There was so much happy talk in the la-la land inhabited by Washington's football team during the offseason. What a happy new era, with a happy new coach in Jay Gruden and a happy young quarterback in Robert Griffin III, a happily bolstered defense, and happily revamped special teams. When there were worrisome signs, the critics were "doubters." If schemes didn't produce in scrimmages or exhibitions, it was because they were so cunningly wrought that the team didn't want to give too much away.
Then they played an actual game, and out popped a team that has been absolutely kidding itself. A 17-6 loss to the Houston Texans in the NFL's Week 1 isn't a season-definer, of course. But if this habit of making the shiny, happy best of lousy performances doesn't stop, it will be. Hit rewind, and listen.
Second-year safety Bacarri Rambo claimed to be "a whole different guy, it's night and day." Now, Rambo is a talented kid, and you want to believe him when he says he's worked on his bad pursuit angles and poor tackling. But he looked like a windshield wiper on that 76-yard touchdown reception by DeAndre Hopkins.
RGIII was supposedly a whole new man with a healed knee and a fresh start. Trust was restored, and he was liberated from the crippling criticism of fired coach Mike Shanahan, with freedom to run an innovative new offense. "It's a quarterback's dream," he said. With improvements on the offensive line and the acquisition of fleet new weapons, Griffin could finally blossom into the cape-streaming hero he yearns to be. Gruden raved about Griffin's progress, and Griffin went over to Gruden's house to play a board game. You could practically taste the pablum when they spoke. If things looked less than great in training camp, not to worry.
"The process is going along just as we wanted and hoped, and it's been great," Griffin said.
Yet after all the big windup, out crept a cautious mouse of a game plan, led by a viscerally careful and at times uncertain quarterback who still doesn't know quite what he's about in the pocket. They averaged six yards per pass attempt.
Compare the sugar-coated tone and superficial confidence in Washington with the words coming out of a couple of other struggling franchises with new head coaches. You didn't hear Houston's Bill O'Brien talking pleasantly about how wonderful things were this preseason. He took over a team that was 2-14 last year, and when he lost his exhibition debut to Arizona by 32-0, he called it "terrible," and "unacceptable," and added, "It was bad football."
Over in Minnesota, Mike Zimmer assumed control of a team that won just five games last year and lacked leadership, and he didn't make a Parcheesi buddy out of quarterback Matt Cassel. "I'm kind of a high-strung, tight butthole," he told Fox. Both coaches came away with hard-nosed victories on Sunday, despite real roster deficits.
So it was interesting to discern the hint of frankness and snap in Jay Gruden's voice after the loss to the Texans, and to see a newly pursed expression on his face as if he was chewing on a lemon peel, when he talked about "inexcusable" breakdowns and turnovers and "lack of offensive explosion." You got the feeling that maybe Gruden himself is a little queasy from all the sugar. You got the feeling that he was struggling to find the right approach, between publicly protecting the eggshell egos of players who thought they were better than this, and lying to them, or himself.
"There's a lot of positives to look at, but when you lose the game, sometimes the negatives will override the positives, and that's something we have to address right away," he said.
No amount of fair-minded early-season optimism can wallpaper over the fact that Washington flunked in every phase, except for its admirable running game. Gifting eight points on special teams was obvious. Happy talkers will say the defense showed improvement, but it, too, faltered at the most critical juncture, allowing the Texans to work fully 6 minutes, 32 seconds off the fourth-quarter clock, and convert on six of eight third downs in the second half. It would be one thing if it had been Peyton Manning who did it to them, but this drive was led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, a very fine Harvard man but hardly the most lethal quarterback in the NFL.
"We failed to get them off the field at the end of the game," Gruden said.
As for the offense, it showed some midgame efficiency – if you're playing checkers. Griffin was accurate, completing 29 of 37 passes for 267 yards, but they were mostly on short passes left or right. "Baby steps" my colleague Jason Reid labeled them, which left the impression that either Gruden doesn't quite trust Griffin, or Griffin doesn't trust himself. Bottom line, they are hamstrung by a quarterback who inarguably has greatness in him, but doesn't yet have great field awareness. At the start of Griffin's third season, it's a disappointing fact that his coaches are still taking things out of the game plan to accommodate him, rather than putting things in. They are still talking about "building blocks."
Griffin did a good job of shouldering blame in the postgame, saying, "I have to play better." But there was still that tendency to sweeten things up, to put a soft focus on unpleasant reality. This was his take on a missed deep opportunity to Andre Roberts, seeing him so late the catch was made out of bounds: "It was this close," Griffin said. No, it wasn't: Roberts was open 20 yards earlier.
"You can take the good," Griffin also said. "Stats don't win you games, but if you look at the total yards, time of possession, the amount of first downs we were getting, it was building up to where you would think we had 28, 35 points."
Now that is just needy ego candy. It minimizes three sacks, intentional grounding, three straight punts in the first quarter, and a rally-killing fumble on the 11-yard line in the third period – a play "we work on in practice every day," as Gruden said irritably. Most critically, it ignores that they went just 3 of 12 on third downs.
It's healthy to see the glass half full; it's another thing to invest in self-deception. That's a tricky balance for a brilliant young quarterback, and a bright new head coach trying to give a fresh start to a team that's been last in the NFC East three of the last four seasons, and is known for palace intrigues. We all need to tell ourselves a mountain of encouraging lies to get through the week in difficult professions, and that must be especially true of players in a league that demands so much of their bodies and minds. As John C. Maxwell says, "Man does not live on bread alone; sometimes he needs a little buttering up."
Self-esteem is great; self-deception is not. How do you tell the difference? When things get tough or stressful, the latter tilts into defensiveness and posturing, and an organization goes from arrogance to panic with nothing in between. Gruden would do well to recognize that if a single repetitive trend has mired this franchise in perpetual disappointment, it's the tendency to sell false hope.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org