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Thomas Boswell

Signs That the Gap May Be Closing

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page D12

Sometimes defeats can be landmarks on the road to progress. Sometimes they're just a waste. At FedEx Field last night, the Redskins suffered one of those narrow, nip-and-tuck defeats, 17-14, to an elite Philadelphia Eagles team that can only be seen as a significant step toward the future, not a mere reiteration of all the frustration of the last 11 years.

If the Redskins had finished one final drive to complete a comeback from a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit, then the return of Joe Gibbs as Washington's coach would have taken an enormous leap and, hard as it is to believe, his club would have been in the thick of the playoff picture in the desolate NFC. Instead, an interception by Patrick Ramsey with 1 minute 46 seconds to play on a first-down pass into the end zone from the Eagles 29-yard line put an end to the Washington attempt at an upset.

Patrick Ramsey, attempting to hand off to Ladell Betts, has had his stumbles, but the Redskins are a better team with him as the starting quarterback. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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"We decided to take a shot to win it," said Gibbs.

That, though it may not seem so to the Redskins, was the true crux of this game. With less than two minutes to play, against a team that beat them by 22 points just 21 days ago, the Redskins were in position to take a shot to beat an Eagles team that now owns a 12-1 record and may well win the Super Bowl.

As matters are measured in the NFL, that is progress, especially from a Redskins team that lacks at least 10 key players because of injury. If the Redskins, at 4-9, now have little hope for this postseason, they have plenty of cause to think they are laying a coherent foundation of consistent hard effort, truly sterling defense and slowly improving play at quarterback.

For Gibbs, there is one and only one team in the NFL that he now uses as a yardstick to measure his Redskins. It's not the Cowboys, even though his old nemesis Bill Parcells coaches them. It's not the Giants either, even though New York was the other team that cost Gibbs so much sleep in his previous 12 years in Washington.

The new 4 a.m. nightmare for Gibbs on his Redskins Park cot is these Eagles. Philadelphia is now the dominant NFC East power, with more wins that any NFL team in the last four years. The Eagles stand in the path of everything he wants to accomplish. If you can't even rule your own division, how can you boss the conference, much less the whole league.

From the day he was announced as coach, Gibbs identified the Eagles as the primary target in his sights. Would the Redskins prove to be one season behind the Eagles? Two or three years away? Or could a team with as many seasons of disappointment in its collective memory as the Redskins even glimpse the Eagles juggernaut in the distance?

After two meetings with the Eagles this season, it appears that the Redskins are within sight of them, though the Philadelphians are far from being within their grasp. In this tight battle, each team gained exactly 312 yards. Hitting was vicious.

The Redskins actually ran more plays, 74-57, and dominated time of possession, 33:57 to 26:03. Tailback Clinton Portis was not neglected as he was in Philadelphia last month, getting 23 carries for 80 yards and catching four passes for 22. And hard-as-nails wide receiver Laveranues Coles caught 12 balls, many in traffic, for 100 yards. Finally, the Redskins may have uncovered a star in H-back Chris Cooley, who caught five balls for 75 yards and was the end-zone target of the last Ramsey pass that was intercepted by crafty old Eagles star Brian Dawkins.

Despite all this, the biggest step that the Redskins have made to gain ground on the Eagles this season came last month in Philadelphia, when Gibbs finally admitted a huge mistake and switched quarterbacks. Nothing else this year has held the Redskins back so much or has now begun to remedy their problems so much.

After engineering a 31-7 win over the Giants and turning in three tough-minded, low-mistake performances in defeat against the very cream of the NFL -- the Eagles twice and the 12-1 Steelers in Pittsburgh -- Ramsey has established new credibility. If Gibbs had started Ramsey for the entire season, instead of waiting until the first Eagles game in Philadelphia to finally hand him the job, the Redskins would almost certainly have at least two more wins, and be squarely in the playoff hunt in the sickly NFC.

The issue is not that Ramsey has played so well in the last four games, though he has certainly been adequate against top foes, while showing modest week-to-week improvement in running Gibbs's offense. His competence, plus a bit of growing confidence, stands in painful contrast to the nine-game disaster of Mark Brunell. When this season is recalled, the first and perhaps only question that will linger is why a student of football as astute as Gibbs could not see that Brunell's gifts had disintegrated while ignoring that Ramsey could quickly become a plausible starter.

In last night's game, Ramsey completed 29 of 45 passes for 251 yards and had no interceptions until the end.

The Redskins' primary final test was the one they failed so badly in Philadelphia. Faced with a deficit in the final period against a better team, could they keep their poise? On the road in November, they crumbled.

This time, the heart that was missing in Philadelphia started to appear. The necessary execution, however, fell short. In a season full of defeats by a touchdown or less, this game may seem like the rule. It was not. This was a loss that offered promise for the future. In the futile days of Brunell, such a near-comeback would have been a fantasy. In the early days of Ramsey, it is still too much to ask. But, by the middle of next season, that may no longer be the case.

As yet the Eagles have no reason to fear the Redskins. But, after several seasons as a mere Eagles afterthought, the Redskins now have the Philadelphians' full attention. That in itself is an achievement.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company