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Playing to Win

Playing to Win

Rich Tandler is the author of Gut Check, The Complete History of Coach Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins. Get details and order at <a href="

http://gutcheckbook.com">http://GutCheckBook.com

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.

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Redskins vs Cardinals Preview: 5 things to know with Jordan Reed out

Redskins vs Cardinals Preview: 5 things to know with Jordan Reed out

The Redskins moved the ball well against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, but continued red zone woes again sent Washington home with a loss. While the late November schedule proved brutal for the 'Skins, playing two games in five days, now the Redskins come to Arizona for an early December game with fresh legs and ample rest. Played indoors at University of Phoenix Stadium, weather will not be a factor for the 4 p.m. EST kick, but all the action starts on CSN with Redskins Kickoff at 3 p.m. Here are five storylines to watch:

  1. Keep it moving - Kirk Cousins showed he likes to get hot in the second half of the season during 2015. The quarterback's play late last year won the 'Skins the NFC East, and while a division title is out of reach with the Cowboys already at 11 wins, Cousins again looks to be on a heater. In three games since the bye, Cousins has thrown for more than 1,000 yards to go with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. The No. 1 story for the 'Skins is Cousins, and if he keeps his hot streak going, Washington should find itself in position to win in Arizona.
  2. Missing in action - This will be the final game of a four-game suspension for left tackle Trent Williams, and the Washington offensive line has performed admirably in his absence. Arguably more important this week will be the absence of tight end Jordan Reed, who suffered a serious shoulder injury in Dallas. What's wild about Reed - he came back to play in the second half against the Cowboys - and score two touchdowns - while playing with a separated shoulder. Reed did not practice this week, and Jay Gruden said his range of motion in the shoulder is just too limited to go against the Cardinals. 
  3. Consider the source - The Redskins offense might be the most potent group in this game, but Washington would be foolish to sleep on the Cardinals. Arizona was widely considered a Super Bowl contender coming into the season, and though they are in the midst of a disappointing year at 4-6-1, a win against the Skins could get the Cards back on the playoff track. Arizona running back David Johnson is the 3rd leading rusher in the NFL with 921 yards on the ground, not to mention an additional 613 yards receiving. Gruden on Johnson, "He is probably the best all-around back there is in the National Football League right now as far as being able to move outside, be a great route runner but also run between the tackles and run outside with his speed. So it’s going to be a matchup problem." Defensively, the Redskins ranks 25th in the NFL at stopping the run. Watch out for David Johnson.
  4. Problems don't just go away - Look at just about any metric on the Redskins offense, and the results are impressive: No. 2 in yards-per-game, No. 2 in yards-per-play, No. 2 in pass yards-per-game. But for all the yards, the 'Skins don't score at a corresponding clip as they rank 9th in the NFL in points. The culprit? Red zone troubles. "There are so many good things we’re doing on offense to put a damper on what they’re doing offensively with the red zone. It’s hard to do, but it’s something that is a glaring weakness of this football team right now," Gruden said of his team. The best road to wins for the Redskins is by scoring, ideally at least 30 points, and that will require some success inside the 20s.
  5. The harder they fall - If the Arizona offense has an Achilles heel, it's their offensive line. Carson Palmer has been sacked 16 times in the Cards last four games, and the 'Skins need to focus on bringing Palmer down. Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy - who will be playing in his hometown - have been the leaders at getting sacks for Joe Barry's defense, and Preston Smith could be in line for another big game. Getting to Carson Palmer should be among the defense's top priorities, as that can slow Larry Fitzgerald and the Cards pass game.

Numbers & Notes:

  • DeSean Jackson's 67-yard reception in Dallas was a season long and his longest since a 77-yard touchdown vs. Buffalo in Week 15 of the 2015 season.
  • Kirk Cousins' 3,540 passing yards in 2016 now rank 10th-most in a single season in team history, and he still has five games left to play.
  • The Redskins offense ranks first in the NFL in percentage of fewest 3-and-out drives at 9.5 percent.
  • If Pierre Garçon can gain 137 receiving yards on Sunday, he will pass Michael Westbrook for 10th-most career receiving yards in team history.
  • With nine sacks, Ryan Kerrigan is one sack away from becoming the fifth member of the Redskins (Dexter Manley, 4; Charles Mann, 4; Andre Carter, 2; Brian Orakpo, 2) to post multiple 10-sack seasons since the NFL adopted sacks as an official statistic in 1982.

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Enemy Intel: Sunday games have playoff implications galore for Redskins

Enemy Intel: Sunday games have playoff implications galore for Redskins

As the Cowboys take their long week off after consecutive Thursday games the Redskins, Giants, Eagles, and other wild card contenders are in action. Here is Tandler’s weekly Redskins-centric spin around the NFL.

—The Giants are on a six-game winning streak and while that’s not easy to do against any level of competition it needs to be pointed out that their slate was squishy-soft with the last five wins coming against teams that currently have losing records. Now things get real with a trip to play the Steelers and a home date against the Cowboys. I’m not really sure how good the Giants are but if they split these two games I’ll be more impressed with them than I am now.

—The 5-6 Eagles travel to play the Bengals, who are just about out of contention for a sixth straight playoff appearance at 3-7-1. In fact, the Eagles might be just about out of it, too. Their big problem is 3-6 conference record, which puts them behind several other wild card contenders in this tiebreaker. It’s important because that is the second tiebreaker behind head to head. It’s better for the Redskins if the Bengals win but it probably won’t matter much. The consensus in Philadelphia seems to be that the Eagles are a rebuilding team that got off to a hot start, kindling some unrealistic hopes and expectations for the rest of 2016.

—The team is the hottest pursuit of the Redskins is the Buccaneers, who travel to San Diego to play a game that starts at the same time as Washington-Arizona. The Chargers are 5-6 but they are buried in last in the tough AFC West. This game is a coin flip. Redskins fans should root for the Chargers. If the Bucs lose, the Redskins would still hold the second wild card at the end of the day even if they should lose to the Cardinals.

—The 5-6 Saints are on the fringes of the wild card picture. They host the Lions, who are leading the NFC North by a game and a half over the Vikings and two games over the Packers. It’s probably best if the Lions win, which would just about eliminate the Saints. Still, there is a scenario where the Lions go into a minor tailspin, lose the division to either the Packers or Vikings but have a good enough record to take the second wild card. So like with most games within the NFC until the dust settles some more, there is some upside and some downside no matter which team wins.

—That scenario where the Lions fade from the division lead become a whole lot less likely if the Texans can go to Green Bay and beat the Packers. This is an interconference game so it’s an easy call to pull for Houston.

—Seattle, with a three-game lead in the NFC West, hosts the Panthers, who are on the outer fringe of the wild card race at 4-7. Another loss likely would ensure that Carolina won’t be able to defend its NFC title. This isn’t a pivotal game but probably better if the Seahawks win to end it for the wounded but potentially dangerous Panthers.

—My one loss last week was the Seahawks giving 5.5 on the road to the Bucs. I won with the Saints over the Rams and the Falcons over the Cardinals. This week I’m giving the Seahawks another go, giving 7 to the Panthers, and I’m taking the Patriots -13.5 against the Rams (the loss of Gronk doesn’t do much to equalize these teams) and the Saints giving 6 to the Lions.

MORE REDSKINS: Betting on the Redskins' playoff chances