- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A reasonable slogan for the Washington Redskins‘ bye week would be “pass the tongue scraper.”

A careening first half of the season closed with a tie game in London and the four-game suspension for one of the team’s best players, left tackle Trent Williams. That combination leaves the 4-3-1 Redskins moving through the bye week trying to spit out residual flavors from those two events.

There is good to note. After an 0-2 start, with both losses at home, Washington pushed its way back into the NFC East Division race. In a surprisingly competent division, being one game above .500 midway through the season puts the Redskins in last place. However, two of the teams in front of them, the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, are a mere 4-3.

The Eagles and Giants play each other Sunday in New York. When the Redskins‘ preparation reboots Nov. 7, they could be tied with both the Giants and Eagles or in front of at least one and just behind the other with head-to-head matchups against each still to come.

As strange as the division — led by the 6-1 Dallas Cowboys, winners of six consecutive games and preparing to send quarterback Tony Romo out to pasture because of it — the NFC as a whole has waded through a hallucinogenic start.

If Washington leafed through the other three divisions in the conference, it would find just four teams above .500 eight weeks into the season. The longest winning streak among those 12 non-NFC East teams heading into this weekend? One game. The woebegone conference makes a playoff spot still attainable for the Redskins.

“I think we have all of our goals still in sight which is good, but we’re obviously disappointed not being at the top of our division right now,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Monday. “That’s probably the most negative thing is where we are in the division. You know, being at 4-3-1, if you told me before the season we are 4-3-1 after eight games and [would] be in last place, I’d say you’re crazy. But, you know, that’s a little disappointing.

“Positives, I like the effort we’re playing with. I think we’re getting better and better. Our offense is playing pretty well right now. Obviously the red zone things are something we have to correct. We have to finish drives and figure out ways … We have too many weapons and too many good players not to convert drives into touchdowns and that’s something that we’ll address. But other than that, I am not disappointed at all in any player or any way that we are playing, but we just have to tie up some things, tie up some loose ends here, correct some coachable things and get ready for the second half.”

Gruden was not pursuing puns when mentioned the things his team needs to “tie” up. However, that game in London provided a pivot point on the perception of Washington’s first half. A win would have vaulted the team to 5-3. After an 0-2 start, telling Gruden that his team would be 5-3 in Week 8 would have brought delight. Instead, the coach and his players left London with the unpalatable tie.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a tie,” kicker Dustin Hopkins said. “Not pee wee, anything.”

The Redskins resurfaced when their defense began to straighten itself out. It’s odd to look at being ranked 26th in the league in total defense as progress, but it is for the Redskins. The start of the season was such an abomination, defensive coordinator Joe Barry was defending strategies, being yelled at on the sidelines by his players and second-guessed by everyone with a microphone and keyboard.

But even after losing their starting safeties, the Redskins have been able to right themselves. Washington’s defense is 19th in points allowed. Again, not a dancing-in-the-streets level statistic, but still an improvement.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins appears unbowed by playing for his future under the franchise tag. He is up to second in the league in passing yards (he does have a game in hand against some who trail him). His completion percentage has crept to 67 percent, good for fifth among full-time quarterbacks this season and seventh among the qualified leaders. Nagging him, however, is a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12-7.

When he lines up against the league’s No. 1 defense, the Minnesota Vikings, in his next game, Cousins will be without Williams. The league announced Tuesday that the four-time Pro-Bowler was suspended four games for violating its substance abuse policy. Williams‘ likely replacement is Ty Nsekhe, a massive 31-year-old in his second season with Washington, and the latest plug-and-play piece for a team that is trying to hold together important positions with half a dozen starters out for the short- or long-term.

Washington will spend the remainder of the week recovering, strategizing and working out individually. Gruden expects the time off to refresh brains and bodies.

“Hopefully they come back with a free mind and [will] be ready to roll for the second half of the season,” Gruden said. “We have a tough stretch. I think we have three games in 11 days, or something like that. We have got Minnesota right around the corner. No. 1 defense in the league, they’re playing extremely well. We have got to get ready. Big thing is to get some time off, get their mind off football for a little while, and then come back raring to go because it’s going to be a grind. The second half of the season is going to be a tough one.”

If the first half is any indication, it will also be a tumultuous ride.

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