Over the past two seasons, good fortune has amplified the Washington Redskins’ improvement. Their growth has been more methodical than stunning, yet they’re on the cusp of making consecutive playoff appearances during the formative years of a rebuilding plan. It’s as if there is some mystical manipulator arranging it so that the long-standing NFL laughingstock can’t mess up a good thing this time.
When this team stumbles, it looks down and finds a mulligan. When it encounters a challenge that it isn’t possibly ready for, the bar lowers just enough to redefine the obstacle. Despite having already clinched consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1997, Washington still can’t be certain that it’s on a path to greatness. But whenever the franchise starts to idle, something pushes it.
The quote zombies in sports love to say breathlessly, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” The rest of us can smirk all we want, but opportunity keeps following Washington. And this team had better be prepared to capitalize on it Sunday.
The same Washington team that began this campaign 0-2 and trailed the New York Giants by 12 points on the road in Week 3 can make the playoffs with a home victory in the season finale. The same Washington team that recently lost three of four games only needs to beat the Giants, the set-in-stone No. 5 NFC playoff seed, who have little to play for besides pride and avoiding significant injury. And then, as long as the Detroit-Green Bay game doesn’t finish in a tie, the Redskins will earn consecutive postseason berths for the first time since 1992.
This game isn’t about justifying the steady progress made under Coach Jay Gruden and General Manager Scot McCloughan. It isn’t about making a statement about the future, either. It’s simply about having the good sense to take advantage of a situation that the franchise might never enjoy again.
Despite playing in a league that flaunts and somehow transcends mediocrity, the Redskins have a chance to do something uncommon with their common record. On Sunday, they’re competing to become a rare NFL species: A back-to-back playoff qualifier that failed to reach 10 victories in either season.
It has happened just three times since 1990, the year the NFL changed to a 12-team playoff format. It last occurred 20 seasons ago, when Minnesota made the playoffs at 9-7 in 1997 after making the playoffs with the same record the previous season. For as wide open as the NFL seems every year, history shows it doesn’t often give free playoff passes to repeat offenders of mediocrity. A 10-6 record is the standard for playoff security, particularly for wild card teams. If you make the playoffs in consecutive seasons with fewer than 10 wins, you should celebrate by going to the casino, playing the lottery and trying to shoot an imaginary bow and arrow without getting fined. Good fortune is your companion.
Beat the Giants, and Washington is all but assured of making the playoffs as a 9-6-1 wild card a year after qualifying, at 9-7, as the NFC East division champion. It’s too extraordinary a gift to pass up. The oddity is allowing this nifty little rebuilding project to accelerate and grow in stature.
In fact, a victory Sunday and return to the playoffs would symbolize that the first phase of the rebuild — the most difficult phase because it requires extreme faith and patience — is over. You can’t make the playoffs in back-to-back years and say you’re rebuilding. You just can’t, not even if you’ve failed to reach double-digit victories in a season. You’re officially on to the second phase, which is about refining the roster and looking like a true perennial division title contender. And then the final phase, which many rebuilding efforts don’t reach, is all about chasing a championship.
Beat the Giants, and contending regularly becomes a clearer concept. For all the fits and starts of the last two seasons, Washington is close to having a rinse-and-repeat winning strategy for the first time under owner Daniel Snyder.
“If you win this game and get into the playoffs, it doesn’t matter what you did earlier in the year,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “It comes down to this one game. If you don’t make it in, then everything was, like, whatever. It was for nothing. But if you play your butt off this game and get in, then you’re good. Then you start a whole new season. You start a whole new reputation. So this is everything, man.”
Washington has been good in must-win situations recently. That’s how players overcome inconsistency, by playing their best when the alternative seems dire. If McCloughan has established anything in two seasons running the personnel department, it’s that he can find players with the will and professionalism to thrive under these conditions. He talks often about scouting for toughness and searching for “football players.” He values competitors over athletic freaks. It’s obvious that Washington still needs to upgrade its talent across the roster, but there’s a fight to this team that helps it survive its weaknesses.
The coaches and players use the word “resilience” to explain it without really explaining it. But such an intangible doesn’t develop magically. The front office has sought grit in every move, from the new regime’s decision to draft guard Brandon Scherff with its first draft pick in 2015 to its quick move to make cornerback Josh Norman the highest paid cornerback in the history of the sport.
“You heard it nonstop this offseason with Scot,” safety Will Blackmon said. “He kept saying, ‘I like football players, football players, football players.’ Well, what is that? That’s just more than just the ability. It is the intangible. It’s guys who are fighters, guys who understand the game, guys who are able to deal with adversity, whether that’s an injury, whether that’s your playing time is limited and you have to sacrifice for the team so more guys can play. Those are the intangibles that help build a football player. You’re willing to do whatever it takes to help this team be successful because, at the end of the day, it’s about the team.”
So, why does this fightin’ team produce such uneven results until it’s in a desperate situation?
“Sometimes, in football, you’ve just got to pin somebody against the wall and smack ’em to see what they’re really made of. That’s us,” Blackmon said. “Sometimes, having our backs against the wall triggers that underdog mentality and forces us to lock in. It is an interesting team.”
Interesting, as in enigmatic. And incomplete, too. But if these are the football players that McCloughan seeks, they’ll soon eclipse their average record and add an unlikely description to their profile: back-to-back playoff qualifier.