Column: Are the Redskins for real?

WASHINGTON — On Sunday, the Redskins did some things they hadn’t done in years.

They won their third straight game for the first time in two years. They improved to 5-2 for the first time in 10 years. Now, they sit in first place near the midway point in the season for the first time in 21 years.

That’s great, but are the Redskins for real? I say no.

Look, I get that the division appears down. The Giants are a big, blue dumpster fire. The Cowboys are decidedly mediocre (again) and the Eagles appear to be steeped in one of the worst Super Bowl hangovers in years.

But a first place team with some teeth can lay waste to a lousy team like the Giants. Instead, Alex Smith’s unimpressive performance was again a minor footnote because the defense feasted on Eli Manning’s corpse to the tune of seven sacks and two interceptions, and 33-year-old Adrian Peterson again saved the day as his 64-yard, nail-in-the-coffin touchdown run all but clinched it.

That’s part of why the Redskins don’t really look like a first place team. Their +12 point differential is by far the worst of any division leader in the NFL (and two second-place NFC teams), and the best team they’ve played so far (the 6-1 Saints) destroyed them in prime-time, even though Washington was coming off a bye. The ‘Skins couldn’t even get in the end zone in their home opener against a lousy Colts team, and their only two quality wins come with asterisks. They bear Aaron Rodgers essentially playing on one leg and were gifted a turnover-fueled head start against the Panthers.

In fact, this feels a lot like the 2008 team that started 6-2 in Jim Zorn’s first season. Most of the wins came against mediocre competition, and the offense did a great job of protecting the football but averaged only 20 points per game through seven games. The record looked good, but felt fluky.

Fast forward 10 years. Alex Smith hasn’t played any better than Jason Campbell did way back when. Smith’s 62.3 completion percentage and 91.3 passer rating would be good in 2008, but in 2018 that’s a mediocre mark that lands him in the bottom third of the league. Every one of the league’s top 10 passers has a rating over 100 — including Smith’s predecessor, Kirk Cousins (102.5).

There’s really no valid excuse for Smith’s lack of production, either. Last year, the Redskins ranked 12th in passing yardage even with an epic rash of injuries to their offensive line and top targets Chris Thompson and Jordan Reed missing most of the season. At virtually full strength, the present-day ‘Skins are 26th in passing at a time when it’s never been easier for passers.

And it’s not because of the competition, either. The Redskins have played only three of the top 10 pass defenses so far (and Arizona is somewhat discounted because they have the third-worst run defense in the league, so opponents don’t really have to pass against them), yet only have eight touchdown passes and score 20.9 points per game. To put that in perspective, only seven teams average fewer points — and four of them are last place teams.

I’m not saying the Redskins aren’t a good team. Peterson’s late-career revival has led the ‘Skins’ once dormant rushing attack to rank eighth in the NFL this season and become the catalyst for the offense. The defense has rebounded from being the worst against the run in 2017 to the second-best in that category this season. Overall, the unit is ranked fifth in yards allowed per game and seventh in points allowed per game. That’s a commendable turnaround.

But that doesn’t make them a contender just because they’re more competitive than I gave them credit for before the season. The ‘Skins may lead Philadelphia in the standings now, but with two head-to-head matchups coming in December (both of which the Eagles are the preliminary favorites to win), the division race is far from over. The Redskins have a slightly more favorable schedule, so they can ill-afford another letdown like the Colts game if they’re going to overthrow Philly.

The good news for the Redskins is that they’re just a consistent passing attack away from being a really good team that everyone can believe in. If Smith can outduel MVP candidate Matt Ryan at FedEx Field on Sunday, that’ll go a long way toward instilling confidence they can avoid being a sacrificial lamb in the first round of the playoffs — and may be enough to even pull the legendary Bandwagon out of the garage.

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