fumble for a safety] and they control the football and you’re 0-for-6 on third-downs [in the first half at Green Bay], it’s hard to get clicking,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “It’s a much different game when you get behind by 20, 30 points than when it’s a very close game. We’re not going to abandon our offense. I know we haven’t been very impressive, but we still have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing.”
But the Redskins seem to have abandoned the zone read aspect of their offense that helped make them so special in 2012. Dual threat Griffin has just 25 yards on nine carries after gaining a rookie quarterback record 815 yards on 120 runs in 15 games last season.
“If you would’ve told anybody we were going to throw the ball 49 and 40 times the first two games, they would’ve thought you were stupid,” Griffin said. “It’s not that I want to run more, I just feel like that’s what we need. We have to get our swagger back. … It’s not about going out there and running to prove people wrong. You have to do it when the time arises and I haven’t had those opportunities in these first two games. Hopefully I’ll get that opportunity in this game and it will be a spark for our team.”
Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl-winning coach, and Rodney Harrison, a former standout safety, each suggested on NBC that Shanahan might find that spark by benching Griffin – the toast of the NFL as the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year – in favor of fellow second-year man Kirk Cousins, who’s not lugging around a knee brace nor less than nine months removed from major surgery.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in Robert,” Shanahan said, dismissing that idea and noting that Griffin’s on pace for 40 touchdown passes. “I do think he played better in the second game. You could see his footwork … and stepping up into the throws, he felt a lot more comfortable. This is a long process. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Perhaps not, but if the Redskins lose on Sunday, their clock will be just about striking midnight before they even get to Week 4.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.