Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Sep 09, 2013

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, the Capitals, the Nationals, the rest of D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

...means bad news for the Redskins on Sunday. Their run defense looked pretty good too. And they have that Rodgers guy.

The teams the Skins play this year went 6-5 so far in their first games. Cowboys, Lions, Bears, Broncos, 49ers, Chiefs won. Packers, Raiders, Vikes, Giants, Falcons lost. Eagles and Chargers haven't played.

The Skins schedule is unusual in one respect. There are several games that I think of as "double loss" games. Skins would be the underdog on a neutral field but are also  on the road. IOW, those games are twice as hard to win. At Green Bay, at Denver, at Atlanta look toughest. And the Giants and Cowboys, of course, where Skins must play every year. It certainly won't be easier to play thee Packers after their tough tight loss to the 49ers.

But there is also a flip side. The Skins have a lot of "double win" games where they'd be favored on a neutral field but are also at home -- Phil (4-12 last year), Det, San Diego, K.C. (better with Reid and won Sunday but still coming off 2-14). Also, I'd considxer the Skins slight neutral field favorites against both the Giants and Cowboys because of their being NFC East champs last year and how bad they both looked last night. Six turnovers by Giants and the Boys can still barely win. Very underwelming by both.

All in all, I think the softish home schedule is "worth more" than the handful of super-tough road games. The Skins are not, imo, a team that is likely to win >11 games -- just because the schedule is tough and they are not a deep team at a lot of positions. But it's not going to take >11 wins to take the NFC East.

If they split with Giants and Cowboys, win two from Eagles -- a lot harder said than done because you have no idea yet what the "new" Eagles will look like -- plus the other very-winnable home games, andthe "gift' Oakland game in the road, you start from a guesstimate of seven or eight wins, plus whatever the do in "toss-up games."

The Packer loss will fire Green Bay up. But, all in all, the Skins have a schedule they can manage. All that "in theory." We'll start getting "reality" very soon.  

Now the local football team's nickname is too offensive for some to use in their columns. Was it less so ten years ago? What has really changed in that time other the aggressiveness of those with a platform?

I've watched the view on "Redskins" change over my whole lifetime. I was raised to think that it was almost absurd to use that nickname. But a lot of things in the '50's and '60's needed to change by a LOT. And a sports team nickname was about No. 10,000 on the list. But there's been a lot of progress on a lot of "awareness" fronts in the last 50 years. Finally, "Redskins" moved up the list -- and into people's awareness.

Recently, two small things brought this home to me again. My wife and I took a vacation to Seattle and Vancouver where the Native American influence is strong, respected, taken for granted as a core part of the region. Almost as an experiment I brought up the nickname in a neutral context to see how people would react. It was like, "Really? Redskins???" Like it was hard for them to believe that D.C. would let such a thing pass.

This weekend, we went to a wedding. The groom and his brother are huge lifelong Skins fans -- in their 20s. One said to me, "Among all the other reasons the team has to change it's nickname, add this additional reason -- what happens when RGIII does take them to a Super Bowl, whenever it is." Then he pointed out that the whole two weeks before the Super Bowl would not be "this great feel good period for everybody in my generation that has never seen the team have a great year." It would, he thought, all be consumed with debate about how on earth a team could still have such a nickname.

He said he had a bet with a buddy on whether the name would be changed within five years. He said, "Yes." I'd describe his family background as conservative. I don't think he thought it had anything to do with politics, just with a simple question of what is appropriate and in good taste in general society. That sense of appropriateness and civil taste has CHANGED enormously in my lifetime. And I assume for the better. The Skins are not doing themselves any favor to thumb their nose.

BUT, speaking as someone who grew up singing HTTR at the top of his lungs between 100 and 1,000 times in his life, even in a family that would have said "what an unbelievably lousy nickname for a team," I understand why it's such a touchy subject (with Skins fans and the team). Times change. The Skins will change with the times. It's just a question of when. Now. Five years? 10 years? They pay the price, nobody else. And fans like my 20-something friend who don't want that Super Bowl year stained by such a bizarre controversy.

I'm hardly a fan but this competition is barely recognizable from a few years back. But the six ton boats rise out of the water and go 50 MPH. Pretty cool if you got an extra half billion lying around.

Another part of the evolutiuon of sport that I have somehow managed to miss. I think we can all agree that what the world REALLY needs is more six-ton yachts that go 50 mph. Can't wait to make my first billion so I can spend half of it on a boat.

There is a reason baseball players call a boring blowout 12-1 game "a boat race."

I'll take the 'Skins. Philly's offense may be flashy at times tonight but probably not consistent enough. Their defense may be downright bad early in the season. I say the home team has enough on both sides of the ball and pulls away at the end. And RG3 remains upright after a few big shots.

All good thoughts.

After watching the action on Sunday in Week 1 I'd assume that everybody is reminded that, in the NFL, an enormous number of games are very close, get decided by turnovers and that home teams usually pull out the close ones. (Except all the times when they don't! Poor Bills.) The very idea that Team A in the NFL is GOING TO WIN is usually a delusion. Team A (Skins, in this case) has a good CHANCE to win and is probably the better team over a whole season. But on one particular Monday night? The NFL is very good at analyzing the sources of its success and then building it draft rules, scheduling, game rules and everything else to promote parity. They heard "On Any Given Sunday" decades ago and responded by saying, "YES!!!!! That's our product! And lets never forget to keep it that way."

The proper starting assumption, unless the game is a true mismatch, is that most games tend to trend toward a close score and that the home team or the team with the better QB has the edge. Using that line of reasoning, tonight could turn on whether or not RGIII can convert a late 4Q drive to pull out a win or ice a win and not let Vick stage a comeback. That's the league formula -- a great one for entertainment -- and tonight's game may be another example. Something like 24-20 Skins. Not a "prediction." Just an observation that EIGHT games on Sunday followed that pattern with the home team winning at the end by 6 pts or less -- Dallas, St. Louis, SF, Chicago, Indy, New Orleans, Jets -- and one team adding a score at the end for a 10-point win (Det). Look at the home-tyeam-wins scores: 36-31, 27-24, 34-28, 24-21, 21-17, 23-17, 18-17 (Jet!!!). 

Oh well.

Great point. I'd have been wrong. I'd have held onto him, too, for two reasons. 1) He was pitching so well over a lot of starts that it looked like you could hold onto him and end up getting a draft pick back for him after making him a one-year qualifying offer or 2) you get back into the WC race, even if Nats didn't pull it out, and he'd be part of the fun.

WRONG. Now you couldn't trade him for a broken bat and you'd never offer him a deal for '14 because he (should) take it. All GM's make bad deals/decisions. This one will go down right at the top of Rizzo's list. Two months ago, Rizzo told me, "If this doesn't work out, I'll wear it. But I said he'd win 11 games for us and I still think he will." 

At 8-13 (5.23), only four pitchers have lost more games than Haren. But, ironically, one of the ones who has if Edwin Jackson (7-15, 4.91) who got a FIVE-year contract with the Cubs. Now THAT is a bad decision. No one-year mistake can match it. And the Angels get the stuffed dodo bird for signing Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04).

Bottom line, Nats probably could have traded Haren before Sept. 1 but probably wouldn't have gotten a lot -- maybe, if lucky, a pitcher who graded out in the minors like another Taylor Jordan or Tanner Roark (a "maybe a good 4th-5th starter someday if everything works out") but not an Alex Meyer (maybe a top of rotation type if everything works out).

Span and Soriano ended up performing at career levels. Looks like haren's slide just continued. When I watched Roy Halladay pitch last week I thought, "His stuff is almost as bad as Haren's." But sometimes they have a good 5-6-or-even-7 inning start because they are so smart, set hitters up, expand the K-zone. But when they get crushed it is just brutal to watch.

Bos, You'll mostly receive questions today about the Redskins, which is only right: football season is upon us. So why shouldn't the Nationals feel the same way and shut Bryce Harper down for the season "just in case." This year is just about done and we need him 100 percent next year. Do ticket sales for a handful of remaining home games this year make a difference?

This is cheap-shot medical second guessing but that's part of the game. The Nats have allowed players to come back too soon several times this year and they have reinjured themselves. Werth, Ramos, Detwiler, Harper about three times, etc. Every team has to make MANY calls every season and when to let players talk their way back. You get some wrong. Nats have a poor record on that front this year.

I'd be VERY careful with Harper. And I wouldn't listen to him at all. You should care about his hip, not his feelings. He's shown that he has poor judgment about his injuries and, apparently, isn't too candid internally either. How many people knew that the "whole left side" of his body hurt -- in one place or another -- ever since he hit the wall in L.A.? I don't know the answer. Maybe he told trainers but not anybody else.

EVERY DAY players HAVE to want to play EVERY DAY or they are not built -- physically or psychologically -- to be premiere EVERYDAY players. They are all banged up during parts of the year. Part of being a pro is learning/knowing when you can keep playing and pushing. Some thought Werth actually stayed out a little too long when he finally missed a month to get right. But it paid off. Since he came back he's been one of the best players in baseball. Harper wants to be Werth -- viewed as tough. But it's a fine line and a dangerous one. I'll be interested to hear what they find with Harper. Don't get hysterical. The first assumption should not be : Really Bad. It should be: His hip hurts, you're eight out with 20 to play, so be very careful. (With him, and his history so far, they should be extra careful anyway.)

Is Ndamukong Suh worth all the trouble he makes?


But if he's not a dirty player...

Suh's play wasn't the worst of the day. I hope RGIII watched the late-late-late hit on Kaepernick by Clay Matthews in S.F.

I hope RGIII saw that play and thought about it. It didn't help Kaepernick that he was playing at home. The Packers would have chased him to Market Street to hit him late.

Kaepernick said afterwards, "If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one." 

No, Colin, their game plan is NOT intimidation. It is to break several of your bones when you run with the ball. It is not a THREAT. They are actually trying to do it, even when the play is over and you are way out of bounds.

THAT is why RGIII simply can't end up running the ball 120 times as he did last year or taking as many hits -- 25 in ONE game -- as was demonstarted by the game-by-game Hit Chart in our Post story over the weekend.

How do you handicap this race -- Pirates may be in trouble. Maybe the Nats can catch them.

Pirates, despite their recent traces to pick up hitters like Byrd, Buck and Morneau, seem to have the most potential to fold because their pitching has been collapsing for quite a while. Locke out of rotation and back to minors. Charlie Morton shelled yesterday. They have a LOT of pitchers having years you just wouldn't expect. But there are only 20 games left for them for their reversion to the mean.  I think the Cards, Reds and Bcs are all going to make it but not the Nats. But you can bet they are nervous in Pittsburgh. The Bucs ERA was 2.77 in July, 3.63 in August and 6.56 so far in their 2-5 September. Everybody in baseball has noticed it and is commenting on it.

If the Nats finish 15-5, Pirates would have to go 7-13 just for a tie after 162 games. As I noted two weeks ago, when team collapse late, they tend to REALLY collapse. Like going 10 games under .500 over their bad period or even more. Chances are tiny. Nats might still get close enough to fantasize. Pirates play six of last nine games against Reds. But Nats, despite going 19-9, are not really playing especially well. They are HITTING. But they'd need to play a much tighter better brand of ball to close ~15-5 against the schedule they have left.

I only had one eye on the NFL yesterday, what with the wealth of pennant-race-relevant games, like Cards-Bucs, Sox-Yanks, and Reds-Dodgers, the latter two of which ended in walkoffs. Did you see anything surprising? Looking at the paper the thing that jumps out to me is Geno Smith. I had no expectations and he surpassed them easily.

The Jets win was a gift thanks to the 15-yd unsportsmanlike hit that set up the 48-yd field goal with 0:07 left. But Smitth and Manuel both did very well in their first NFL starts. An era of excellent young QBs.

Reds should really get a boost from beating Dodgers on a walkoff HR by Ryan Hannigan after fighting Kershaw to a 2-2 tie.  The Yanks should be dead now despite a win Sunday. I know, only - 2 1/2 from last WC. But I'd never have believed the Red Sox could thump them, comeback and break their hearts, like they did in the first 3 games in The Stadium. The 2 blown saves by Mo Rivera, even though he ended up with the win Sunday, are a sign of the end of a Yankee era. They've been game this year. The Nine Old Men. We'll see what they still have left. Alfonso Soriano has been one of the great late pickups ever.

To give a sense of the magnitude of what the Red Sox have done, if they finished 13-4 they would improve by 30 wins in one year. THIRTY wins. If they go 10-7, they end up with 97 wins after losing 93 last year. In the NFL you can explain and anticipate 6-10 teams that go 10-6 the next year.

How do you anticipate 69-93 to ~97-65? Great game, example No. 1-Million.

How much do you attribute the Nats decline this year to poor medical management? For some reason, they continue to let Harper self-manage. And now the LaRoche weight loss issue.

The Nats have an explanation for each example. But they need to look at the whole pattern. LaRoche should be able to fix the weight problem next year and maybe more platooning vs LHers would be a logical way to help him as he ages. Harper's self-management or poor communication just has to be solved or at least improved. Pretty amazing that he could have a .882 OPS, ninth best ever for a year by a 20-year-old, if he's been as banged up as he says. And I assume he has been. 

Boz, He seems to have composure/maturity issues not found in the Nats' other starters. His talent is obviously immense, but is this a long-term concern?

He's further along the maturity/development path at 25 than either Nolan Ryan or Blylevel who were both enormous wasters of raw talent early in their careers -- stubborn, got beaten constantly by patient teams that waited for them to make mistakes so they could build a big inning against them as they got flustered. Strasburg fixes himself faster. But not yet fast enough. The three-run inning was ridiculous. How can a pitcher his age balk in two runs in the same inning with essentially the same mistake?

If it's not one thing, it's another. Yet his overall record is excellent. His repertoire starts to remind me more of a young Blyleven who had a very good fastball but a GREAT curve. And Strasburg's curve and change are his best weapons. Blyleven was in a rotation at 19. But through age 26, he still hadn't quite figured it out -- 122-113 despite a 2.79 ERA.

I suspect you'll see a real jump up in Strasburg's polish next year. He's analytical. Once he sees a problem, he fixes it. But it seems like he has to learn every lesson the hard way. Get ahead of hitters. Hold runners. Cope with very hot games. Don't be distracted by errors behind him. Don't balk in runs. It's a long list. But his talent is really exceptional and he's a fine young man. He's very good now. And he's going to be better.  Knock on wood, he's now reached 25 -- supposedly an important age for your arm being "mature" -- and he's not hurt and will end near 200 IP.  

I can't remember the last time that I saw a balk called before Sunday, and then two are called on Stras in the same inning--and both give the Marlins runs? What was going on with that umpire? Why did he possibly spoil the game for us with what were innocent movements and not deliberate balks? I am really upset about it, and I'd be more upset if we had lost the game.

He called them because they were balks.

Athletics or Rangers, Cards or Pirates?

I practically love the A's.

Cards have been a .500 team for months but I assume they'll get straightened out. I'd take them over the Bucs on the huge gap in experience. But I don't think Pittsburgh will fold. They're just in a rough patch. We'll see.

Some time ago I realized that I could easily skip the first four weeks of the NFL while I am watching the pennant races. Once the regular season is over, I can then get a better handle on the league. For instance, I can't really tell, on the basis of yesterday's game, whether Cincinnati is any good. But in October I will look up and say, oh, they're 1-3, they're lousy, or they must be good at 3-1, etc. How closely are you looking at the NFL right now?

I largely ignore the exhibition season. THAT is "garbage in, garbage out." Lousy info leads to lousy premature analysis.

But I'm addicted as soon as the season starts. I have many qualms about the NFL, but very few about the entertainment value of the league. I was up late last night catching up on games, tapes.

BTW, this is going to be a "short" chat by my standards. Got a game to cover tonight. I'll take a couple more.

Tom, With many offenses speeding up the temp, do you see most teams employing the "fake injury" to slow the game?

They've been faking injuries to slow foes and late in games all my life. This New Information is Older than Old.

I am a person who lived through the "What's it like to be a black quarterback?" era with Doug Williams. To me, your story about the groom and his brother is an index of how things have changed. With Doug, the issue was (still!) whether a black man could play QB. Now it's whether a black man can lead a team with a racist nickname. (BTW: no, it's not intentionally racist, but that doesn't mean it's not racist.) I don't regret any of the times I sang, or sing, HTTR, but it's time to make a change.

Good points. Just in case I didn't express it correctly, it was the brother of the groom I was talking about. He said he wouldn't mind it if I stole his idea for a column. But it got into a chat first.

As someone who grew up in DC, I understand people not wanting to change the name but I don't understand why anyone thinks there would be a negative effect on team finances if its changed. Every news outlet in the country would cover the story to death so its not like people wouldn't know who the Warriors/Generals/Etc are and every fan would go out and buy new things with the new name. What am I missing in terms of the money side?

The money analysis would be fascinating. But all new "junk" for sale would be worth a ton. Sorry for the "junk" remark; I'm not a big collector of logo-items. But, yes, when my wife and I first met I did have a large trashcan with a Skins logo.

That's a winning percentage of .677, enough to put the Nats ahead of Atlanta, and well ahead of the Pirates and Reds. That seems to be the major difference. You can't expect a 4th or 5th starter (even if you spend $13 million) to do as well as your top three. But wouldn't even a .500 or a little better starter have put the Nats in contention?

You're correct that the Nats are 8-18 in Haren's starts. And they are 65-51 in all other games. But that is a .560 percentage, equal to a 91-win pace. (Not .677.)

But you mae a good point. I'd bet that 91 wins will put you in the N.L. playoffs.

Perhaps its more realistic to say that for $13M you should be able to find a .500 pitcher __or 13-13, not 8-18 in his starts. That would put the Nats at 78-64 and very much in the WC pitcure. The Nats had a lot of problems. But if Haren was really "worth" -5 wins, that's probably the No. 1 or N o. 2 reason, along with the awful bench production for four months. They knew they had to replace Jackson. Haren was their only major move. They went into the season "thin" at starting pitcher after the top five. And they certainly paid for it.

Dear Bos-read, loved your work all my life (56 y.o. native) mentioned RZimm's falling defensive ratings recently, and i agree. Most folks attribute it mainly to his arm/shoulder troubles...but no mention is ever made of his ABDOMINAL surgery a few years back. I saw some stats recently(fangraphs) that said prior to the op, he was on a possible HOF pace.Since then...well, we all feel for the guy Any thoughts an the abdominal factor? Also....with Werth now the team "leader"-you think Ryan is also subtly affected by the change in clubhouse dynamics? Keep writing forever, thanks Jim

Zim loves sharing the leadership role. He fits very well with Werth and Desmond (who is one of the more underrated players in MLB.)

Zim is NOT the worst defensive player in MLB, no matter what Fan Graphs says. But he has fallen a large way. Half the problem is his arm strength/accuracy. The other half is that he has to play so shallow. It limits his range no matter how many acrrobatic plays he makes -- and he makes a LOT of them. Rizzo has been aware of that since early in the season.

If his arm strength gets back to average for '14, or even near average for a MLB third baseman, his defense will immediately go up to "good." (Or better than good.)

If his arm and accuracy don't return by next year, then you have a significant problem you have to face. But you don't have to face it until then. The fact that Rendon is a third baseman makes the future less scary. 

Also, Z'man may finish fast (three homers in last two games) and end up with a poor-to-decent offensive season, not the worrisome one he was working on until recently. I think his "comeback" in '14 will be similar to Werth's this year. Don't mean he'll hit .321. Just that he will get back to "being himself" again. 

Last year RG3 beat Dallas on Thanksgiving in the air and Dallas played to shut him down in the last game and Morris ran for 200. Last year Kap ran all over GB in the playoffs and they adjusted and he put up 400 in the air on Sunday. Do you think RG3 (and all of the Redskins offensive) can consistently respond the way SF did if teams stack the box against Morris and RG3 on the ground? Can the Redskins put up 300+ in the air w/o too much difficulty if asked to do so on a week-in-week-out basis?

Maybe. How's that for a brave answer! Having Garcon for 16 games (the Skins hope) and having Helu back gives them more options. Fred Davis SHOULD be a big threat that helps the Skins be more versatile.

RGIII has NOT run his last option! He's just going to run less of them, imo.

For those who love the language of baseball, I cannot recommend Dickson's Baseball Dictionary highly enough. "Boat race" is on p. 121, after "boatload mentality" and before "bob-and-weave." You have to get the book to find out what those terms mean.


Do the Nationals tweak for 2014, or do they need to make big changes in the roster. What do you think of these predictions: LaRoche bcomes an expensive bench player, Span and Gio traded.

They still believe in their talent. It will be a tweak winter, imo. Though they clearly need another SP with Haren leaving.

I sail, my kids sail, my brothers sail, my sister's one of those things that you DO. It is not one of those things you WATCH. I'd love half a billion dollars to sail one of those cool AC boats, but I'll make do with my three-figure used Sunfish, thank you.

Hey, I once sent my son to sailing school! I think he learned to sail a Sunfish. But he's a Boswell. He gave it up.

I thought it was interesting that all four of the Philly sports writers had basically the same score for tonight's game with the Redskins in the mid-30s and the Eagles in the mid-20s. I think the assumptions are that Washington's offense will be similar to the end of last year and that the new Philly offense will have some bugs but will also have some success against the new Redskins secondary. Those seem like pretty reasonable guesses to me and I'd be very happy with that result.

Interesting that they "grouped" in their predictions. That may be the first time I've heard of four Philly sportswriters agreeing about anything.

Boz, can you please address the numerous people who say that RGIII's high passer rating, completion pct., and yards per attempt numbers were easily achieved and merely a function of an offense geared toward very short passes? If it's so easy to do, why don't all teams do it? Is there really so much more merit in yardage gained through passes that travel farther in the air? Is there no skill involved in hitting a receiver with a short pass in a position where he has room to run for more yardage?

Anybody who can't see Griffin's talents as a passer either has a vision problem or an aggenda problem.

This is kind of like saying, "best left-handed batter with a beard named Bryce and from Las Vegas." When you eliminate the competition through exclusions, even I can be great.

Okay, if Harper had enough at bat to qualify (and if he comes back and continues playing he probably will) he'd be in the Top 10 in the N.L. in OPS at age 20. And he did it in an inured season. That's remarkable.

That's it for today. Like everybody else, been waiting for this particualr Monday night for months. Enjoy.

Bos, I am truly disappointed. I expected a better answer from you with some analysis about what made them balks and not just unintentional movements. As I said, balk calls are rare and I'm sure lots of pitchers get away with minor ones. So why Stras? And why with runners on third base? They could have totally changed the game.

The core intent of the balk rule is to prevent pitchers from tricking baserunners. Once you allow pitchers to do ANYTHING with quick movements or flinches the whole sport would disintegrate into a silly game of fake moves to pick off runners. Or else force runners to almost stand on first base until the ball in thrown.

So the first thing pitchers are taught is that once you are on the rubber DON'T MOVE. Don't twitch or flinch or start to do something and then change your mind. Then, once you DO start your motion, or pickoff, keep it fluid and in one movement.

Strasburg stood on the rubber and TOOK HIS HAND OUT OF HIS GLOVE and then put it back in! (Twice. The second time, he stopped mid-way like, "Oh, God, I did it again." But it was too late. The only way he could get the ball back in his hand was to put his hand back in the glove! Sooorry.) "That way madness lies." You can't let pitchers start to do one thing and then do the opposite. What next, jerk your neck? Or flip out your elbow? Did you see Davey face? That was not the face of an outraged manager. 

Okay, outta here. Cheers.

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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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