- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It’s a short work week - for everybody, not just the Washington Redskins. So let’s get cracking, shall we? We have much ground to cover and a mere 800 words to do it in, give or take a dangling participle. Title today’s effort: Things We Learned in the Redskins’ 18-16 Loss at Dallas.

• As far as the NFC East is concerned, the Redskins have nothing to fear but fear itself. They’ve seen the New York Giants - a bit battered, but still the Giants - and beaten them by 14 points. They’ve seen the Cowboys - not quite whole, but still the Cowboys - and nearly beaten them, holding them without a touchdown. They’ve also seen the Philadelphia Eagles, who have put a lot of eggs in their 2011 basket, drop two of their first three games, one at home to a New York team that wasn’t a whole lot healthier than it was when it came to Washington.

What are we to make of this? Answer: That the bar may not be set very high in the division. That the gap that might have existed in recent years between the Redskins and their rivals has all but disappeared. The four clubs look to be so close that it may not require the usual 10 or 11 wins to take the NFC East title - especially with everybody facing the rugged AFC East in nonconference play. Nine wins might do it. Could the Redskins get to nine? Well, they got to six last year with a less talented roster (and five losses by a field goal or less).

So while the first three weeks are just a snapshot, they offer some interesting clues. The division, it appears, is nicely balanced - but hardly awe-inspiring. That bodes well for a Redskins team that has gotten younger and hopes to be significantly better in January than it is right now.

• Chris Cooley hasn’t begun to calcify, and Fred Davis isn’t yet an irresistible force. Some were suggesting last week that Cooley might be in eclipse and that Davis was on the cusp of becoming an elite tight end. So what happens? Cooley catches four passes for 41 yards against the Cowboys and does a commendable job as a stand-in fullback, and Davis, obviously a focus of the Dallas defense, has a quiet night, making just one grab for 23.

The NFL has turned into a tight end league in many ways. You don’t just need one good tight end anymore, you need two. And you need to play them together to, among other things, protect against blitzes - while still posing a credible passing threat.

The Redskins are fortunate to have two capable tight ends. And in Mike Shanahan’s offense, they’re both going to get plenty of work. Though Davis clearly has made a great leap forward, he isn’t going to render Cooley irrelevant. As Cooley gets into game shape after missing the preseason with a knee injury, he figures to assert himself more. And that’s exactly what Shanahan - and Redskins Nation - should want. The more you can give the defense to worry about, the better off you are.

Besides, if Cooley’s knee issues were the least bit career-threatening, do you think Shanny would have him taking handoffs from Rex Grossman and plowing up the middle?

• Calling an all-out blitz on third-and-21 is like attempting an onside kick: It’s only a good idea if it works. Nobody cares about the brilliant analytical thinking that might have been behind it.

The Redskins’ blitz, with 2:25 left, never got there, and Tony Romo wound up completing a 30-yard pass that led to the winning field goal. Shanahan, naturally, was defensive about it afterward. “You can second-guess everything,” he sputtered.

True enough. But this call is particularly disconcerting - and not just because of the result. It’s bothersome because, well, you don’t blitz on third-and-21 out of strength. You blitz because you’re afraid of something or trying to cover up some deficiency. The Redskins defense had played nearly 58 minutes and held Dallas to five field goals. Most would say the unit was acquitting itself well. But defensive boss Jim Haslett decided the only solution to the third-and-21 “problem” was to throw the kitchen sink at the opposing quarterback.

If the Cowboys were almost in field goal range, you’d say, “Sure.” But they were on their 30. Why go all-in so soon? It just seemed like a needlessly risky move at a time when the Redskins could have played more conservatively and maybe forced Dallas into a tough fourth-down conversion. (Heck, there were complaints after the game about the turf being slippery. Maybe Romo’s intended target would have taken a tumble.)

OK, enough of this insufferable second guessing. On to Week 4 - and the many wonders it may hold.