There are many frustratingly unclear aspects of Coach Jay Gruden’s master strategy for the Washington Redskins so far this year, but one classic element of the Redskins’ existence has reared its head once again: The franchise loves to get off to bad starts and does not demonstrate any type of home-field advantage early in the season.
The Redskins have built this expectation-tempering reputation over the past four seasons and continued it this year. Starting in 2012, the Redskins have gone 6-10 in the first four games of the season. With two losses already this year, Washington could at best make that record 8-12, but the team hasn’t seemed to hit the rhythm that would make two wins possible.
In those 16 season-opening games, the Redskins are 3-5 at home. This year they have lost two games at home, and with one more left in week four, they have secured another season of losing starts at FedEx Field. The NFL is an unpredictable league predicated on parity, and with just 16 games the door is always left open for the unexpected to happen. But home-field advantage tends to hold true and is often an essential component of any winning franchise’s formula for success. The Redskins struggle to cultivate that advantage.
It may be a little unfair to chalk these slow starts up to anything other than the Redskins’ simply being a mediocre team. A forgettable 4-12 2014 campaign included a 1-3 start — the same ratio of wins to losses the team would maintain at the end of the season. 2015 saw a 2-2 start to the season end in a 9-7 record and a playoff berth — again a relatively consistent start and finish.
What has been most glaring about the Redskins’ failure to start hot, though, is its repeated occurrence when expectations and hopes are highest. Memories of the 2013 season’s dismal follow-up performance to 2012 is what makes me break out in a cold sweat when thinking about this team late at night.
The 2013 season was a brutal splash of reality for a fan base that had gained some faith in its franchise after a seven-game winning streak to end the season brought the Redskins a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. That playoff game against the Seahawks would become infamous for Offensive Rookie of the Year quarterback Robert Griffin III’s attempt to play on an injured knee with the blessing of his coach, Mike Shanahan, and the subsequent buckling of that knee, ending the Redskin’s season.
That campaign was followed by a 3-12 effort, including a 1-3 start to the season (0-2 at home). RGIII never returned to form, and the team crashed back down to earth, losing all eight games against the divisional opponents they had bested for the NFC East crown only a season before.
A surprising 2015 campaign saw Kirk Cousins lead the Redskins to the division title again. That season, the Redskins started 2-2, and won two of three games at home — perhaps the most inspired early season performance in recent memory for the team. The Redskins still dug themselves a 2-4 hole in the first six weeks and needed a petite, four-game version of the winning streak that ended the 2012 season to grab a playoff berth.
Now, an 0-2 start has Washington staring into the eyes of another high-expectation, low-quality performance season. The Redskins have struggled to perform on offense, raising questions about Cousins throughout the media and supposedly even in the locker room. It is far too early to start jumping to dramatic conclusions.
Fourteen games remain, and a lot of the problems besetting the Redskins so far can be chalked up to early season rustiness — formation problems, substitution issues, conditioning, etc. But the potential parallels are stark, and early season woes are inviting cynicism far earlier than desirable for a team looking to shake off its erratic ways.
Last year, Washington made the playoffs without beating a team with a winning record. This year, it pays for that success with a more challenging schedule, including dates with the Bengals, Packers, Cardinals and Panthers, along with a week one Monday night loss to the Steelers. The Redskins cannot afford another slow start. All those matchups come in week eight or later, interspersed among divisional games. There is no room for slow progress — urgency is needed now.
A Super Bowl hangover is one thing. A Wild Card hangover is an entirely different, more humiliating problem to have. For Cousins and Gruden, the ominous quarterback/head coach carousel looms in the background, and we know all too well that Dan Snyder is not afraid to flip the switch and try something new.
The jury is still out, and I am still hopeful that someday I can again shout, “You like that?” without sounding like a falsely-confident Dallas fan. However, a tepid start to the season would be a serious setback, and any righting of the ship will have to occur much sooner than later.