- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

A 9-2 record ain’t what it used to be in the NFL. Not by a long shot. Such success used to mean a team was A Cut Above the competition — and maybe it still does. But the difference between Above and Below, it seems, has never been smaller.

The New England Patriots are one such 9-2 club. The Patriots are cruising along with a seven-game winning streak and have almost locked up the AFC East title — except they aren’t really cruising along. Seven of their games have been decided by eight points or fewer, including the last four. They just happen to have won six of them, that’s all.

This is what passes for dominance in pro football today. It’s not a matter of blowing opponents out, it’s a matter of winning the white knucklers — a bunch of them. This season, more than I can ever remember, many of the best teams are barely skating by each week. A field goal here, an intentional safety there — that’s all that separates the Patriots from, say, the Redskins, who actually beat New England a couple of months ago (admittedly when the Pats’ locker room resembled a hospital ward).

The Carolina Panthers are another such club. The Panthers have pieced together an 8-3 record without ever really demonstrating they’re much better than anybody else — except in the Close Games Department, that is. Eight of their games have been decided by four points or fewer and, miraculously, they’ve won six. Rarely has the law of averages been so cavalierly violated.

And look at the 8-3 Dallas Cowboys. They’re a perfect 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Or the first place Cincinnati Bengals. Their last 10 games have been decided by eight points or fewer — and they’re 6-4 in them. Or the 9-2 Indianapolis Colts (5-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less). Or the 8-3 Philadelphia Eagles (who recently had six nail-biters in a row — and won five). All these teams stand a good chance of being in the playoffs, and some of them could have first-round byes. But they don’t exactly fit the description of the old-style, Vince Lombardi juggernaut, do they?

Parity, of course, has narrowed the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots in the NFL. Generally speaking, about half the games nowadays are decided by a TD or less (up from 32.4 percent in 1970), and about a quarter of them are decided by a field goal or less (up from 18.7 percent in ‘70). That’s why kickers have become so vitally important — and why you’re always hearing losing coaches say, “We’re not that far away.”

How different the Redskins’ life would be this morning if they had just taken care of business in the fourth quarter the past few weeks. Instead of having a 4-7 record — only three NFC clubs are worse — they’d be 6-5 and in the thick of the wild-card chase. But because they allowed the Panthers and Dolphins to drive the length of the field on them in the late going, the Redskins are pretty much playing out the string right now.

Just like the last two years.

Football folk are forever talking about “learning how to win.” What they really mean is: learning how to win the close ones. The Redskins, for instance, have played as many close games as any team in the NFL this season; nine have been decided by a touchdown or less. But they’ve won only four, which explains their current predicament. They need to figure out a way to win more — preferably sooner rather than later.

The problem is, winning the close ones is often a mysterious thing. Is it leadership? Coaching? Character? Luck? Some combination of the four? Or is it something entirely different?

In the case of the Redskins, Steve Spurrier thinks it’s a matter “too many errors” at crunch time. “We haven’t gotten our guys to be as assignment conscious as they should be,” he said yesterday. “In crucial situations, we’re not fundamentally sound.”

Which raises the question: Why does a club that’s playing well — or rather, well enough to be leading a game — suddenly stop being fundamentally sound?

Whatever the answer, winning close games has never been more important. Consider last year’s Super Bowl teams, both of which may well sit out the playoffs this season. Tampa Bay is 0-4 in games decided by a field goal or less; Oakland is 2-6 in games decided by a TD or less. The worm, in other words, has turned for both of them.

Then there’s Buffalo, the early darling of a lot of prognosticators (including yours truly). The Bills, at 4-7, have essentially fallen out of the playoff picture. Can you guess why? Because they’ve dropped their last three games by margins of four, two and three points.

So the Redskins have plenty of company in their misery. (For every skin-of-his-teeth winner, after all, there’s a heartbroken loser.) But they don’t appear to be getting any closer to solving their problem. And since the Ball Coach has been running the show for almost two years now, that’s troubling.


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