Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Nov 28, 2016

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Boz, I hate to say this since I'm a die-hard 'Skins fan. But the Redskins fans need to cheer like heck for the Cowboys until the end of the regular season. Why would I speak such blasphemy? It's because the Cowboys five remaining games (against the Vikings, Buccaneers, Eagles, Giants, and Lions) are all teams The 'Skins must battle for a wildcard. How cruel of the Cowboys to put us in a position where we must cheer for them.

Thanks for that info. I don't think anybody else has noticed yet how much the Boys can help the Skins.

I'm going to look stupid for saying this -- not for the first time -- if the Skins blow out Arizona the way Atlanta just did on Sunday, but I think the Cards -- in Phoenix -- will be a tough and important test for the Skins. Arizona is better than their 4-6-1 record.

First, Arizona gives up the fewest yards in the NFL this year -- only 3234 in 11 games. In their last four games at home, they've only given up an average of 265 yards which is EXTREMELY low.

Also, by this point late in the season, I always look at for their Simple Rating System to see if any teams are misevaluated because a few close loses (or wins) have distorted their basic strength on offense or defense. The Cards aren't any wonderful team. But they are decent. Factoring in strength of schedule, too, the Skins are rated as 2.3-points a game better than the  average team while Arizona is +0.8. That's not much difference. Add 3 points for homefield advantage and the Cards would be 1.5-point FAVORITES over the Skins.

No, I wouldn't use that stat in this case and declare the Cards the favorites. I think the Skins are a LITTLE better. But not much. Arizona has outscored its 11 foes by 17 points. The Skins are only +16 points vs their opponents.

It should be a fun matchup between the Skins offense -- which is second in the Cards defense, which is No. 1 in not allowing yards.

The Skins big weakness continues to be their inability to stop the run -- second-worst yards-per-carry against them -- and especially an inability to stop opposing running games (like the Cowboys on Thanksgiving) in the RED ZONE. Washington has allowed more rushing touchdowns than any team in the NFL.

So, be careful out there in Arizona!

Also, I really want to see how well the Eagles can (or can't) handle the Packers tonight in Philly. The Simple Rating System REALLY thinks the Eagles have played a tough schedule and have a fat point-differential for the year of +55. If you used this measurement, the Eagles would be 7.5-point favorites over the Skins in Philly in two weeks.

Again, I don't agree with that line. But it shows how tough the next two games might be. If the Skins can win just one of the next two games I would consider a good job and probably the key to making the playoffs this year.

The NFC playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Cowboys likely win the east with the giants just behind them getting the first wild card. Seahawks take the West. Falcons the South. If the skins finish 3-2 that would give them a 9-6-1 record, would that be enough for the second wild card? I think it would get them in. I don't think any of the teams with 6 losses already will run the table. A win against the eagles would basically eliminate them. Tampa has a tough schedule to finish, unlikely they go 4-1. The Lions have a tough schedule compared to Minnesota, a vikings loss to the boys on Thursday would help. The only way I see them not making it at 9-6-1 is if somehow the vikings and Lions both get to ten wins.

The Skins got nice help this week with loses by both Minnesota (now 6-5) and Arizona, which might have trouble with motivation at 4-6-1. This could be their "demoralized" its-not-our-year week for a flat game. At least the Skins can hope so.

Also Carolina lost a tough close 35-32 game to the Raiders. At 4-7, they may be dead by the time they get to DC to play the Skins. That's good. Because if Cam Newton has any chance, he's dangerous. You prefer that he didn't have a playoff-hungry team around him.

My worry would be that the Giants have been lucky this year -- I've watched about five of their games and they are as mediocre as an 8-3 team can be -- yet they may end up with 10 wins. And I still think, until demonstrated otherwise, that the Eagles are being undersold. AT HOME, Philly is 4-0 and has outscored its foes 108-28!! (Bet you didn't know that.) Their loses have all been on the road and to decent-to-good teams by close scores -- Det, Skins, Dallas, Giants and Seattle by 23-24, 20-27, 23-29, 23-28 and 15-26.

The Giants are overrated. But the Eagles -- the team the Skins should worry most about, imo -- are underrated. So, root for Green Bay to upset 'em tonight. That would really help. Otherwise, I wouldn't be surprised if the Skins at Eagles game looks similar to the Skins at Cowboys -- a respectable score but with the home team IN CONTROL and never in serious danger of losing the game.

There's always too much optimism in the home town of EVERY NFL playoff contender -- and the Skins are no exception. If the Eagles win tonight, that makes the second and last wild card spot look like this:

Washington 6-4-1
Philly 6-5

Minnesota 6-5

Tampa Bay 6-5 (not a threat, I'd guess).

That's close. And the tie in London will probably be the best or worst thing that happened to the Skins all season. I'd bet it'll get 'em in or knock 'em out. That 34-yard missed field goal in overtime -- yes, like an extra point in length (and the NFL average on PATS is still 95 percent) -- still hangs out there looming.

If the Skins win in Arizona and Philly, I'll be back in two weeks with an ENTIRELY revised view of them -- from a pretty good, 9-7-ish, exciting and improving team to one that is close to joining Dallas and Seattle as the class of the modest NFC.

It's hard to win on the road in the NFL against anybody that's any good at all -- for example, any team with its starting QB still upright and a positive point differential through 11 games. If the Skins can beat two such teams in the Cards and Eagles, they've really proved something to me. But start with Arizona. My two cents: That won't be as easy as many think.

So if Penn State wins next week in the championship game, and has beaten Ohio State head to head, they will make final four, right? Of course not, because this is really just a sad version of Olympic judged figure skating where the team (Ohio State) that doesn't win their own conference or even head to head to the conference champion is deemed the best team. My question is, who is the East German judge in this scenario?

I watched an ESPN debate on this subject this a.m. George Stark, the ex-Skins lineman, took the side that Penn State should get the nod if they are conference champ and beat OSU head-to-head.

Among other things, College football is about money, TV ratings and the huge build-up to a national championship. And OSU, with its one-for-the-ages win over Michigan and its huge run-it-up-wins on weak teams like Maryland, has the glamour and the drawing power.

If it comes down to your scenario, Penn State is toast, imo. It's nice that the program has righted itself. But the Paterno-Sandusky scandal -- which still seems like it happened yesterday -- isn't going to warm people's hearts toward the idea of PSU having a shot at the national title so soon. 


BTW, please add me to the long list of people who think Jim Harbaugh is a horse's rear end. He whine and alibied for his loss -- in which HE got a damaging 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct in the middle of an important OSU drive -- because of three calls by refs that he implied were not even close at all. Well, that's a crock. The final crucial first-down spot in the second overtime -- and the replay analysis of it -- proved that it was a VERY close play. Any coach with any class doesn't put his hands a foot apart -- meaning the refs really blew it by a clear margin of a foot -- on a call that everybody knows was more like one inch. And I thought the spot-and-call was correct, though by a whisker. Also, one of the two interference penalties he was moaning about was a correct call, too. Gripping about that merits a full-blown "Sit down and shut up."

Of course, this is what I'd expect of him. I "love" the way he is always buddying up to famous people -- judges, etc -- and "taking notes" on all their wisdom and life philosophy so he can be SEEN as even more of a football genius. Give me a break. 

OTOH, his brother John sure had a good moment on Sunday on the last play of the Ravens win. Nine Ravens deliberately HELD nine punt rushers as the Baltimore punter ran out the last 11 seconds of the game, then ran out the back of the end zone for a safety. The rule: Bengals got the two points, but the game was over -- 0:00 -- and Baltimore won 19-14.

Should the rule be changed? That's a different discussion. Was it excellent coaching to use the rule that exists to snuff out your opponent's last chance? OF COURSE.

How are we to tell how it may have affected things on Thursday? Perhaps the defense would have been a bit sharper? Their flat start could certainly have been predicted.

I'm amused by the Flat Start Theory. I bet you don't hear that in Dallas!

If the quick turnaround and "unfair" scheduling was a factor in the game,. it should have showed up LATE in the game. Not in the first series. I'd say that the more objective view of this -- after watching that drive three times -- is that the Boys had the Skins defensive scheme doped out perfectly, then blew up everybody in sight with overpowering blocks, except for the Skins who got trampled by the Boy with the ball.

IOW, the Skins were not flat. They were flattened.

That set the tone for the game. Every time the Cowboys really needed to drive, they drove and -- four for four -- they scored once they got into the endzone, three times by running the ball in.

The yardage totals in this game are misleading. It looks the Skins dominated. This game was the DEFINITION of a team, often trailing by two scores, being forced to pass (53 times) and pile up cheap yardage -- yes, cheap yardage -- between the 20-yard lines. Dallas, which has a poor (and injured) defense, especially DBs, just played it smart -- bend but don't break. Then, once you get inside the 20-yard line, you automatically get a 12th defender -- the end line behind the end zone. The bomb is taken away entirely, unless you think you can catch one in the fifth row of the stands and get six points for it. Those mediocre DBs can play tighter because they know the have the ultimate "safety help" behind them -- the back line of the end zone. It's never been beaten for a score.

I suspect that what we are seeing with Skins problems in the red zone this year is not some sophisticated issue of play calling or execution. I think it's much more likely to be reversion to the mean. Last year, Cousins had an incredible number of VERY SHORT passed for touchdowns. In multiple columns I kept pointing it out. I don't have the list, but it was like 10 TD passes with an average length of four yards.  My question then: Was this a Cousins Skill -- and a very important one -- that he could duplicated year after year. Or was this a one-year phenomenon that would revert to the mean?

Right now, it looks like No. 2.

Cousins is having an excellent season. And 6-4-1 is an accurate reflection of how the Skins have played -- especially their tenacity in close games. But the league has had a chance to study all those Tiny TD passes of 1, 2, 3 4, 5 or 7 yards and get a book. Time for the Skins to adjust to the adjustments and Flip The Book on what they do, especially inside the 10-yard line. They ARE limited by the fact that Rob Kelley is wonderfully brave battling runner (who doesn't seem to fumble when he's fighting for extra yards), but, as yet, he hasn't shown the elite raw skills like the best backs in the league. And those -- speed, elusiveness, explosiveness -- certainly help close to the goal line. 

All in all, I expect the Skins to improve in the Red Zone soon. They have too many receiving weapons, and Cousins is too ultra-accurate into tight windows, to be shut down to this degree for long.

One interesting point: the Skins are only 18th in the NFL in rushing attempts. IOW, they appear to lack confidence in their running game at times. But they are actually 10th in rushing yardage because they are ranked No. X in yards-per-rushing-attempt.

Solve for "X."

The Skins are No. 6 -- SIX -- in yards-per-rush at a very good 4.5.

So, does this mean that the Skins don't run as much as they should? Or does it mean that when you have a ratio of 438-to-275 in passes-to-rushes, the defense is lulled into thinking it only has to stop the pass and the run is a surprise.

I think the Skins (Gruden) should run more in almost every game. Of all Cousins skills, throwing off play action is No. 1 -- including bootlegs when he throws on the run. The more and better that you run, the more open the play-action game will be.


There's been plenty of talk about Gruden's gambles in the Dallas game. My only second guess would be the first on-side kick. It was too early to be that desperate. You're saying that your defense is downright bad and just can't stop 'em. Well, Dallas has a superior offense, BUT the Boys STILL score on less than 50 percent of their possessions. The odds of recovering an on-side kick -- in the fourth quarter when you are down two scores and the other team obviously knows its a possibility -- are lousy. 

Even if the odds of stopping the Boys without a score in their next drive was only 50-50, the odds on the on-side were much worse than that. And even if the Boys kick a field goal, they are "only" up eight points and it's a one-score game if you make the two-point conversion.

Going with your gut is okay, but only after you have a sense of the basic odds of the situation. I'm not sure Jay always does. He said the Skins "saw something" in the Dallas alignment (or whatever) that made the on-side kick look more realistic. I think I'll call "baloney" on that. Unless you "see" that they are all going to fall down in a heap as soon as you kick it, then you haven't seen enough to think a late-game on-side kick is anything but a hunch call by a coach who gets an upset stomach thinking about his defense trying to make a big stop.

In any sport, when the coach/manager acts like he's secretly thinking, "They can't do it, so I HAVE to do it -- even against the percentages," that is usually over-coaching.            

What is your view of Andrew Stevenson as a future CF for the Nationals and a possible late season call up in 2017?

When you use a second-round pick to draft a player out of LSU, you expect him to move up through the minors quickly, so it's no surprise that Stevenson has done so. But his numbers, while OK, don't make him look like he's kicking down any doors or that he has Next CF written on him. In his second year in the minors last year at 22, he worked his way up to AA, where lots of pitchers have MLB stuff, but not MLB command or variety of pitches. In 65 games and 256 ABs at AA, he hit .246 with 2 homers and an adequate 12-for-17 stealing bases. He's 6-foot, 185 and has shown no power. 

Don't get excited yet. There's still a better chance that Michael A. Taylor, who has big four tools, but fans WAY too much, can tap his talent and be a shocker. Each year that goes past his chances are worse. But if he ever figures it out and makes enough contact....

I wish I had a buck for every player I've heard that said about. But it's still true.

The world is full of athletes who can run, field, throw and hit with power -- when they hit it. But CONSISTENTLY squaring up a baseball with a bat is almost like a separate sport all unto itself. When you look at someone who has that gift, like Daniel Murphy, you say, "He makes it look so simple. He barely takes any stride at all. He looks like he 'sees" every pitch perfect and has plenty of time to swing, then just selects what pitch he wants to drill. Why can't they all do some version of that?"

If only...

Nice to have Trea Turner in the same clubhouse with Murphy for the next two years. "Gee, I wonder who I could talk hitting with..." 

But can the Caps "flip the switch" when the playoffs arrive?

That's the question, isn't it.

Here's my column on the subject today.

I don't think they have much choice. Ovechkin is in his 11th season and Backstrom in his 10th. You need to preserve them for as many productive seasons as possible and especially productive post-season. The more you frazzle them in regular seasons, the less you have of both in future -- good full seasons or big post-seasons.

Also, additional playing time for the third and fourth lines can only help them develop cohesion. The big mystery -- and key -- is whether Kuznetsov is going to be a star at the Backstrom level or something of a disappointment who never truly adapts his artful game from the big ice growing up in Russia to the smaller NHL rinks with less room to create and less room to avoid hits, too. 

It really is shocking that the Caps are only a hair behind the Pens (928), Black Hawks (922) and Sharks (919) in total regular-season points over the last 10 (TEN) years. The Caps have 918 and will probably pass San Jose in points over the last decade sometime this season.

But the Pens have won 3 Cups and Chicago has won 2. San Jose lost in the Finals last year and has one other trip to the NHL's final four. And San Jose is considered a major wasted-opportunity disappointment during this period.

What on earth does that make the Caps who have never gotten past the round of EIGHT in eight trips to the playoffs in this Ovi-Backstrom era.

They gotta try something different. But I think last year was my final trip to the "I Believe In This Team" camp. Man, they looked really exceptional for a really long time. And their series with the Pens probably WAS the real NHL FInals. (Even though the Pens had to go seven games in the next round.)

From now on, I'm a Doubting Thomas and they've got to show me.

I will say that the last 10 years have made me a half-decent hockey fan, something I never thought would happen. "Hey, hockey's on TV. I think I'll watch -- for the fun of it!" Words I NEVER thought would pass through my brain. 

Why not just pay Melancon what is necessary to keep him rather than sniffing around Chapman, whose money demand will be obscene?

Yes, that would be my first instinct.

But the Nats have been magnetized by Chapman since they tried to sign him out of Cuba for $20M -- and thought they'd get him. Then the Reds offered $25M.

The Nats thought they'd figured out all the players in the picture and what they would bid for Chapman. And they thought they had a margin of error at $20M and didn't have to go higher and bid against themselves. 


That may have been some of the best scouting the Nats ever did, but also maybe the worst $5M the Nationals ever saved. Ironically, they weren't even trying to "save" it. The Reds had never made a bid ANYTHING LIKE that before.

Some players, that get away, stick in a team's craw. They imagine what "might have been" if they'd gotten him and, when he's available once more they just can't bear not to pursue the Do Over.  

Are we going to get Chris Sale? Yoenis Cespedes?

The hot stove season starts to take off after Thanksgiving. Hold onto your hats.

You can disregard recent rumors about Trea Turner being in any trades (including Sale). If the Nats trade Turner, for anybody currently available, I'll burn my BBWAA card.

Rizzo tries to be, and generally succeeds in being, inscrutable on off-season trades and signings. Then, after the fact, like the next spring training, you learn that the Nats weren't really very interest in Heyward but were after Cespedes. And that Bryce Harper was definitely cheering them on because Cespedes was exactly the RH bat he thought would work well behind him in the lineup.

So, the players the Nats have coveted in the past are ones to pay special attention to in the present -- Chapman and Cespedes. The price always has to be right. But we KNOW that Rizzo has wanted them -- badly -- in the past. 

Like all good MLB teams, it is assumed the Nats are in the middle of a "window" where aging players and free agency mean they have just a short time to win the World Series, or at least get there, before they break down and must be rebuilt. Probably around the end of the 2018 season when, current wisdom, says, Bryce Harper exits at the end of his contract. That seems to be the prevailing thinking in MLB these days. But does Mike Rizzo buy into this "window" idea? I tend to think not. I think he intends to build the Nats franchise like the Braves 20 year run at the end of the last century, the beginning of this one. That is, you get a solid core of pitchers (Scherzer, Stasburg, Ross/Roark/Lopez/Giolito) like the Braves had with Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz. You get an outstanding position player or two long term (Turner/Rendon/Harper?) like Chipper Jones. And you pay attention to outstanding drafts, plus key trades to fill-in and, viola, you have a 20 year run. What do you think?

I think you have it right and that many miss that very point. Rizzo is a build-the-organization and the title will come in due time kind of GM, like the Braves.

However, when he was in Arizona, but not the one pulling the trigger, he saw a team "go for it" and win the '01 World Series.

Still, in Washington at least, we've seen a consistent pattern. The Nats have signed free agents, including big ones like Werth and Scherzer. They have made big bids for Teixeira and (perhaps) Cespedes. They signed LaRoche, Rafael Soriano, Murphy and others at lower prices. But have they EVER, and this is Rizzo's seventh year in charge, traded one of their top three or four prospects for anybody? No. So, yes, they have been similar to the Braves.

I think that Rizzo believes, as long as he has his scouts and entire organization functioning well, that windows can stay open indefinitely. Not forever, but indefinitely. And that you never trade away huge chunks of the future -- young players you can control for six or seven years at paltry to middling prices, allowing you to save your cash for free agents. 

I don't now how many times he has to say that his goal is to build a "90-win team every year" that can make the playoffs, that will sometimes win 95-or-more, but will sometimes have bad luck or performance and only win 85, before people actually believe him. He isn't the Go For It guy with the Nats. That's Ted, who was big in the Scherzer and Soriano signings. But Ted has never been part of a big TRADE (except to require considerable convincing to allow the three-decent-prospects-for-Gio Gonzalez trade to go through.)

Lets see, how many have they won in the last five years? 98, 86, 96, 83 and 95. That's 91.6-a-year. Gee, maybe he means what he keeps saying.

How many "elite prospects" has Rizzo traded away in that time? Did he trade Trea Turner? Did he trade Giolito, or anybody else, last summer when "everybody" was talking about the Nats getting Chapman or Andrew Miller for somebody like Robles or Lopez?

Instead, he got Melancon for very little, compared to a top prospect.

So, if he bundles two or three big prospects in a trade for Sale, it may be wise, but it will also be out of character -- as least as far as Rizzo's baseball decision-making character has shown itself so far.

Spend money for free agents, yes. That's a pure addition of talent and doesn't weaken the long-term future since you can continue to draft, sign and develop your own talent internally. Spend several top prospects to "go for it now," no. They haven't done that. YET.

Everything changes everything. We'll see what THIS off-season brings. Patterns of behavior can change, especially if "the right deal" shows up. But at least maybe this gives you a little more context into which you can place the doings of the next couple of months.

That's it for today. Thanks for your excellent questions (and patience with me). See you next Monday at 11 a.m.     

Is it some kind of fetish?

Ask Rex Ryan. 

So the hockey season has started. And I haven't been to a game. I used to have season tickets. . .but I just couldn't subject myself to all of. . .that. . .again. I'm sure I'll make it to a few games this year. . .but the fire in my heart is out. I'm afraid the only thing that can reignite it is AT LEAST a Stanley Cup final appearance. In the last few years we've been subject to a few first round exists. . .a few second round exits. . .and that's if they make the playoffs at all. I don't know who hates me worse. . .the Caps or the Nats. What it must be like to be from Boston. . .sigh. Anyway. . .are we going to make the playoffs this year and, if so, is there ANY prospect that the Caps will redeem my heretofore unrequited love?

I feel your pain. However, I have no balm. The Bible says, "This too shall pass." But it doesn't say when. Is it possible even God doesn't know when the Caps will win?

A couple of points. I had a good question, but had technical difficulties posting it. So, here it is:

"Navy plays in the AAC Championship Saturday in Annapolis.....Will Worth has been an unbelievable story, the team still has a shot at the Cotton Bowl with a win. This team has been fantastic to watch.....Let's get a great crowd out to support this team at Noon on Saturday!"

My answer is that Navy is currently my favorite team to watch in any sport. I watched all 75 of their points vs SMU on Saturday. They finally have enough players with sufficient size and athleticism to show what their offensive system can do when it doesn't start at a significant physical disadvantage. They just RIP PEOPLE TO SHREDS. It is awesome. No, their defense can't stop many people. But their execution is so precise, so perfect from play to play, and their discipline is to total that they never seem to inflict a mistake on themselves.

Late in the third quarter, Navy put in whole-scale substitutions, including all its skill position players on offense. The backup QB ripped off runs of 40 and 50 yards. Almost every play STILL worked for HUGE gains, no matter who was running it. They went over 500 yards just in rushing. 


Here are a couple of links I don't think you want to miss.

Here is Dave Sheinen's wonderful piece on James Lebbie, 58, the Tiger Woods of West Africa, who beat Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price in his prime, won the Nigerian Open against top competition, but then suffered through the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone and is now a caddie at Congressional Country Club.

Also, here is Dan Steinberg's look at Kirk Cousins obliterating his own Skins passing records. Yes, it's easier to amass numbers these days. But it ain't that easy -- especially not if he's magic number is 5,000 yards. Yes, he's on pace for about 5,040 yards.

Enjoy. Cheers.    

Trotz said he learned a lot from the other coaches he worked with at the World Championships this fall. He casually mentioned some thinking about keeping the Caps fresh for the playoffs. That's what I've been seeing this entire season, particularly the constant rotation between Holtby and Grubauer in net. After what the Pens did last year, it makes sense.

Now, can they "show up" on demand?

Well, when they played the Pens for the first time this year they sure did -- a 7-1 win. (Oh, even though it was fun, it was also in the regular season...sorry.) 

I get that he is a love him or hate him figure, but the criticism about him which always seems unwarranted is when people say he is putting on act to be SEEN a certain way. Outside of Bo Schembechler, who he willfully personafies, he is a fun loving competitive lunatic who is himself all the time. I haven't ever heard him say something that put himself or his ego above his team or his players. EVER. On his damaging 15 yard penality, we've all seen him screaming at refs all year long. Why did he get his first unsportsmanlike penalty of the year when Ohio St. was in the redzone of a defensive battle? An official can choose when to send a message without impacting the game so much, especially considering that penalty alone was worth three times the penalty yardage Ohio St. got all game, which was 6 yards.

We give equal time -- sort of.

Is there anyone (other than Michigan alums) who don't want to see Jim Harbaugh suffer at least one excruciating last second loss every season? Last season's blocked punt vs MSU and this year's OSU loss were great for anyone wanting to see that pompous @$$ get his!

Thanks for the memories.

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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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