Rich Tandler is the author of Gut Check, The Complete History of Coach Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins. Get details and order at <a href="
The Redskins have five games remaining in the NFL season. There are those who say that the team should use those remaining games to evaluate some younger players and perhaps shut down the season for the likes of Lavar Arrington to let him start rehab on his knee injury a month early. The competitive phase of the season is over, according to this line of thinking, and the few extra losses will improve the team’s draft position.
As well-intentioned as these folks are, there are just too many reasons to keep on fielding the team that gives the Redskins the best chance to win the most games.
- The playoffs—Certainly, it’s far fetched that the Redskins could make the playoffs, but it’s very likely that an 8-8 team will make it in the NFC. So, until that ninth loss is in the right-hand column in the standings the team is playing for a playoff spot.
- The playoff picture—This is much more grounded in reality. Of the five remaining games, four of them have potential playoff implications for the Redskins’ opponents. A loss to the Redskins will make the Giants’ road to the postseason extremely difficult. Whatever unlikely scenario the Cowboys have of making the playoffs hinges on beating Washington on December 26. A Minnesota loss to the Skins in the season finale could well force them outdoors for the first round of the playoffs. Similarly, a Redskins win over Philadelphia in two weeks might force the Eagles inside, in the Georgia Dome, for the NFC title game. The concept of integrity demands that the Redskins field their best team and give their best effort for those games.
- Unintended consequences—As an example, one of the young players that some are suggesting should get a look is rookie tackle Jim Molinaro. Chris Samuels’ contract is getting to a rather sticky cap number (more on that later) and he may need to be replaced. So, the thinking goes, let’s see if Molinaro can get the job done so that we can see if the team would have to go out and get someone to replace Samuels or if his replacement is already on the roster. But such a move is fraught with danger. Suppose that Molinaro isn’t the guy and Patrick Ramsey takes one too many shots to his blind side and is injured and misses mini camps and some training camp while recovering. This isn’t training camp, it’s the regular season.
- Winning breeds winning—And, on the other side of that coin, losing breeds losing. Sure, finishing at 5-11 last year got the team the fifth overall pick in the draft and Sean Taylor. But if anyone doubts that losing six of the last seven games of 2003 didn’t carry over into this season, regime change and all, you’re kidding yourself. If the Redskins lose, say, four out of these last five, nobody is going to remember how well this kid or that kid might have played. All that will be remembered is the losing and it will take that much longer to get into winning ways.
- Learning how to win—This is related to the previous topic, but it involves more tangible aspects of the game than emotion. Before enjoying an extended period of success, a team must first figure out how to win. If you have a late lead, how do you hold on to it? If you’re trailing in the fourth quarter, what do you have to do to score to take the lead? The Redskins have too much experience in how not to finish of games this year; you can’t have too many reps in practicing the right way to do it.
Of all of the reasons to continue to make the best effort to win, the last one presented above is the most important. Gibbs’ first team, the 1981 Redskins, was essentially eliminated from playoff contention five games into the season. However, he did not choose to see what he had in the young quarterback Tom Flick and decided to leave veteran Joe Theismann in the lineup. Cornerback Joe Lavender clearly was near the end of the road (in fact he would retire in the offseason), but he still started every week because he gave the team the best chance of winning. Although the offensive line play was very shaky at times, he stuck with that no-name group of guys named Grimm, Jacoby, Bostic, May and Starke even though he had some relatively young but experienced backups.
What happened was that they rallied for some close wins and, in their last two games of the season, they built an early lead, kept the throttle open and routed the Colts and the Rams. They learned how to win, a skill that is not easily acquired mostly because opportunities to acquire it are rare. The Redskins are down to five of them this year. They can’t afford to waste a single one.