8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Washington -3, Over/Under: 42
Bitter rivals meet tonight in the Nation’s Capital with the division hanging in the balance as the Washington Redskins host the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field on Monday Night Football. Now if you’ve been living under a rock this season, you would probably interpret that opening statement as the Cowboys (3-8, 4th in NFC East) traveling to Washington with a tenuous grip on the NFC East lead. After all, that would be completely logical given their first place finish a year ago, their first since 2009. However, in one of the most chaotic seasons in recent memory, the tables have turned, and it is the Redskins (5-6, 1st in NFC East) who have a hold on the division, while their counterparts languish in last place. Honestly, languish is too strong a word at the moment, for Jason Garrett’s charges aren’t mathematically out of anything; thanks to the mediocre nature of the division, Dallas is only two games out of first, even with the plague of injuries that has rocked this club to it’s core. It all began back in September when both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant sustained significant injuries, sidelining each for a prolonged period of time; the former broke his clavicle in a Week 2 victory over the Eagles before missing the following seven games, while the latter suffered a broken bone in his foot during the opener against the Giants, which would keep him off the field until Week 8. With arguably their two most important players on the mend, the Cowboys struggled mightily, losing all seven games until Romo managed to return to the field on November 22nd. In fact, the seven-game losing streak was the longest in Cowboys’ history since their dreadful 1-15 campaign back in 1989. So how does one go about replacing a four-time Pro Bowl Quarterback, you ask? Well, the faithful in Northern Texas will tell you that it’s certainly not with the likes of Brandon Weedon or Matt Cassel; despite each owning a wealth of starting experience under Center, both passers floundered when given the opportunity this season, as Weedon was released shortly after Romo’s return, while Cassel, who was acquired after No. 9’s initial injury, remained the backup. With that said, once the 35-year old returned to the lineup their was a brief glimmer of hope, as Dallas bested Miami in a 24-14 victory, reigniting their prospects of making a comeback in the division. Unfortunately, that optimism would not last long as what was supposed to be an annual day of thanks turned into a nightmare of regret; during Thanksgiving’s 33-13 beatdown at the hands of the Panthers, Romo reinjured the same collarbone that he broke two months prior, effectively ending his season altogether. If there was ever a moment when the air was collectively sucked out of a building, that was it. So with their leader down for the count and their chances at an NFC East crown growing more faint by the day, what in the name of Tom Landry can these guys do to stay in the race for the division?
Well, Jerry Jones could start by resurrecting the likes Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, and Deion Sanders all to their respective primes, and then coaxing a rejuvenated Jimmy Johnson out of retirement with a lifetime supply of Viagra. We jest folks, for this writer has all the respect in the world for Johnson, but you can see how this task of staying in the NFC (L)East race has quickly become Mission: Impossible. However, if Garrett wants to remain competitive then he’s going to have to borrow a page from the two-time Super Bowl-winning Head Coach’s playbook; to defeat their longtime rivals tonight, the Cowboys are going to have to run the hell out of the football. Seriously, we’re talking about the old days where Aikman used to turn around and hand it off to Smith roughly forty times, and let his mammoth Offensive Line just lean on the opposition for sixty minutes. Even without Romo keeping defenses honest (not to mention last year’s leading rusher DeMarco Murray), Dallas has still proven very proficient when they’ve ran the ball, no matter who has been under Center; through eleven games, they have averaged 115.1 yards per game on the ground (13th Overall) on a solid 4.2 yards per carry (10th Overall). Granted, good run defenses have managed to slow them down, evidenced by their 73 total yards versus Tampa Bay and Carolina, but overall they’ve imposed their will at the line of scrimmage, gaining over 100 rushing yards on eight occasions, including over 125 yards five times. With Murray off to greener pastures in Philadelphia, Garrett has employed a committee of ‘Backs consisting of Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Christine Michael, and Darren McFadden, with the last of the quartet developing into the primary rusher. After seven most forgettable seasons in Oakland, the former No. 4 Pick in the 2008 NFL Draft has found success behind arguably the most dominant Offensive Line in the league. It’s just a matter of carries for this guy; McFadden has rushed for 634 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 169 carries thus far, with all three of his 100-yard games coming when he has received a minimum of twenty-seven carries. In fact, in the eleven games he has played this season, No. 20 has averaged just 29.5 yards when he has carried the ball twenty times or fewer, compared to a staggering 132.7 when he has had more. Furthermore, his yards per carry in the former field is a mere 2.8, while in the latter situations he has trampled his way to 4.7 yards per attempt. Of course, employing a run-heavy gameplan, will go a long way towards minimizing the mistakes from Cassel, who after being acquired in late September is still very much learning the nuances of Garrett’s system. The 33-year old has completed 62.6% of his passes for an average of 180.4 yards per game (6.5 y/a), with five touchdowns and five interceptions to his credit, all the while posting an unflattering Total QBR of 42.43. He should be far more effective if McFadden and the ground game can keep the downs and distance in manageable situations. And if they stick to this gameplan, there is no reason to think that it won’t work, for their opponent tonight has been very porous in defending the run; Washington has permitted a sizeable 126.6 yards per game on the ground this year (28th Overall), yielding a miserable 4.7 yards per carry, fourth-most in the league. Despite relegating the Giants, who don’t run the ball effectively anyway, to a scant 33 rushing yards last week, the Redskins had been gashed for a ridiculous 174.7 yards in a six-game stretch from October 11th to November 22nd, and that was before holding their first four opponents of the campaign below ninety rushing yards. So yes, the gameplan should be rather simple, folks. Snap the ball and hand it off to McFadden until the stadium empties…
Meanwhile, for the first time in about two years it hasn’t been doom and gloom in the Nation’s Capital, as the Redskins are currently on track for their first NFC East Title since 2012. Now waitaminute, we know what you’re all thinking, that it’s far too premature to crown Washington in a division that has been so bad that there could a three-way tie for first place despite all three teams being two games below .500. That is the laughable scenario that will occur if the hosts come up short tonight, but in the meantime, let’s focus on the positives with this franchise, for quite frankly there haven’t been very many of them over the last two years. From the prolonged RG3 saga, to the nasty departure of the Shanahans, to the rocky start to the Jay Gruden Era, and the never-ending controversy behind the team’s name, the last twenty-four months have been very, very forgettable for the Redskins. Going 7-25 over that time is enough to dampen the hopes of a fan base, but for the first time in well, quite some time, this franchise has the look of one that has slowly become competitive again. Credit to Gruden, who in his second term on the sidelines has turned this team into his team, which began in the Offseason when he proclaimed that the polarizing Robert Griffin would be demoted in favor of Kirk Cousins, whom each of the last two coaching staffs flirted with as the starter. Doubtful that he would survive another 4-win campaign, Gruden went to owner Dan Snyder, and pleaded that he couldn’t win with Griffin, which was painfully obvious to everyone sans Snyder. Surprisingly, the patriarch acquiesced, and looks far the wiser for it. Who would have thought that letting the man that you’re paying millions of dollars to coach your team simply coach would bring success. A novelty of an idea, we know. So with an offseason of preparation with his Quarterback running his system, Gruden has quieted the majority of his detractors, along with Cousins, who in the final year of his rookie deal, has used the 2015 season as his canvas of leverage. And as he exclaimed after a dramatic comeback victory over the Buccaneers, You Like That!!!!!
It’s been quite the campaign for the former 4th Round Pick, who in the beginning simply looked as if he was just happy to be the starting Quarterback, before slowly developing into the confident leader of this team. Through eleven starts, Cousins has been solid, completing 68.4% of his passes for an average of 253.4 yards (7.1 y/a), tossing sixteen touchdowns to ten interceptions, while logging a Total QBR of 59.3. The turnovers have been worrisome, but over the last five games he has all but shed his mistake-prone nature; since Week 7, No. 8 has connected on 71.3% of his attempts for an average of 273.4 yards per game (8.3 y/a), with ten touchdowns to just two interceptions, while rushing for another pair of scores on eight carries. Oh, and by the way, the Redskins are 3-2 over that period to boot. In last weekend’s triumphant 20-14 victory over then-division-leading New York, the 27-year old was locked in, torching the Giants’ beleaguered defense on 20-of-29 passing (68.9%), for 302 yards and a 63-yard touchdown to DeSean Jackson, followed by a 1-yard touchdown run shortly before halftime. It’s easy to see why this kid’s been so successful where his predecessor struggled so; Cousins releases the football far quicker than Griffin, progressing through his reads at a faster pace, while exhibiting cleaner mechanics and footwork in the pocket. However, the biggest difference is their personality; while Griffin was ridiculed for his perceived pre-Madonna attitude, Cousins is very much the people’s choice, an every-man that has clearly earned the respect of his teammates in the lockerroom. And it’s permeated with the fanbase, which has in turn translated to quite the showing at FedEx Field, where home cooking has been a real boon to their campaign. When it’s all said and one, 2015 will likely be remembered as the season of two teams; the struggling Redskins of the road, and the defiant, victorious Redskins of home. The dichotomy has been very cut and dry for Gruden and Co. who are a stellar 5-1 in Landover, Maryland, but a winless 0-5 away from the friendly confines of FedEx Field. In their six home games thus far, they have outscored their opponents by an average margin of 8.3 points, outgained them by a margin of 78.5 yards, while enjoying a plus-4 turnover differential. Cousins, in turn, has been outstanding in those contests, completing 74.8% of his passes for an average of 272.0 yards per game (7.1 y/a), with eleven touchdowns to just two interceptions, while rushing for another three scores on ten carries. However, it’s been a very different story away from home for this group, representing a steep decline across the board; on the road Washington has been outscored by a staggering 15.2 points per game, outgained by 151.8 yards per outing, and been on the wrong side of a minus-6 turnover differential. Reflecting those poor performances, Cousins has seen his numbers plummet, completing 61.9% of his throws for an average of 231.0 yards (5.9 y/a), five touchdowns and eight interceptions. So as you can see, their fortunes have been largely tied to the venue in which they are playing. This should make for a very interesting climax to the regular season, for after tonight’s contest, three out of their final four games will be played on the road, where we will see what exactly this team is made of, and if indeed the Redskins are capable of emerging from this game of musical chairs that has been played in the division. 8-8 will likely be enough to win the NFC East, but to get there Cousins and Co. are going to have to win at least one of those road games, two of which are against division rivals Philadelphia and Dallas to close out the regular season. What’s not to like about that?