It wasn't elegant and it certainly wasn't overwhelming. This high-stakes season, however, is all about bottom-line results for the Washington Redskins, and they were delighted that they gritted their teeth and escaped with a 20-17 triumph over the Carolina Panthers in their season opener yesterday before 80,257 at FedEx Field.
"You come away with a smile on your face any time you get a win in this league," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "It's tough."
Stephen Davis carries the ball into the end zone past Eric Davis to conclude Washington's 12-play, 79-yard opening possession. The Redskins didnt manage another touchdown until the fourth quarter.
(Rich Lipski - The Washington Post)
It was tough indeed for the Redskins, who began their Super Bowl-or-bust season by marching efficiently down the field on their first possession. Tailback Stephen Davis capped that 79-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run, and it appeared that the Redskins might coast toward the sort of dominating victory that everyone will expect from owner Daniel M. Snyder's $100 million collection of big-name players.
Such thoughts dissipated immediately when the Redskins surrendered a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Michael Bates. It was a dogfight from there. The Panthers led 10-7 at halftime and the score was tied at 10 entering the fourth quarter.
The Redskins won because defensive ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman spearheaded the sort of attacking, aggressive defensive effort the club hopes it will get all season. They each had two of the Redskins' six sacks, and Smith changed the momentum of the game with a third-quarter sack that produced a fumble by Steve Beuerlein and led to a tying field goal.
The Redskins won because their patchwork offensive line and the bruising running of Davis wore down the Carolina defense. Davis celebrated the signing of his nine-year, $90 million contract with a 23-carry, 133-yard performance. His running set up Johnson's one-yard touchdown sneak and Brett Conway's 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that gave the Redskins a 20-10 lead with just under five minutes to play.
And the Redskins won because they overcame special teams play that was inferior, in a refrain that was all too familiar last year. A 90-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter by Bates was negated by an illegal block. That was one of several costly mistakes by the Panthers. Fullback William Floyd was penalized for unnecessary roughness for a second-quarter scuffle with Redskins rookie linebacker LaVar Arrington, moving Carolina from Washington's 7-yard line back to the 22. Place kicker Richie Cunningham yanked a 27-yard field goal attempt wide left soon thereafter.
"We have some work to do, obviously," said veteran wide receiver Irving Fryar, who had a 22-yard third-down catch on the Redskins' final touchdown drive. "There are going to be ugly games like that one, and you have to find a way to win them. There's parity in this league. A lot of games are going to go down to the last minute."
The Panthers pulled to 20-17 on Beuerlein's 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Wesley Walls with 1:52 left. However, Fryar fell on Cunningham's onside kick. Davis broke free for a 33-yard run, then added an eight-yard dash before leaving the game to a big ovation. Johnson took one final kneel, and the Redskins could relax.
"We didn't play as well as we would have liked on offense," Fryar said. "We had some boo-boos on special teams. But our defense stepped up. They're the most improved part of our team, and they did the job."
For the Redskins, this win was a relief more than anything else. Coach Norv Turner brought new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes to Snyder's box for the postgame celebration. The three were obviously pleased with the defensive performance.
The Redskins spent the offseason remaking the league's 30th-ranked defense, and yesterday's results were encouraging. Carolina totaled 236 yards offense, and didn't manage an offensive touchdown until the final two minutes. Tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka provided a 41-yard run in the first quarter, but did not dominate the Redskins the way he did in the teams' meeting last season. He finished with 88 yards on 15 carries. Beuerlein was under pressure all afternoon.
"For most of the day, we were rolling," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "We were getting off the ball. Marco had a big day. Bruce had a big day. They set the tempo for our whole defense. We [the defensive linemen] said all of us have to keep coming off the ball, and one of us will get through."
Said Smith, who sprained his left knee on his big third-quarter sack and played sparingly thereafter: "We made some mistakes. We have to get better. But any time you hold a team to that number of yards, it's a good performance."