Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Skins Surprise Even the Skeptics

I’ll admit it. I never thought the Redskins would be 4-1 to start the season.

If you asked me to place this on a scale of unlikelihoods, a month and a half ago, I would have slotted it somewhere between the sun setting in the East and waking up to find I possessed a super power.

But now, somehow, the Skins are 4-1 and God knows I am still super powerless. I sure as heck don’t have ESP; otherwise I would have been able to look past Washington’s abysmal preseason, its aging offensive line, injury-plagued defense and all of the troubles that come with installing a new offense to see that this Skins team was capable of this kind of start.

Like most, I instead saw this team plunging like the Dow Industrial Average to start this season. There were few reasons for optimism and it sure didn’t feel like a first-year head coach had the savvy to bail the Skins out. So far, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The biggest key to the team’s success this far has been clock control. Currently the Redskins rank fourth in the NFL in time of possession. Of the top seven teams in that category, four of them lead their division (Giants, Bears, Cardinals, Panthers). The remaining three are all in second.

Fueling that stat are the three earlier mentioned areas that I saw as problematic entering the season – their offensive line, a banged up defense and yet another new playbook to stunt Jason Campbell’s growth. Instead, Campbell has flourished to the tune of a completion percentage of 63.4. The line has mauled its opposition, allowing running back Clinton Portis to run for 514 yards so far, the second best total in the NFL.

That combination has kept Washington’s defense on the sidelines for most of the game. So while its defensive statistics aren’t particularly gawdy – the Skins D ranks near the middle of the league in yards and points allowed, 13th in both categories – in the time they are on the field, they’ve been effective.

Perhaps the most encouraging note of all for the Redskins is who they’ve beaten thus far and who they have coming up on the horizon. Washington has already dispatched the Cowboys and Eagles. Both teams were trendy picks to win the Super Bowl at the season’s start. And both of those wins came on the road. Next up are home games against the JV-caliber Rams, the underachieving Browns and the … well, I guess just saying “the Lions” covers all manners of ineptitude. Win those three and the worst Washington will be is 7-2 heading into its bye week. On the other side, even if the Skins drop their three remaining games against division foes, they could still finish at 11-5. That’s not out of the question, given that their road games come against a hard-luck Seattle team, the offensively-marginal Ravens, the currently sub-.500 49ers and, well, again, I guess “the Bengals” just about covers everything.

In a region rife with unrealistic expectations for the Redskins, I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. That was particularly true this season when I believed there would be a learning curve to adjust to new Head Coach Jim Zorn’s West Coast offense. Couple that with a particularly tough start to their schedule and I thought the Skins would be buried before they got through their first five games. Guess that ESP was gummed up.

Zorn deserves a lot of the credit, especially since he received a lot of the flack following two complete debacles to end the exhibition season. He seems to be pressing all of the right buttons and has the locker room in lock step, something with which Joe Gibbs and his army of assistant coaches struggled mightily.

As my esteemed colleague, Jody Fellows, pointed out Monday, Zorn and his staff seem to be very good at learning and making adjustments as games progress. The evidence of that? Through Sunday’s game, the Redskins are allowing an average of only one touchdown in the second half.

Washington isn’t dominating its opponents, but it doesn’t have to. The Skins just need to keep doing what they’re doing. Get the ball. Hold the ball (no picks and plus-six turnover ratio). Chew the clock and put points on the board. If they continue to do those things, then this team will continue to defy expectations.