Cornerback Walt Harris got his second start of the season for the Washington Redskins yesterday, helping shut down Minnesota's potent passing attack in a 21-18 win at FedEx Field after he replaced injured stalwart Fred Smoot. Smoot's contract negotiations with the team have reached a stalemate, and there is a good chance he could depart as a free agent, which likely means Harris would become a starter, a role he filled most of his NFL career before signing with Washington in the offseason.
Rookie cornerback Garnell Wilds also had his first significant action, and he, too, could be a major contributor next season.
Chris Cooley's six-yard touchdown gave the Redskins a quick 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
(Evan Vucci - AP)
Smoot suffered a bruised kidney in Dallas and was unable to play yesterday, so Harris, who overcame a career-threatening knee injury to get back on the field this season, was back in the starting lineup. Minnesota has three talented wide receivers and a Pro Bowl quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, and Harris started alongside Shawn Springs, who missed practice much of the week after suffering a concussion two weeks ago.
With Springs lined up opposite star wideout Randy Moss, Harris often defended number two receiver Nate Burleson. But Springs left the game in the second quarter with an upset stomach and returned in the final minutes; in the meantime, Harris took on the chore of covering Moss for the most part. Wilds, an undrafted free agent from Virginia Tech who was playing in his second NFL game, also was lined up against Moss on numerous occasions and, with Springs out, rookie cornerback Rufus Brown, another undrafted free agent, made the first appearance of his NFL career.
"It was a good start for me," said Wilds, who spent most of the season on the practice squad. "I still have a long way to go, but it was definitely a good start. I think everybody wants to be lined up against the best to see how they pan out, and I don't think you can play your best if you're nervous about that."
The coaches are high on both of Wilds and Brown -- nicknamed "Twitch" because of his quick muscle reactions -- and believe they can become impact players.
Betts Carries On
The Redskins were clinging to a 14-10 lead entering the fourth quarter when running backs coach Earnest Byner had a chat with tailback Ladell Betts. Byner could feel that the game was there for the taking, and urged Betts to run with passion and help his team protect the lead.
"I could sense this energy that someone was going to take over this game," Byner said. "So I went to Ladell and said, 'This is your time.' And he responded. The guy went out and showed what he can do."
Betts, who posted career highs in yards (118) and carries (26) playing in place of injured starter Clinton Portis, ended up running nine times in the final quarter for 70 yards and a touchdown to put the game away. He carried the ball six straight times to open one possession and oozed determination, breaking at least three tackles and surging forward for a first down on a critical second and five with several players pulling him back.
"That's the run that really stands out for me," Byner said. "He was hit, stuck behind the line of scrimmage and then ran through people. That's a statement run."
Betts also reeled off a 27-yard run in the fourth quarter, the longest by a Redskin this season since Portis took the opening carry of the season 64 yards for a touchdown.
The Redskins suffered no major injuries, although offensive lineman Ray Brown, 42, left the game with a minor knee problem. . . . Wide receiver Darnerien McCants was inactive for the 10th time this season, which may have brought a bitter end to his time with the Redskins. McCants was a key performer in 2003, tying for the team lead in touchdown receptions and getting a $2 million signing bonus, but with the Redskins lacking production at wide receiver, he and starter Rod Gardner (one catch for nine yards yesterday) could be cut or traded. McCants finished the season with five catches for 71 yards. . . . Laveranues Coles's three receptions gave him a career-high 90 for the season. . . . Gibbs reiterated that he believes backup quarterback Mark Brunell remains a key part of the team and will be back next season. Brunell's massive contract and limited role made many suspect he may be released, but Gibbs said he met with Brunell and "told him he would be a very important part of the future." . . . Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington missed practice last week with a knee injury but was cleared to play and started as usual. . . . Washington released defensive end Melvin Williams and signed linebacker Devin Lemons from the practice squad. Lemons was activated yesterday, as was running back Dahrran Diedrick. Offensive lineman Vaughn Parker, who was signed in October, was inactive again and did not play this season. He was out of shape when the Redskins signed him and could not work his way back onto the field. . . . Offensive lineman Jim Molinaro, defensive lineman Ryan Boschetti, tight end Kori Dickerson and defensive tackle Cedric Killings also were inactive.