It's not how you begin the season, but how you end it. Ask the 2006 New York Giants. Or the 2007 Dallas Cowboys. Or, maybe just maybe, the 2008 Eagles.
The 2008 Washington Redskins? They've gone from Beltway darling to capital goat faster than you can say Barack Obama. That 6-2 record in late October is nothing but a distant memory now that the Redskins have dropped five of their last six games, including Sunday to those NFC East foils, the Cincinnati Bengals, to fall to 7-7. The playoffs? Washington is the longest of long shots, at best.
"It's just like those one or two plays that they normally make and we weren't making, it's like going in a different direction for them," Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "It's kind of like [what] we were going through it in the fall, like we just can't get over the hump, we can't get over the hump. . . . It's almost like you're trying to win so bad, you're pressing."
That's the Redskins. Pressing. Bickering. Searching for answers. Wondering if Daniel Snyder is going to fire yet another head coach with time remaining on his contract. And now, after losing to Pittsburgh, Dallas, the Giants, Baltimore and Cincinnati in the last seven weeks, Washington gets one of the hottest teams in the NFL, the Eagles, who are playing for their playoff lives.
It was only two months ago that Jim Zorn was being hailed as a potential coach-of-the-year candidate in his first season as an NFL head coach. He had the Redskins playing with confidence, with a swagger, exceeding low expectations and breezing through the first half of the regular season with unexpected success.
And then the schedule got tougher, and the injuries mounted, and Zorn didn't look so smart. Yesterday, Zorn referred to Washington's stumble as a "third-quarter" problem - as in the third quarter of the season - but the fourth quarter hasn't been much better.
In the Redskins' three consecutive losses - to the Giants, Ravens and Bengals - they were outscored by 38-0 in the opening 15 minutes. The defense has been unable to get off the field late in games, and the passing game has floundered.
To make matters worse, Washington has had injuries to key players, notably to offensive tackle Chris Samuels, who is out for five to six months after partially tearing his right triceps. And running back Clinton Portis, who has played through a knee injury, has been unhappy with the way Zorn, who also essentially serves as the Redskins' offensive coordinator, has used him in recent weeks.
"I think he's doing fine," Zorn said yesterday during a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters. "He's been hurt, [but] he's worked his way back. I think he's getting healthier every week. I think he ran hard last week, and this will be the first week he hasn't needed treatment, so he's getting better as the season goes on. Unfortunately, it's winding down for us."
That it is. And the off-season talk is gearing up. Although Zorn said earlier this week that he has the support of Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, Washington's executive vice president of football operations, it's not a lock that Zorn will be back for his second year. Snyder fired Marty Schottenheimer after one season and Steve Spurrier after just two.
"I didn't know people were calling for my head already," Zorn said. "I think I feel very confident in the direction we're going. I know that I'm patient, and I know that I'm competitive. There's some certain things that I know about myself that I'm not worried about that sort of speculation, and I don't really spend my day even listening to it, to be honest with you, because there's so much do to.
"I don't fret over that stuff. That part's not in my hands. What's really in my hands, and what I'm called on to do, is make sure I can do the best I can at that moment in the day, and that's really what I'm trying to do."
After the crippling Cincinnati loss, Zorn gave the players Monday off so that he could figure out what, if anything, he can do better. Zorn said that he encouraged the coaches to teach in practice like they did in training camp, focusing on details, no matter how small.
But Zorn and his players know the only thing that will make the situation better in Washington right now is a win.
"Winning is the biggest morale booster that every team has going for itself, because it just breeds confidence," Zorn said. "In the last six games, we've lost five, and that has been an absolute downer. So we're scratching and clawing for everything we can get."
"It's all about peaking at the right time in the National Football League," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "We started off strong and then kind of sputtered in the month of November, and now we're trying to get our tires back on our car.
"Philly, they sputtered a little bit in late October and early November, and now, ever since the Arizona game, they've been riding good. They're one of the hottest teams in the league right now."