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Sunday, September 10, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LANDOVER — The 2017 NFL season has begun and Washington’s fans at FedEx Field witnessed a time warp. Fifteen games remain but Sunday felt like 2016 all over again.

Plagued by the same problems. Irritated by the same issues. Contorted by the same concerns.


There were new faces and new names, but too much of the same-old, same-old.

Get on the good foot by winning your season opener? Nope. Get in the end zone when points are there for the taking? Uh-uh. Get off the field when you need crucial stops on third down? Negative.

The Philadelphia Eagles were demonstrably better in a 30-17 victory, but the game was closer than the score indicates. This was another case of woulda-coulda-shoulda, which Washington does better than anyone.

We interrupt this column for the obligatory “it’s early” mention. Nothing in Week 1 matters, especially when you lose. There’s a long season ahead, with the potential for improvement and adjustments. A hot streak here and some big plays there. A key injury and/or suspension elsewhere. Add it up and before you know it, Kirk Cousins and Co. might be in the thick of the NFC East race.

But the stakes in Sunday’s contest were clear. The winner would take the lead in not finishing last in the division. The Eagles had extra motivation, too, having lost five consecutive games against Washington.

They made sure there wouldn’t be a sixth. Philly sealed the victory with 89 seconds left on a strip-sack of Cousins that Fletcher Cox returned for a 20-yard touchdown. Most nearby observers thought Cousins attempted a forward pass that should’ve been ruled incomplete. But the replay official upheld the ruling on the field, sparking a mass exodus in the stands as Philly lined up for a two-point conversion.

“That was a tough one,” Cousins said. “But there are so many other plays that led to that moment that are more important and more telling of why it didn’t go our way at the end.”

Indeed. There were the passes slightly behind, a little too high or not caught. There were the near-sacks that Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz turned into big gainers, including an escape job on his third play from scrimmage that resulted in a 58-yard touchdown to Nelson Agholor.

There were the third downs Philly converted (8-of-14), including a pair of third-and-10s on separate drives that led to field goals. There was the punt Jamison Crowder muffed, allowing the Eagles to retain possession and eventually score their second touchdown for a 13-0 lead.

Washington was done in by little things that have tripped them up throughout the Jay Gruden era. The defense contributed a score — Washington’s first of the day — on linebacker Ryan Kerrigan’s 24-yard interception return.

But the offense produced just one touchdown and one field goal.

Scoring was a problem last year as well. But at least the offense racked up yardage with receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon each topping 1,000. Their replacements weren’t close to that level of production; Pryor finished with six receptions for 66 yards and Josh Doctson was never targeted.

The much-maligned pass rush showed improvement with new faces among the front seven. They put nine hits on Wentz (compared to the seven Cousins absorbed) and recorded two sacks. They would’ve had more if not for Wentz’s strength and athleticism that allowed him to extend plays while his receivers worked free.

“That’s what you get when you face a mobile quarterback,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “When you get a hand on him you have to bring him down. He made plays and came back after that first interception. It didn’t even faze him.”

Conversely, Cousins accentuated two lost fumbles with a red-zone interception early in the fourth quarter as Washington drove for a go-ahead score. Gruden lamented that Jamison Crowder was breaking wide open on the play “and we overthrow it by a hair,” he said.

“… So we’re close but obviously close isn’t good enough.”

Actually, close is a lot better than Washington has been for most of this century. Close beats miles away.

But like the scene in Poltergeist, the team is running toward a door that moves away as they draw near. They’re good enough to get nearly within reach, but they’re struggling to close the final gap in distance.

That was the case last year (2015 as well). And the same was true Sunday.

Settle in, because we might be here for a while.

Welcome back to the Twilight Zone.

• Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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