It Was Just an Exhibition, But the Redskins Made It Count

By William Gildea
Saturday, August 27, 2005

With two minutes to play in the first half of last night's preseason game at FedEx Field, the Redskins didn't need Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas or Sonny Jurgensen to take them the length of the field. On second down and two, they had to move the ball only seven yards to reach the end zone. Still, little the Redskins have attempted in recent seasons or this preseason has been easy -- and here they were up against not just the clock but also the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had the league's No. 1 defense last season.

You could almost see it coming, a two-minute drill that couldn't muster seven yards.

Then, you could almost feel one collective exhale by Redskins fans.

First came the big sigh, then the cheers, after Patrick Ramsey lofted the ball, on first down from the four, to a leaping Chris Cooley in the back right corner of the end zone for a touchdown that tied the score at 10. From the sound of the crowd, you might have thought the Redskins had struck from a distance, or that the game counted in the standings, or that the team was ready to compare itself with the Steelers, who are coming off a 15-1 regular season.

But in a long season, it may just be a play that will be remembered, even though it covered only four yards in a 17-10 victory that counted for nothing in the standings.

The scoring play was the difference between the team being cheered off the field, many of the players pumping their helmets skyward, or being booed all the way to the locker room following just another fiasco.

The Redskins needed that, a bit of success, a lot of support.

And that's what Coach Joe Gibbs said after the game.

"It was still preseason," he said, "but we needed a good lift."

The scoring play was the difference in the team being able to feel good that it had not wasted many fine individual efforts during the 30 minutes that mattered most: by new and acrobatic receiver Santana Moss and running back Clinton Portis; 234 net yards, 48 by Portis on eight carries; four catches by David Patten; effective blocking by the offensive line; and a strong stand by the defense that kept the Steelers backed up late in the half on the series before the Redskins scored their tying touchdown.

Portis, correctly, offered plenty of praise for Moss, Cooley and Patten. "Going into the season, you've got to respect our passing game," said Portis, envisioning more running for himself. "We've just got to take that over into the season."

Oh yes, there were familiar mistakes. Penalties: too many men in the huddle, delay of game. Will the Redskins ever get past such things? And there was a whopping mistake: Ramsey, under pressure from Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans, missed connections with James Thrash in the flat, firing instead to strong safety Troy Polamalu, who followed Haggans's traffic-cop signals and scooted into the end zone for the Steelers' only touchdown.

But on this night, after two exhibition losses, the Redskins were able to overcome their mistakes and do it against a team that fell only one victory shy of the last Super Bowl. Gibbs noted, with customary muted pleasure, that Ramsey "bounced back" from the interception. In fact, Gibbs went so far as to characterize the Redskins' performance as "a very solid effort against a team I have a lot of respect for."

You might say he was pleased.

The Redskins simply played better than Pittsburgh, this once, anyway. More importantly, they played better than they have this preseason. And they picked a very good time to do it, in their third practice outing.

"A lot of people point to the third preseason game," tackle Jon Jansen said, "and I think we played a pretty good one."

So it was just an exhibition. So Pittsburgh's ground attack was limited when Jerome Bettis went out early with a calf injury, and Duce Staley didn't play.

And Big Ben Roethlisberger only played a half, as did most of the first units on both sides. Still, he could not manufacture a touchdown against the Redskins, who were playing their best defense this summer. LaVar Arrington contributed on that side of the ball, looking good in his first outing, which extended well into the second half.

"We treated it like a regular season game," Jansen said. "We wanted to win it."

The Redskins absolutely felt better about themselves in an upbeat postgame locker room. Take away his one mistake and Ramsey had a good night -- one that secured his position as Week 1 starter and should give him not only a little more self-confidence but also generate a few more pats on the back from the coaching staff.

"We wanted to punch the ball in," Ramsey said of his short but significant touchdown pass. "It would have been terribly disappointing not to."

In a supporting role, Mark Brunell played his part well, smartly directing an 85-yard drive to open the second half, when the Redskins and the crowd were still charged up over the first half's conclusion.

All in all, it was the kind of effort on both sides of the ball that might calm Gibbs's nerves, just a bit. It certainly spoiled the evening for an excellent turnout of Steelers fans among the 73,987.

They either came directly from Pittsburgh, or were dressed like it. Wearing black Steelers jerseys with various names -- Roethlisberger was a big one -- printed in gold block letters on their backs, they waved gold towels and made plenty of noise, but only for a time.

No doubt they will have their fun when the real season arrives. But Redskins fans might have some fun, too, come the fall. If at long last good times actually should come to pass, this game may well be remembered as the start.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company