After a tighter-than-expected victory by the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, Travis Kelce complimented D.J. Swearinger and told him that the Washington Redskins just need to get healthy.
That could make all the difference.
At the bye week, the Redskins are pretty banged-up with injuries to cornerback Josh Norman, left tackle Trent Williams, running back Rob Kelley and others. But at 2-2 Washington has shown the potential of being a playoff contender, and depending on the health of its stars will have every opportunity to make a run in the final 12 weeks of the season.
“We can compete with anybody, obviously — anywhere, any time,” coach Jay Gruden said. “We’ve had a pretty good run at some pretty top competitors in this league and we’ve stood toe to toe and came out .500 after the first quarter. Not where we want to be, but I think people can see the progress and the talent on this team that we can compete.”
Losses to the 3-1 Philadelphia Eagles and 4-0 Chiefs , and victories over the 3-1 Los Angeles Rams and 2-2 Oakland Raiders have the Redskins in the hunt with one-time offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers up next Oct. 15. Swearinger said he and his teammates have “got to earn our respect when we play the 49ers.”
Washington didn’t get a lot of preseason respect in an uncertain NFC East compared to the Eagles, New York Giants or defending champion Dallas Cowboys. With the Giants in a hole at 0-4, the Redskins are tied with the Cowboys in second place and can legitimately think about a return to the playoffs.
“I think we are better than people probably thought we would be at the beginning of the season,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “We’re going to have 12 weeks to either prove me right or prove me wrong.”
Cousins is the prove-it type, playing a second consecutive season on the franchise tag. He has 764 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions since a rough season opener against Philadelphia. Gruden thinks Cousins has improved dramatically the past three weeks.
“Kirk is playing well and he is getting us in position to win,” Gruden said. “He’s handling the running game. He is using his legs in the passing game and delivering strikes, but obviously there is room for improvement, like there is for all of us.”
There has already been marked improvement on defense after ranking 28th in the NFL the past two seasons. Stopping the run and forcing opponents to be one-dimensional has worked as newcomers like Swearinger, linebacker Zach Brown and rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen have been immediate difference makers.
“I feel like we have pretty good team chemistry,” said defensive lineman Stacy McGee, an offseason addition in free agency. “We trust in the process, and we’re just trying to work together to win.”
Keeping the first-team defense on the field together has been the problem because of injuries, and Norman’s fractured rib is the most concerning moving forward. Gruden said the initial timeline for Norman to be sidelined is two to four weeks, which makes him a question mark for games against San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.
“When you have to play bump and run, you have to tackle and all that stuff, I think it will be a pain tolerance during (games),” Gruden said. “We have got to make sure it’s healed enough where he can play and be effective and not do more damage to it.”
If Norman and rookie safety Montae Nicholson are healthy sooner rather than later, the defense could be good enough to make up the difference between qualifying for the playoffs in 2015 and missing last year. The running game has already been better with Kelley, rookie Samaje Perine and third-down back Chris Thompson.
Asked what he learned about his team from the performance at Kansas City, Gruden said it just verified what he knew his players could do.
“They understand that this game, with the people we have here, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in pro football and they have to handle adversity,” Gruden said. “I think we have a group that can. … But these guys are working hard and I know we have chance to win every game with the guys we have.”