Success in pro football isn't just a matter of: How high can you fly? It's also a case of: How low can you sink?
Which brings us, naturally, to the Redskins. Every team has its ups and downs, but Joe Gibbs' club continues to be prone to huge mood swings. We saw it last season when the Redskins followed a 52-17 fracturing of the 49ers with a 36-0 stink bomb against the Giants. And we saw it again Sunday when they came up empty in a 19-3 loss at the Meadowlands -- a week after an exhilarating overtime win over the Jaguars.
Three years into Gibbs' Grand Return, the Redskins are still searching for equilibrium. When you can go from gaining 495 and 481 yards in consecutive games -- the latter against a rugged Jacksonville defense -- to gaining 164, something isn't quite right. Coach Joe is always talking about players who are "real Redskins" or "true Redskins" or "core Redskins," but he obviously doesn't have enough of those guys if he's still getting such wildly uneven results.
It's enough to make you wonder how good this team really is. Was last season the beginning of something, or did the club just catch a wave at the end? A reasonable question, given how the year has started -- with the Redskins back on the seesaw again.
"That's just football," Santana Moss says. "You're not going to come out and hit somebody over the head every week. Every team's going to have their day."
True enough. But the Redskins just went through a four-game stretch in which their offense scored three points (Dallas), 31 (Houston), 36 (Jacksonville) and three again. Or to put it another way: famine, feast, feast, famine. How far is any team going to go with those kinds of weekly fluctuations?
Last year the Snydermen went as far as the second round of the playoffs. But at no time, I'll just point out, did their offense get held to a field goal twice in the space of four games. And only once in the regular season were they beaten by more than a touchdown. They've already been beaten this season by 17 and 16.
Translation: They're not getting more consistent, as you might expect of a rebuilding club, they're getting less consistent. It's almost as if the offense has an Evil Twin -- and the defense, with its proneness to big plays, arouses similar suspicions.
"That's just something we've got to work on," Marcus Washington says. "If we want to be where we want to be, we've got to play consistent every week."
It shouldn't matter, Phillip Daniels adds, "who we line up against. We can't have a great game and follow it up with a game that's not so great. But we'll get there."
Will they, though? Up-and-down play isn't always easily curable. Sometimes it's a symptom of youth -- and can be outgrown -- but that's not the case with the Redskins, a mostly veteran club. Sometimes, too, it can be the result of change, such as the installation of Al Saunders' new offense. But Mark Brunell and Co. appeared to have a pretty good grasp of things when they racked up big yards against the Jaguars.
What else can we blame inconsistency on? Well, how about the obvious? How about a bloated payroll? How about large signing bonuses causing dampened desire? The Redskins, after all, haven't been built through the draft. Their starting lineup doesn't include a lot of mid-to-low-round picks who are playing for close to the minimum -- and busting their tails to get to the next economic rung. I mean, look at their offense:
QB: Mark Brunell (trade) -- big contract.
RB: Clinton Portis (trade) -- big contract.
LT: Chris Samuels (third pick in the 2000 draft) -- big contract.
RG: Randy Thomas (free agent) -- big contract.
RT: Jon Jansen (37th pick in the '99 draft) -- big contract.
WR: Santana Moss (trade) -- big contract.
WR: Antwaan Randle El (free agent) -- big contract.
WR: Brandon Lloyd (trade) -- big contract.
Some serious affluence there -- and in sports, affluence and appetite are often inversely proportional. It's just human nature. Gibbs' players in the '80s and '90s were also well paid, of course, but not nearly as well paid as this group. (And his rosters were liberally sprinkled with undrafted free agents like Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic, 10th-round picks like Mark Schlereth, sixth-rounders like Mark Rypien and fifth-rounders like Brian Mitchell.)
It's not that the Redskins played poorly against the Giants. It's that, for the most part, it didn't even seem like they were there. And that's troubling because a win over New York would have dealt a major blow to the Giants' playoff prospects -- and given a large boost to the Redskins'. How much incentive does a team need?
"We've got to find a way to keep that from happening again," Gibbs says. "After winning two in a row, I was kinda hoping we were on a roll. It just goes to show you."
It shows, as much as anything, that the Redskins are still a considerable ways from -- how did Marcus Washington put it? -- being where they want to be. Can they get there from here? We'll find out soon enough.