GREEN BAY – If the Packers are looking for an example of how to right the ship when high expectations are not being met, they need look no further than the team across from them on Sunday night.
Washington entered the 2016 season as the defending NFC East champs, having made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2012 and just the second time in the previous eight seasons.
The hype train was running high speed with an up-and-coming quarterback in Kirk Cousins and a major defensive free-agent signing in cornerback Josh Norman.
Then the team started 0-2, with two home losses, getting hammered by three touchdowns by the Steelers and dropping a mistake-filled, down-to-the-wire contest against the Cowboys.
Listening to the Redskins on their conference calls with Green Bay media this week talk about what it took to turn it around, they said many of the same things the Packers have been saying.
It may sound like players are robotically delivering prepared messages in times of crisis, but here’s why. Just about every player has gone through a tough stretch at some time before, and what they say, as old and tired as it sounds, truthfully explains how they got out of the rut.
“You just stay the course,” Cousins said. “In the NFL, anything can happen week to week. Some really good teams lose some games or lose a few in a row, or some teams that people weren’t expecting to do well end up going on a run and winning a lot of games.
“You just stay the course and know it’s a long season. You never hit the panic button or jump to conclusions that early in the season.”
It’s not early for the Packers anymore at 4-5, of course, and they’ve dealt with more injuries than the Redskins. But seven games left still constitutes a lot of football, especially with Green Bay fortunately just one game back in the NFC North.
The Redskins rebounded from 0-2 with four straight wins, and they’ve lost just once in their last seven games (5-1-1). They still don’t have it all figured out, not with three straight road games coming up after this week.
But they had veteran players who had been there before to get things going in the right direction, just as the Packers do. Norman was with a Carolina team in 2014 that was 3-8-1, won four in a row to squeak into the postseason, and then went on a 17-1 rampage all the way to the Super Bowl last year.
The key in the tough times?
“Nothing,” said Norman, never shy to speak his mind. “The key was everybody doing their job and doing it to the best of their abilities. We were right there in every game, on the cusp of it, we just had those mental lapses, one mistake here, one mistake there. Just try to cut down on that and we knew we would be fine.
“Everybody else was jumping ship, but we didn’t care about that outside noise.”
It all sounds like clichés. One definition of cliché is an overused phrase that lacks original thought. But one synonym of cliché is “truism.”
“The main thing was sticking together,” Washington head coach Jay Gruden said. “Staying the course and working hard. We didn’t point any fingers. We just continued to come to work and fight our way out of it, try to make plays in crucial situations.”
Redskins rookie Su’a Cravens did that with an interception of Giants QB Eli Manning with a minute left to preserve a two-point victory in Week 3 and avoid an 0-3 start. Ever since, Washington has been on its way.
That’s really the heart of it. Making plays when they’re there to be made.
When you’re 35 yards from a shot at a game-winning field goal with 31 seconds on the clock, make a play.
When you’re running free on a third-and-10 blitz with three minutes left in a five-point game, get the sack.
When you’re in position to pin the opponent on its own 1-yard line to start the game, down the punt.
When you’re wide open at the first-down marker on a fourth-down pass, catch the ball.
The list from the last three weeks goes on and on. You get the idea, and now the Packers must face a team Mike McCarthy, Clay Matthews and others have repeatedly said is better now than the one Green Bay beat in the playoffs last January.
“I’m sure they’re going to come in hungry,” Norman said. “They took a pretty bad beating last week, they really did. So I don’t feel like they’re going to come in here and lay this thing down. They’re going to come out fiery hot.”
The Packers know how they got into this mess. They know how to get out of it, too.
Every team does, because there are no secrets in the NFL. Just games to play, and plays to make.
The rest is up to the Packers.