Before Sunday’s 32-27 Game 1 loss to the Eagles had even started, the Washington Redskins made one of those head-scratching moves that reminded anyone who might have forgotten that these were indeed the Washington Redskins.
A poster child for NFL instability in the tumultuous tenure of owner Dan Snyder, a team many have picked to finish at the bottom of the NFC East, the ‘Skins somehow decided that a healthy Adrian Peterson, their leading rusher in 2018, wouldn’t play in the 2019 opener.
“It had to be done,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden explained afterward, the words shooting out in a machine-gun staccato that seemed to reflect annoyance. “He’s a first- and second-down back. You have what, 20 first downs? Eight are going to be passes so 12 might be runs and Derrius [Guice] can handle those as well.”
The ‘Skins’ running game didn’t exactly prosper in Peterson’s absence. The Redskins collected a mere 28 yards on 13 rushes, none longer than 7 yards.
Perhaps an experienced back like Peterson, who ran for 1,042 yards a year ago - nearly 900 more than any other Redskin - then signed a two-year, $8 million deal, might have come in handy?
Gruden had his reasons. He explained that the ‘Skins were building their offense around Guice, the second-year back from LSU who missed his rookie season with a torn ACL. And he said that against the Eagles he needed an extra special-teams body to help counter Darren Sproles, who still returned four punts for 46 yards.
“If we have a game where we think we can run the ball 55 times in an I-formation,” said Gruden of Peterson, “then, sure, we’ll get him up.”
What little rushing success Washington enjoyed came early. With Guice finding holes and yards, new QB Case Keenum managed to run up some impressive stats. In the first half of his first Redskins game, as his team jumped out to a 17-0 lead, Keenum completed 16-of-22 passes for 257 yards, including a 69-yard scoring strike to rookie wideout Terry McLaurin.
“I thought Derrius did a great job of making plays when there wasn’t much there,” Kennum said. “Sometimes those one- or two-yard plays help. I thought he played a great game.”
But there was even less there in the second half. While being outscored, 25-7, Washington ran the ball just three times, for minus-3 yards. That, said Gruden, had as much to do with holding penalties and the Eagles’ defense as anything else.
“This is a team that loads up the box,” Gruden said of the Eagles. “We tried some runs that didn’t work, a couple traps, things of that nature. Either they ran it down or we got a holding call. That’s a heck of a defense they have.”
Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Peterson, whose career was resurrected a year ago in Washington, said it was the first time in his 13-year NFL career he’d been a healthy scratch.
“It was tough not being out there,” he said. “I’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation. I tried to help out as much as I could. I tried to be a coach on the sideline. I was cheering for the guys.”
But without a reliable running game, the Redskins couldn’t sustain any kind of momentum after halftime.
“We never had the ball,” said Gruden. “We kicked off and they went down and scored a touchdown and held the ball for eight or nine minutes. ... The penalties in the second half killed three drives in a row. We can help the defense out for sure by avoiding those penalties and staying on track with our play-calling. But the defense can help us out by getting off the field and maybe creating a turnover.”
And so another Redskins season began with a touch of controversy, with unanswered questions about an inexperienced offensive line, young wideouts, another new quarterback. And with a knee injury to their best interior defensive lineman, Jonathan Allen.