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Thomas Boswell

For Starters, Neither Perfect Nor Pain-Free

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, August 10, 2004; Page D01


Joe Gibbs's victorious return to the NFL on Monday night was counterbalanced by veteran Jon Jansen's sad exit and rookie Sean Taylor's grand entrance.

On this night near the Pro Football Hall of Fame was supposed to be suffused with hope at the comeback of the greatest coach in Redskins history. In part, it was, as the Redskins won, 20-17, on a last-second field goal. Even though the game had long since been handed over to reserves and rookies, Gibbs said: "I really appreciated it. . . . It means a lot to me."

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Nonetheless, in the longer view, Gibbs and his sputtering offense were overshadowed by the loss of the team's best offensive player over the previous five seasons in Jansen, who suffered a ruptured left Achilles' tendon and is lost for the season.

"I got to tell you we had a big downer out there. It took a lot out of us for a while," said Gibbs. Jansen "means a lot to the team as a leader and everything. Now we're really going to have to have some guys step up and play great."

It seems like Gibbs said those words, or ones much like them, for 12 years and, usually, somebody actually did step up.

Balancing the gruesome Jansen news, which may crimp Gibbs's power-running style all season, was the arrival of the spectacularly gifted Taylor. Seldom, if ever, has a high Redskins draft pick -- No. 5 overall, in this case -- announced his appearance so emphatically. Taylor can fire all the agents he wants if this night was an indication of his ability. He intercepted two passes, one for a three-yard touchdown, the other to prevent a score.

Just as important, he made those plays with the athletic arrogance of a player moving down from a higher league, not a fellow trying to move up from a lower one. That's often the mark of a future star. In fact, Taylor came within a couple of steps of intercepting a pass in both end zones in the same game. Has that ever been done?

"That dude is phenomenal," said linebacker LaVar Arrington. "Those plays were gorgeous, like looking at my girlfriend. It should be illegal for him to play on the second team. But he has to move through the ranks."

Not for long. "He had a real good week in practice, too," said Gibbs.

"I've been saying, 'Get me that monster behind me' " at safety, said Arrington. "He's still a rookie. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But some people just have a knack for making plays."

The Redskins, a team with an eggshell-fragile psyche in recent years, desperately needed the inspiration -- and points -- provided by Taylor, because Jansen's injury crushed their spirits. The key to Gibbs's legendary offense is not primarily its shifts and men in motion. The heart of the matter is simple, old-fashioned power running behind large and athletic linemen. This season, Jansen was supposed to be Clinton Portis's human plow, just as massive Joe Jacoby cleared the way for John Riggins and many others.

Now, in a blink in the first quarter of the first exhibition, the potential of the Redskins' offensive line -- already nicknamed the "Dirtbags" by assistant coach Joe Bugel -- has probably declined a full level, if not more. Jansen, along with cornerback Fred Smoot, led the Redskins in their ritual pregame, on-field, helmet-raising pep talk. Then, less than an hour later, Jansen was leaving on a cart.

After he was helped off the field, hobbling, Jansen sat on the bench, downcast, thumbs stuck in his eyes. One sympathetic teammate after another walked past to rub his head or say something into his ear. Finally, an assistant coach simply put a towel over his head so that Jansen's pain -- and a far deeper look of disappointment -- would not be on public display.

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