The Redskins are in first place in the NFC East, by more than a game, and somehow no one’s paying attention. Which is kind of funny, if you really think about it.
Ten years ago, when free agent Albert Haynesworth signed, and then promptly showed his true colors (the 2009 team was something else) in helping short-circuit the ill-fated Jim Zorn era, the ensuing circus garnered plenty of attention. Ditto from 2012 to ’14, when Robert Griffin III’s star rose and crashed with all the drama of a daytime soap opera. The last few years, the Kirk Cousins contract rollercoaster kept everyone locked in.
That’s without even going through all the coaches and executives clashing with one another, which only added to the once-proud franchise’s rubbernecking appeal.
Now? The Redskins are winning in Jay Gruden’s fifth year as head coach, but the team don’t get a sniff of the noise and attention it used to. Washington methodically took the Giants apart on Sunday, beating them on their turf, 20–13, to maintain a game-and-a-half lead over the reigning champion Eagles in the NFC East. That’s three straight wins by the way, if you’re counting.
“Yeah that’s to be expected,” Gruden said over his cell en route to Newark International Airport on Sunday. “We have to earn the respect of people, other teams and everybody worldwide, and that’s what we’re trying to do, so it’s just a day-by-day grind for us. You know, it’s not ever going to be easy. This wasn’t easy. This week is going to be hard. It wasn’t easy against Dallas, it wasn’t easy against Carolina.
“It’s just who we are, what we have to expect. Now if we keep doing what we’re doing, and doing it the right way, then we have a chance to maybe get recognized one day.”
Sense the sarcasm? That’s part of who Gruden is, but it also hit me as a sort of contentment from the Redskins coach. He’s seen the other side of it. And he comes off as completely comfortable having his team fly under the radar, even if the strides they’re making should be obvious to everyone.
Here’s the other thing: He really, really likes the makeup of his team. After nearly a half-decade at the helm, the roster is truly his. It’s not flashy, and that’s probably why so few are looking the Redskins’ way. But it’s remarkably functional, which is why they are where they are, regardless of whose eyes are on them.
We’re reaching the end of Week 8, and that means this is a busy week for league business—you’ll get some trade deadline stuff later in the column, and on the site today and tomorrow. There’s also plenty for us to get to on the field this week. Among the stories:
• The Rams are 8–0, and we’ll explain to you how Sean McVay’s staff almost predicted the way they’d take away Aaron Rodgers’sd last chance to beat them, and delve into the amazingly selfless move Todd Gurley made at the wire.
• The Eagles have found level ground, making it to 4–4. And they feel good about their place in the NFC East race. We brought in Zach Ertz to explain why.
• The venerable Adam Vinatieri is the NFL’s new all-time leading scorer, and we’ll travel down memory lane with the 23-year vet.
• The Seahawks are alive! Bobby Wagner joins us to go through how that happened.
• The Saints defense is also alive and well, and might make that team the most complete in football, something we examine in the Ten Takeaways.
• We’ve also got a full explanation of the weird end to the first half of Panthers/Ravens. That’s in the Takeaways, too.
We’re starting with the team no one wants to talk about, and how they got here, so let’s go …
There were two sequences that decided the Redskins the game on Sunday, and they happened to fall back-to-back in the final five minutes. Each can help to explain what kind of team Washington has become under Gruden.
The first came after a 46-yard pass interference penalty and a 32-yard catch-and-run from Odell Beckham had given the Giants first-and-goal at the eight. Another PI call, this one on Fabian Moreau, move the ball to the four. From there: Mason Foster and Da’Ron Payne stopped Saquon Barkley on a one-yard gain, and the Redskins forced two Eli Manning incompletions. The Giants settled for a field goal to cut the deficit to 13–6.
The second came on the ensuing possession, which started at the Washington 25. On the third play, Adrian Peterson took his third straight carry off right tackle, and ripped through the Giants defense for a 64-yard touchdown. And that was it. Ballgame.
So what ties the two? Gruden and the Redskins’ massive investment in big people, on both sides of the ball, allowed them to play bully ball when it mattered most.
“I’m a firm believer in line-of-scrimmage football. We invested a lot of money in our offensive line and draft picks, and we’ve invested a lot in our defensive line,” Gruden said. “And to me that’s what football’s all about. It enables you to protect your quarterback, run the ball, stop the run and get after the quarterback. It’s paying off right now.”
The rundown on the investment is pretty staggering. Among the five guys (including the outside linebacker) who start on the defensive line of scrimmage, three are first-round picks—Ryan Kerrigan, Da’Ron Payne, and Jonathan Allen. Preston Smith, who plays opposite Kerrigan, is a second-rounder, as is the third outside ’backer, Ryan Anderson. And Matt Ioannidis is a home-grown fifth-rounder.
On offense, left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff were top-five picks. Right tackle Morgan Moses was a third-rounder, and center Chase Roullier was a sixth-round revelation. Left guard Shawn Lauvao was a decently-priced free-agent signing.
Factor in that Kerrigan, Williams and Moses have gotten big second contracts, and Gruden’s stating the obvious when he says, “That’s how we’re trying to build this football team.”
And it wasn’t only the Giants who got a look at that.
Gruden pointed to the challenges the run defense has been up against the last three weeks—facing Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey, then Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott, and this week Saquon Barkley. The Redskins allowed 81 yards rushing against Carolina, 73 against Dallas, and 37 rushing on Sunday against the Giants.
Meanwhile, the ageless Peterson has found his footing, rushing for 345 yards on 67 carries (5.1 yard average) over those three games, bringing a physicality to an offense that was expecting to get it from rookie Derrius Guice, before the second-round pick blew out his ACL in August.
“He’s obviously brought a lot to this football team, his attitude,” Gruden said of the future Hall of Famer. “The receivers, tight ends, linemen, maybe they’re blocking just a little bit harder and a little bit longer than they would have for anybody else, because they know he can bounce it and make a big play at any time, and they all have a ton of respect for what he’s done in his career.”
Now, it’s not perfect. Gruden explained that while he’s thrilled with the work defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has done—“that New Orleans game [a 43–18 loss], that was tough, and they’ve been resilient, and dialed in since then”—he and the offensive coaches need to find a way to generate more chunk plays behind quarterback Alex Smith.
But there’s plenty to work with, as Gruden sees it, and that’s showing up all the way down to the details. One example: The Redskins are fourth in the NFL in turnover margin. Another: The coach was loves the work punter Tress Way has done in generating field position—“Tress Way is punting the s--- out of the ball.”
And that brings us back to that foundation, the kind of foundation, by the way, that the Eagles rode to a Lombardi Trophy last year, and adds up to a team that the guy leading it really likes.
“I do,” Gruden said. “Every week, it’s going to be a different challenge—next week, we have Atlanta coming. But I like the physicality we’re playing with. At the end of day, we may not have 12 Pro Bowlers on our football team, but we have a lot of guys who can play and play hard and are talented. So who knows what the end of the season will bring. But I know that our guys are playing physical, and that’s what the NFC East is all about.”
The same NFC East that, you may have heard (or maybe you haven’t), these Washington Redskins happen to be leading.
THE RAMS ARE FOCUSED, SELFLESS AND STILL UNBEATEN
You think the Rams have it working right now? How about this: Every week their coaches set goals for them going into Sunday. And one on the list for this week came up like pretty much everything else has this year for the team and its coaches: aces.
“We had a goal to take the ball away on special teams,” receiver Robert Woods explained to me on his way out of the Coliseum postgame. “And it literally came down to the last minutes of the game, in the fourth quarter, and it happened.”
When Ramik Wilson jarred the ball loose from Ty Montgomery with 1:56 left, it did more than just rob the Packers and the rest of us all from the sight of Aaron Rodgers getting the ball with a chance to take down the unbeaten Rams. It did more, too, than deliver the Rams to 8–0.
It affirmed what we’ve all seen in L.A. through two months—a loaded team playing with crazy confidence in Sean McVay and his staff. Andrew Whitworth explained it like this to me a few weeks back: “When I played in college for Nick Saban, you felt like every single week you went with a plan where all you had to do was execute the plan and you’d win. With Sean McVay, we feel the same way.”
And McVay delivering for his players is reciprocated through moments like the one we saw at the end of Sunday’s game.
After the recovery of Montgomery’s fumble, with the Rams up 29–27, Todd Gurley took a toss left with 1:05 remaining and knifed through the Packers defense to convert a third-and-10 from 21, and then some. As he crossed the 5, with the first down picked up and the path to end zone clear, he did something pretty smart. He hit the deck.
And he did so despite the fact that, with 15 touchdowns already on the year, he has a pretty good shot at breaking LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-season record of 31 scores, even though scoring would’ve left the window for the Packers to come back open about wide enough to slide a credit card through. What he did know is that if he went down, the game was over. So he did.
“That’s our team,” Woods said. “It’s ‘we, not me.’ We know those things will come. We know [Gurley’s] leading right now, on pace for something great. But our biggest goal is a team goal. So he finished the game, he sealed the game, and he’s a selfless player, you could see that there. We always say, ‘It’s gonna come, it’s gonna come, you don’t have to force anything.’ And that’s a great play, a great leader play.”
So if you consider that McVay and his staff set a specific goal that the Rams met at the most critical moment of the game, and that a star like Gurley is giving up individual achievements the way he did at the end, it makes sense that the players are even starting to sound their coaches a little. It’s true.
When I talked with McVay midweek and asked what he’s most proud of during his team’s hot start, he said it was how “connected” the group was. So guess what word Woods used when I asked him if he thinks what Gurley did could have a trickle-down effect?
“This team is a connected group,” the receiver said. “We’re all after the same goal, we all have the same mindset. Nobody’s thinking anything else but to take the clock out.
“I’d just say it’s a selfless team. We don’t think about situations like that—we think about sealing it off, about closing the game.”
It won’t get any easier from here. The Rams gets the Saints next week, the improving Seahawks after that, then travel to Mexico City for the Thanksgiving week showdown with the Chiefs. But based on how things are shaking out, the team that McVay is leading into those big ones doesn’t figure to fazed by any of it.
‘MUST WIN’ OR NOT, PHILLY NEEDED THAT
Considering what the Eagles came back from to capture a world title last year, it’d be hard to call an October game to avoid falling to 3–5 just nine months later a “must win.” Still, Philly had blown two double-digit leads in losing three of four heading to London, and stacking another loss on top of that wouldn’t sit well coming out of a long trip and into a bye week.
“We were in desperate need of a win, I’d describe it as that,” tight end Zach Ertz said from the Wembley locker room over the phone postgame. “Three-and-five is tough sledding in the NFL, and going into a bye week, it’s not the way you want to go about it. So 4-4 is a lot better. We were desperate for the win.”
And thanks to a fast-recovering quarterback and a couple breakthroughs before and after the half, Philly came away with that, 24–18 over the reeling Jaguars.
Let’s start with those breakthroughs. First there was the offense cashing in on a takeaway from the defense—Avonte Maddox stripped Jaguars receiver Keelan Cole with 1:29 left in the first half, and four plays later Wentz hit rookie Dallas Goedert with a 32-yard strike to make it 10–3. Then, right after the half, the Eagles put together a nine-play, 95-yard drive that had a little bit of everything. And finally, Philly got a red-zone touchdown on the possession after that.
Add that together, and the Eagles staked themselves to a lead in the fourth quarter, which is right where they blew games to the Titans and Panthers over the last month. This time the defense forced a turnover on downs with 3:41 to go, and the offense picked up a pair of first downs to put the game away.
“We needed a game that was going to be a dogfight where we’d be able to stand tall at the end and win,” Ertz said. “And so I’m proud of the way we fought. We had all the reasons to complain and moan about the past couple days—and guys didn’t even let that opportunity come into their minds. We took a red-eye Thursday night, got about no sleep, went right to meetings Friday morning. So yeah, I was proud of the way we fought, for sure.”
So where do the Eagles go from here? They’re still just 4–4, but two things should help, per my conversation with Ertz. The first one is the reemergence of Wentz, who lifted the team through left tackle Jason Peters’ brief departure from the game and right tackle Lane Johnson’s leaving the game for good in the first half.
Despite that—and tackle play has been an issue for some time now for the Eagles—Wentz posted a passer rating above 115 for the fourth straight week. Over that stretch his TD-INT differential is a sparkling 10–1, and he’s moving around better and better. Simply put, he’s a different player than he was when he first came back from the ACL, back in Week 3.
“Obviously when you haven’t played in a football game in 10 months, you’re not going to be as sharp then as you are two months later,” Ertz said. “He’s really moving well out there. He’s extending plays—I mean, the first third down of the game, he gets a ball batted, catches it and dives for a first down. I’m not gonna say that’s surprising anymore, because of how many plays he makes, but the guy’s a friggin’ stud. He’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s playing like it right now.”
And the second factor is this: The Eagles have had to acclimate to being the hunted, rather than the hunter.
“The saying that you’re getting everyone’s best shot every week is very true,” Ertz said. “We play teams that are very hyped up to play us, each and every week. And we understand that. Earlier in the year we weren’t playing 60 minutes of really good football. You can’t have those lapses in the NFL and expect to win. We’re two games right now away from 6-2 but we’re also a couple games from being under .500.
“So we’ve got the whole season in front of us. I’m not happy being 4-4, but at the same time I am happy with where we’re at right now.”
The best news for the Eagles is that the NFC East is still in play, and Philly gets Washington twice in December. The front end of that home-and-home is one of four division games the Eagles will play in their first five dates coming out of the bye. Like Ertz said, it’s all still in front of them.
Episodes 1 and 2 available now: An exclusive narrative podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates.
ADAM VINATIERI’S RECORD, DECADES IN THE MAKING
I asked Adam Vinatieri on Sunday night if he remembered his first points as an NFL player. He did.
“A field goal in Miami, I believe,” he said, from the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum locker room. “And I believe I had to kick it twice, because there was a penalty on it the first time, so I had to kick it a second time. It was just a nice little chip shot on a nice, sunny, warm day in Miami.”
I went to the trouble of looking it up. He was right about all that. It was 93 degrees when the Patriots faced the Dolphins at what was then called Pro Player Park, on Labor Day 1996. Vinatieri, undrafted out of South Dakota State, drilled a 20-yard field goal early in the second quarter. The kick was negated by a false start from Max Lane (now the home-team uniform inspector at Gillette Stadium). That sent Vinatieri back to hit a 25-yarder, which he did to cut the Dolphins’ lead to 10–3.
Those Bill Parcells-led Patriots lost 24–10, as the Dolphins (with Jimmy Johnson in his first game as coach) held New England’s Drew Bledsoe and Curtis Martin in check behind a defense starting rookie Zach Thomas at middle linebacker. All of which is our way of saying this was long ago, And this is a long way of explaining what it took for Vinatieri to get here—and become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.
On Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum, Vinatieri hit a 26-yard field goal for the Colts in the first quarter to tie Morten Andersen’s record of 2,544 points. A 25-yarder in the second quarter gave him sole possession of the record, and his 10 points in a 42-28 win over the Raiders put him at 2,550 points at the end of the day.
“There’s been so many people that have helped me along the way, obviously all my teammates that were on the field, unselfishly blocking and snapping and holding and doing all that stuff,” he said. “Over 23 years I’ve had a lot of great teammates. And that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of with it, because you can’t get to two-thousand, five-hundred and some-odd points without starting at 1.”
So to commemorate that, I asked Vinatieri to rank all those points in two categories, and here’s what he said:
Most memorable points: “There’s been a handful, many handfuls of special moments. But I think any time you can play in and help your team win a Super Bowl, those are the most special moments you can have as a football player. Probably the kicks in the snow to win the  divisional game, those were special moments as well. And I’d probably put my first game-winner, when I was a little bit on the hot seat against Jacksonville [in 1998], that would probably be right up there too. So those four or five kicks. And then there was running down Herschel [Walker on a kickoff in 1996] and throwing a touchdown pass [in 2004]—there are a couple other cool moments that have nothing to do with kicking, some pretty good ones in there.”
Toughest points: “Definitely the divisional playoff game, the one in the snow, the Tuck Rule game. Pretty much stacked up against you—you’re down by three, big snowstorm, it’s the end of the game, you miss it and the season’s over. I would think that one would probably be the most difficult. And the Buffalo game this last year was pretty wild as well, we had about a foot of snow on ground, pretty crazy game.”
The 47-yarder to send that Tuck Rule game against Oakland to overtime, by the way, was 17 years ago, in Vinatieri’s sixth year as a Patriot. He would last a decade in New England. He’s now been in Indianapolis for 13 years. And even though he’s made his money and now has four Super Bowl rings with two teams, and the scoring record, he says he’s not thinking about retirement: “If I’m still feeling good and I can still produce on the field, I’ll probably keep going.”
Why? Well …
“I wish you could’ve been in the locker room about 30 minutes ago when we came in after the win, and the guys were all jumping around, fired up, hooting and hollering,” Vinatieri said. “That’s why we keep doing it. There’s something about an NFL locker room that’s very, very addictive.”
But there aren’t too many guys who’ve been good enough to feed their habit for as long as Vinatieri has. Twenty-three years, and counting.
THE SEAHAWKS’ ‘REBUILD’ LOOKS LIKE IT’S WORKING
The Seahawks played their last playoff game 21 months ago, and only three starters are left from the defense that lined up that day. Gone are Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and, for all intents and purposes, Earl Thomas. And after the 2018 team started 0–2, it looked like a pretty fair bet that the rebuild was underway in Seattle, and choppy waters were coming for Pete Carroll’s crew.
Since then, Seattle has somehow won four of five.
On Sunday that revamped defense held the Lions, who rushed for 248 yards in Week 7, to 34 yards on the ground. The Seahawks sacked Matthew Stafford three times. And on the other side, it was like old times—Seattle ground out 176 yards on 42 carries, and Russell Wilson posted a perfect passer rating.
Oh, and by the way, the Seahawks’ one loss in their last five was a street fight with the Rams, during which Seattle pushed L.A. closer to defeat than it’s been all year. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the players weren’t hearing what people were saying about them. They just weren’t listening to it.
“You had to hear it, because you got the questions constantly,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, one of the few holdovers, told me. “Everybody kept talking about a rebuilding year. But we had confidence in the people that we had in the room. A lot of guys were playing behind some great talent that hadn’t had the opportunity to have their number called yet. So we were looking forward to getting out there.”
In essence, Carroll and GM John Schneider made a bet this offseason. They could’ve tried to hold on to the old core for another year or two, but the way last season ended informed them that the end wasn’t too far off. And because so many of those players were on huge contracts and had such big reputations that entitled them to sizable roles, Carroll’s ability to sell his competition-driven program was hampered.
Cleaning the slate has allowed the coaches to convince players that most positions are in fact up for grabs, and that’s created an edge among the group that certainly was a part of the Seahawks’ identity when the old foundation was still young.
“My  draft class, everybody said we weren’t gonna be good, but there was hunger there,” Wagner said. “There was hunger there for the guys that played there before that went 7–9, and came close but didn’t win. You had Marshawn [Lynch], who was hungry. Everybody was hungry in their own right. And I feel like this is kind of the same thing.
“Coming into the year, we had the guys that played here last year, that were still here and that had the sour taste of 9–7. You had a draft class, people doubting them. It was a real doubted team.”
It’ll be tougher to doubt them now. A three-touchdown explosion in the second quarter put on Sunday put Seattle on top for good. The margin stayed in double digits through the second half with defensive guys like Bradley McDougald, Tedric Thompson, Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed and Dion Jordan alongside the old warhorses Wagner and K.J. Wright.
A lot, of course, has changed. And the new crew isn’t out of the woods yet. The schedule stiffens the rest of the way, with another date with the Rams on there, as well as games against the Chargers, Packers, Panthers, Vikings and Chiefs.
But what Wagner and Wilson hoped coming into the year was that all the moving parts (and it was absolutely necessary to move those parts, given where things were going) wouldn’t do anything to budge the standard that they’d worked so hard to set. As far as that’s concerned, the last few weeks have shows those guys that at least has been accomplished.
“Every time you put that jersey on, every time you walk on that field on defense, we have a standard, no matter who’s playing,” Wagner said. “And it was important for myself and K.J. and everybody else to make sure that standard is upheld. It starts with defense, and then everything else falls into place. And the offense is doing great, and you see us making plays on special teams, and it’s a good collective effort.”
This Seahawks team right now is probably better than it was last year. And because so many of the players are new and/or young, there’s a decent chance things keep getting better from here.
… OF THE WEEK
CBS announcer Andrew Catalon, calling Colts TE Jack Doyle’s fourth-quarter touchdown. This is the great movie reference wrapped into a touchdown call of our time. And there’s no close second. Thank you, Andrew. That was beautiful.
One man saw this coming ….
And his faith never wavered …
Not in the least …
Until the very end …
(… ran out when the Bucs defense couldn’t get a stop)
I’m a sucker for this stuff—and it does feel like a torch-passing. Peterson is 33 and was left for dead by everyone (me included). Barkley is 21 and just getting started. “I love what you’re doing, man,” Peterson says to Barkley. “I’ve been able to watch you so far, and you got it, man. You got it. … The sky is the limit for you. … It’s remarkable to see. Stay focused. Keep grinding. Obviously you know about work ethic. I’ve been watching you since college. Just continue to do that, man, you’re competing every day to be the best.”