No matter how much people demand it, change never comes to D.C. The faces change, sure, but the hallmarks of professional football in Washington remain: disappointing quarterback play, a head coach on the hot seat and a steadfast refusal to alter a team nickname that many argue is offensive.
It's the kind of thing that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, like, say, a mysterious noise on the set of ESPN's Monday Night Countdown. Even other NFL teams won't acknowledge the moniker.
Yet, in the name of "history," owner Dan Snyder clings to it like someone who wears a scarf indoors. It's tradition, after all. And so is failure. Washington's Pro Football Team: Losers, since 1992.
Around this time last season, Robert Griffin III's poor play was to blame in Washington's loss at home to the 1-8 Bucs. He held the ball too long and was sacked six times, he overlooked and overthrew wide-open receivers, and he was picked off twice in the 27-7 defeat.
He was terrible, and coach Jay Gruden was open in the postgame news conference about RGIII's need for improvement.
"You can't say it's all on Robert, and we can't say it's all on the offensive line because they sometimes have to work hand-in-hand," he said. "Sometimes we call a three-step drop, and the ball's gotta be out. The line's not going to protect forever. He's gotta know where his free hitters are and slide away, and sometimes that didn't happen. For us to put the blame on the offensive line … I don't know … I've got to see the film. I did know that there was too much pressure in his face, but I also know that there were times when he should have gotten rid of the ball and made better, quicker decisions to help our offensive line."
Gruden was even more blunt the next day when he said Griffin was "not even close to being good enough to what we expect from that quarterback position." Two weeks later, he was a backup to Colt McCoy.
RGIII remains on the sideline this season and has watched Kirk Cousins — a quarterback drafted three rounds after him in 2012 — guide the team to a 2-4 record. With the exception of the Week 3 loss to the New York Giants, Washington has had a shot in each game, taking a lead into halftime in five of six contests. Which of course means that they've blown second-half leads three times.
Washington has many issues, but when it comes to football, a couple of areas in particular stand out. And, wouldn't you know it, both involve the number III: 1.) third-and-10-plus situations and 2.) the third quarter — all of it. Sunday, the Burgundy and Gold saw the Jets turn a three-point third-quarter deficit into a seven-point lead in 58 seconds. On the season, opponents have outscored Washington in the period by 43 points (46-3), the largest margin in the NFL.
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Here's how Washington compares with the rest of the NFL, and the Bucs, in the third quarter. Tampa Bay has not been especially strong to start the second half either — at least in terms of its passing game — though it has been outscored by only three points (34-31).
|Source: Pro Football Reference
Part of the reason Gruden made the controversial change at quarterback last season was not only Griffin's inability to avoid sacks but also his propensity for throwing interceptions. Cousins isn't getting sacked nearly as often (seven times in six games compared with 33 times in nine games for RGIII last season), but he has thrown eight interceptions to only six touchdowns. So far this season, Cousins is throwing picks at a higher rate (3.5 percent) than Griffin did in 2014 (2.8 percent), a performance that probably could be filed under "not even close to being good enough."
Of Cousins' eight interceptions, half have come on third-and-10-plus. Such situations are not highly favorable for offenses, but Washington's quarterback has been extraordinarily bad.
|Source: Pro Football Reference
This continues a trend from last season when the Griffin-Cousins-McCoy combination — the NFL's less menacing version of Cerberus, the mythological beast who guards the gates to the underworld — turned the ball over four times, managed five first downs and earned a passer rating of 40.3.
Basically, on those drives where the Bucs stifle Washington's run game (first four games: 139.5 yards per game; past two games: 42.5) and force an incompletion or two, Cousins might be just as likely to throw a pick as he is to gain a first down.
Against the Jets, Cousins doubled down, making an ill-advised throw on a third-and-10 in the midst of Washington's third-quarter collapse. Let's go to the coaches film for a closer look.
Washington comes to the line in a trips bunch formation (three receivers clustered together). The aim here is to flood the left side of the field with receiving options to stress the defense. The inside receiver, Andre Roberts, runs to the sideline then cuts back toward the middle of the field. The other receivers run deep vertical routes — Jamison Crowder runs an "out-and-up" while Pierre Garcon runs a "go."
Cousins sees safety Marcus Gilchrist turn his hips toward Garcon, who is running down the hashmarks, and thinks that he has Crowder one-on-one against cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
As Cousins lets go of the ball, Gilchrist adjusts and turns his attention to Crowder on the outside. The ball hangs in the air long enough for the safety to close in and snag the interception.
Cousins, whose arm is generally regarded as average, might have been better off trying to hit Roberts in single coverage underneath. But that's easy for me to say; I don't have a 6-foot-5, 302-pound monster of a lineman in Leonard Williams bearing down on me.
A couple of weeks ago, the Bucs were coming off a solid beating at the hands of the Carolina Panthers and in desperate need of a win against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. Washington finds itself in a similar position this week, with Gruden even calling this Week 7 matchup a "code red" situation. With an owner known for impatience, he might be right.
This game will come down to turnovers. In Washington's wins over the Rams and Eagles, Cousins didn't turn the ball over. In each of the four losses, however, he threw two interceptions. Likewise, the Bucs are 2-0 when Winston doesn't throw an interception (he lost a fumble in the Week 2 win against the Saints) and 0-3 when he does. Both teams own a minus-two turnover differential.
While Washington will want to establish the run, the Bucs' defense doesn't have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie roaming in the secondary. One player Cousins might try to attack: cornerback Tim Jennings. When throwing at Jennings, opposing quarterbacks have completed 15-of-24 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns while earning a 126.0 rating, according to Pro Football Focus.
The pick: Washington, by three. But pay extra attention during the third quarter.
Thomas Bassinger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.