Picking Splinters: Are ‘Skins Playoff Material?

After downing the Chicago Bears by three points on Sunday, the Washington Redskins sit second in the NFC East with the Eagles. Seven games into the season, it’s not crazy to start playoff talk, not that sanity has ever before constrained such conversations in the D.C. region. But are the enigmatic ‘Skins just setting us up for disappointment? Here’s a look at several dangerous signals that seem to indicate fans shouldn’t get their hopes up just yet.

Washington’s remaining schedule is quite the gauntlet. Only four of the Redskins’ remaining games come against teams with sub-.500 records. That doesn’t seem so bad at first, but consider that two of them are the grossly underachieving Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings. Both of those clubs are far better than their records indicate and statistically superior to the ‘Skins in several key categories. Particularly on defense, which leads us to point No. 2.

The defense looks like a mirage. Yes, they held the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles to a combined 25 points earlier this season, but on the whole they’ve given up yards by the score. The Redskins rank 21st overall against the run and a dismal 31st against the pass. In the past four seasons only two playoff teams have made the playoffs with a pass defense ranked 25th or worse. One of them was the 2009 New Orleans Saints. I think we can agree that the ‘Skins offense, though much improved, is not on par with that of last season’s Super Bowl champs.

That comparison with New Orleans brings up another aspect of why the ‘Skins D seems tougher that it may really be — turnovers. In addition to an epic offense, last season the Saints covered up a suspect defense by stealing possessions from the other team with 29 takeaways, second in the NFL. Washington currently stands tied for second in turnovers this season, with Sunday’s win against Chicago almost entirely based on that factor. (Thanks for the W, Jay Cutler.)

But enough bashing the defense, I’m similarly skeptical about the offense. While Donovan McNabb has improved the passing game in terms of yardage, the team’s completion percentage and passer rating have actually dipped this season. And a 21st-ranked rushing game, the ‘Skins aren’t exactly able to dominate the clock. They’re also 21st in time of possession, averaging 29:25 per game, despite a plus-8 turnover margin.

Now, I know that there are those out there that believe that numbers can lie. And even a sample size of half a season may not be indicative of how the season will continue, but let’s put the Redskins to the eye test as well.

Sure, the ‘Skins impressively halted Green Bay and Chicago. But they also choked away a 17-point lead to Houston with a little over 18 minutes left in the game. They also got absolutely smoked by a St. Louis Rams team with a rookie QB. In that win against Philly, they benefited from an injury to Michael Vick. And we already addressed the pivotal picks against the Bears. And, oh yeah, Washington still hasn’t scored much, averaging just 18.6 points per game.

Maybe it’s the recent history of heartbreak and disappointment that’s dogged the Redskins the past several seasons, but when I look at the Redskins, I don’t see a playoff team. At least not yet.

Turnovers are an important part of the game, but you can’t rely on them to win you games. You can’t build a game-plan around them. In fact, when you take into account all of the factors that add up to equal a turnover (defensive positioning, poor offensive execution, bad decision-making, recovering a bouncing football) they may be more a factor of luck than skill.

My Irish ancestors may tell me that it’s better to be lucky than good. But I haven’t seen too many lucky teams survive a 16-game schedule to earn a playoff berth. And there’s nothing the Redskins have done this season to convince me otherwise.