Gather around the fireplace, kids, and let Uncle Dan tell you a story. It concerns perhaps the greatest team in pro football history, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers - the 1965 edition, to be exact.
The Packers in those years were wall-to-wall with Hall of Famers - Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis, Herb Adderley, Willie Wood. But in the middle of that ‘65 season, something strange happened: In a three-week stretch, the offense had two games in which it had negative passing yardage and gained only 63 and 68 yards total. Run to daylight? Try chuck and duck.
The Pack would go on to win the third of their five NFL championships under Lombardi, but you wouldn’t have guessed it during that dreary period. Such is the fickle nature of football. It humbles even the heroic.
The Redskins had one of those humbling experiences Monday night against the Steelers. They couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t throw it, couldn’t keep their quarterback vertical - and by the end of the 23-6 tail-kicking, they couldn’t do much of anything. Naturally, folks are having all kinds of apocalyptic visions as the team limps off to its bye week. That’s what folks often do at times like these: overreact.
Had the Redskins won, folks might have overreacted the other way and begun making Super Bowl plans. But because they lost, the tea leaves are being read much differently. The club, some have decided, doesn’t belong on the top shelf with the Steelers and the other “really good” teams. It might be playoff caliber, but it isn’t Serious Contender caliber.
But honestly, how often do we know with eight weeks left in the season who are the contenders and who are the pretenders? Did the ‘65 Packers look like a title team in late October and early November when their offense was hard-pressed just to get a first down?
Or take another of the NFL’s storied clubs, the Chuck Noll Steelers. In mid-November 1979, the Steelers played at San Diego with AFC home-field advantage on the line and got pancaked 35-7, committing - I kid you not - eight turnovers. It would have been easy to make the argument that day that the Pittsburgh dynasty had run its course, that there would be no fourth Super Bowl ring. But the team did win another championship that season. For Terry Bradshaw and Co., the no-show against the Chargers was just One of Those Weeks.
The league’s history is full of such examples - of title-bound clubs looking absolutely horrible on a given Sunday, sometimes on more than one given Sunday. The ‘76 Raiders, for instance, lost just one game out of 17 - a 48-17 squeaker to the Patriots. The ‘87 Redskins, meanwhile, weren’t impressive at all for most of the season. Eight of their 11 nonstrike games were decided by four points or less, and they won only half of them. But they got hot in the playoffs and ran the table.
Even the best teams hit bumpy patches during the demanding 16-game schedule. And occasionally, a wheel or two comes off. Heck, the Giants stumbled six times last season en route to the championship. Two years earlier, the Steelers were 7-5 with a month to go and didn’t lose the rest of the way.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the decades, it’s that crystal balls can be awfully cloudy at this time of year. The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving tend to be a dead zone for a lot of clubs, a place - between the exhilaration of the first month and the pressure of the last - where letdowns are common.
The Redskins certainly had one against the Steelers. But they were also ripe for one. Pittsburgh was the fresher team, having already had its bye week, and the first half of its schedule hadn’t been quite as taxing as Washington’s. Throw in the 15,000 to 20,000 towel-waving Steelers fans in the FedEx Field crowd, and you had an unusually hospitable environment for the visitors.
So make of this defeat what you will. Indeed, make of these first nine weeks of the season what you will. The Titans are off and running at 8-0, but that doesn’t necessarily buy you much. After all, they’re the fifth team in the last six seasons to get halfway to perfection - joining last year’s Patriots, the ‘05 and ‘06 Colts and the ‘03 Chiefs - but only one of those previous four won the Super Bowl (Indianapolis in ‘06, after a 9-0 start).
Somebody will make an unforeseen run. Somebody almost always makes an unforeseen run. And the Redskins, no matter what shelf you put them on, are in the mix. In the first week of November there are worse places to be.