ARLINGTON, Texas – The Washington Redskins don’t yet have the hard punch, the blow that floors an opponent. They’ve got finesse, and big plays, and yards, lots and lots of yards. They’re pretty and efficient, with all kinds of nifty numbers. But what they lack is a fist.
The lack explains so many of their baffling and second-guessable decisions that leave their fans bleating, why? Why try 55-yard field goal into the blinding Texas sun with a kicker who is struggling? Why onside kick, when you’ve just closed to within single digits of the Dallas Cowboys? Because you don’t have the hard punch, the big blow, to be confident on a fourth down and you can’t be sure your defense will hold, that’s why.
The numbers against the Cowboys all looked so good, even the final score, 31-26. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and even some things to take pride in, such as Kirk Cousins’s 449 yards in passing. Still, they were wallpaper that covered over a significant difference between these two teams, and the difference amounted to weight class. Dallas is 10-1 because it has the ability to impose its will, and Washington is 6-4-1 because it doesn’t. The dynamic was summed up by the postgame scuffling between Josh Norman and Dez Bryant, with the two jawing helmet-to-helmet and then Norman throwing air punches at the bigger Bryant, while Bryant just put out a monstrous hand and shoved him away by the face mask. All Norman could do in response was fling a towel at him.
The Cowboys had a fist every time they needed it, usually in the form of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who bracketed the game with touchdown blasts. On the Cowboys’ opening 75-yard drive, on which they averaged over 10 yards a play, he looked like a huge Pac Man eating up a row.
“Over time, you keep running the football, you’re going to wear them down,” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said. “It really broke their backs. It really sealed the deal.”
Washington never came close to showing that kind of power, for all of its numbers. The Redskins outgained the Cowboys by 505 yards to 353 – to what end? It was telling, to put it mildly, that they stood on the Dallas 19, 5 and 2-yard lines in the first half and came away with just six points and could not score a touchdown until the opening of the fourth quarter.
That Washington found a way to bite back in the second half was to its credit – the Redskins’ big-play ability kept them in it. But actually, it wasn’t a great sign of health that Cousins had to fling it as much as he did – completing 41 of 53 attempts – in order to do so. “If you force a team to throw 53 times, typically you’re going to have success,” Garrett said.
There was never a turning point when the Redskins wrested the momentum away. No sooner had Cousins found Jordan Reed with a scoring pass to finally get in the end zone and cut the margin to five points to start the fourth quarter than the Cowboys promptly answered with another heavy punch, one of those imposing drives in which they ate up 10-yard gains on every play. Dak Prescott finished it off with his dynamic six-yard scoring run. “He’s the daddy when he does that,” owner Jerry Jones said.
Coach Jay Gruden will undoubtedly be armchair-criticized for some of his decisions, especially twice giving Dallas a short field that resulted in touchdowns. But the Redskins’ inconsistency in the red zone on offense and their inability to consistently stop the run on defense surely complicates his decision-making. When you lack the sure-fire go-to play, and the brawn to execute it, play-calls aren’t automatic, and that leads to some skewed thinking. What’s better when you’re playing from behind and getting physically pasted at some crucial positions: to let Dustin Hopkins try a 55-yarder with the sun lasering in his eyes, or try a fourth-down gamble? What’s smarter when you’ve cut it to five points in the fourth quarter: to risk the onside kick, or to kick away when you know your defense has little or no chance of stopping Elliot, Prescott and Bryant with a supporting cast that included Cole Beasley and the toe tapper Terrance Williams?
It was no wonder when Washington would get in the red zone tit would have to pause and consider its options, think so hard about what might work.
“Each play has its own reasons,” Cousins said. It’s why the seconds leached off the clock at the end of the first half while the Redskins fussed around. It’s why they got way too cute with play-calling and went to a wildcat – huh???? – a formation they hadn’t tried all season. And it’s why they onside kicked in the fourth. They were all finesse and productivity, but they lacked the crucial measure of muscle and bone to move the opponent out of the way when they had to.
Move the opponent out of the way is what the Cowboys did, when it counted most. And it’s why they’re poised for a deep run, while Washington is in third place in its division.
“We have to understand where we are and what it’s going to take to get an opportunity to come back here in the future,” Gruden said. “We don’t have a lot of margin for error. . . . The great teams will make plays and advance, and the ones that [don’t] will have to look forward to the draft.”