Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Patriots and Redskins both went 10-6 last year. They were even eliminated in the same playoff weekend (the second). Look at the two teams now, though. The Pats, anxious to return to the top, are all but ripping their opponents’ facemasks off. After three NFL titles, they’re still hungry for more. The Redskins, meanwhile, are acting as if these practice games are beneath them, aren’t worthy of their best efforts.

The contrast couldn’t have been any starker than it was Saturday night, when New England stomped the Snydermen 41-0. Yes, you can read too much into preseason results, but the difference in the clubs’ approaches — gung-ho vs. ho-hum — was striking. If a 10-6 season is enough to make the Redskins complacent, how are they ever going to get to the next level, never mind the Patriots’ level?

And that’s largely what we’re seeing here: self-satisfaction. The Redskins have been talking about their Super Bowl aspirations since training camp opened, which is fine. You want players aiming high. But they seem to have forgotten they were 5-6 at one point last year — and 6-10 the year before that. They seem to have forgotten that, in the playoffs, they had trouble making a first down, never mind a touchdown. Last season was a nice beginning, something to build on, nothing more.

In fact, even duplicating last season’s record may take some doing. The Giants, Cowboys and Eagles all have been loading up. Everybody in the NFC East looks, on paper, to be more muscular this season. And this is how the Redskins prepare for the coming onslaught — by mailing it in against the Patriots and looking barely interested against the Bengals (19-3) and Jets (27-14)?

The yardage totals the other night — Patriots 464, Redskins 154 — looked like Reagan’s margin over Mondale in the Electoral College. And while the Washington offense continued to be very vanilla, per Al Saunders’ instructions, it wasn’t like the New England attack was Coconut Almond Fudge Chip. It consisted mostly of Tom Brady flipping passes to his tight end, Ben Watson, whose name must have been missing in Washington’s scouting report. (There’s no other explanation for his eight catches for 97 yards.)

In its defense, the Redskins secondary did shut down Deion Branch, holding him without a reception. But then, Branch has yet to report to camp.

The Redskins’ preseason passivity is puzzling. You wonder whether the early, freak injury to Clinton Portis is weighing on players’ minds, causing them to play a little less recklessly. It’s been known to happen.

Then, too, maybe it hasn’t dawned on the Redskins that they’re the hunted now rather than the hunter. They made the playoffs last season, so opponents are going to come after them a bit harder this year. It would behoove them, in other words, to bring their A game most weeks — especially when tangling with the likes of the Patriots.

The Redskins’ all-world coaching staff also deserves some of the blame — for the New England disaster, at least. Everyone knows the Patriots place a major emphasis on their third preseason game, treat it almost like a real one. If the Redskins didn’t want to get shown up, they had to meet the Pats on their own terms. Alas, the coaches sent them out with the same old Mickey Mouse game plan — three yards and a cloud of punts. Thus did a bad situation (0-2, with zero points by the starting offense) become worse (0-3, with zero points by the starting offense).

If all this squirreling away of touchdown plays translates into victories in December and January, swell. But if it translates into a slow start, not so swell. I wouldn’t bet on the Redskins being able to rally from 5-6 two years in a row.

A 41-0 preseason pounding “doesn’t count,” Mark Brunell said yesterday, “but it does matter.” It matters, particularly, if it helps bring some guys to their senses, makes clear to them, as it has been made clear to Phillip Daniels, that “we can’t look at last year and think we can just throw our helmets on the field and win games. Last year is gone. This is a new year.”

Fortunately for the Redskins, they have some experience dealing with disasters. Last season, you may recall, they got blindsided 36-0 by the Giants — a virtual FEMA Moment — and lived to tell about it. The loss to the Patriots isn’t nearly as bad as that. It just feels that way.

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