By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005
An exhausting afternoon of football finally came to close when the rookie place kicker punctuated his second NFL game with a 39-yard field goal 5 1/2 minutes into overtime, giving the Washington Redskins their first 3-0 start since their Super Bowl year of 1991. It was only after that moment -- with Coach Joe Gibbs on the verge of tears again -- that all of the preceding twists could be placed into proper context, and the Seattle Seahawks were assured of defeat.
Nick Novak, Virginia-bred and a graduate of the University of Maryland, triggered the last dose of delirium for the 90,000-plus at FedEx Field by capping a 20-17 victory yesterday, but only seconds earlier groans filled the cavernous stadium after a delay-of-game penalty negated a field goal and tacked five yards onto Novak's final attempt. That was but one of many "what if?" moments, potential turning points out of a suspense novel.
There was Josh Brown's 47-yard field goal attempt that kissed off the outside of the left upright at the end of regulation ("Six more inches and we're fine," Brown said), and Seattle's questionable play-calling that necessitated that kick. That failure rendered Seahawks cornerback Kelly Herndon's interception in Washington territory a mere footnote.
Flip ahead to overtime, and resurgent quarterback Mark Brunell provided the initial heroics, with a gutsy 18-yard scramble on third and nine and a 30-yard pass to Santana Moss on third and 10, the last of a day full of clutch third-down conversions. There were more subtle crossroads as well, like the blocking adjustments the Redskins made at halftime, and referee decisions that could have gone either way, but the net result was another nail-biting victory for a city longing for this kind of start since Gibbs retired in 1993.
"It was just an unbelievable game," Gibbs said during his news conference. "There were so many key plays, I don't know where to really start."
The Redskins, tops in the NFC East, have won when they lacked offensive production (9-7 over Chicago in Week 1), and when they managed only successive late long passes (14-13 over Dallas in Week 2). Sloppy play characterized those games, but Washington totaled only 10 yards in penalties and just one turnover yesterday. They came out of their bye week refreshed and dominated the first quarter, yet still trailed 3-0. Washington's taut defense then blew leads of 14-3 and 17-10 -- surrendering an out-of-character 91-yard drive -- and an offense that ranked 30th in 2004 ultimately ruled the day.
Brunell, 35, was the catalyst, completing passes to seven teammates, hanging in the pocket to make plays, connecting with Moss for big gains and directing the winning drive. Brunell, who lost his job midway through last season and regained it midway through the season opener, finished 20 of 36 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and an interception (on a tipped ball). His passing was impeccable on third downs: 11 of 14 for 138 yards and a touchdown in those situations. "The odds of converting those are slim," Brunell said. Eight of those 11 completions came with at least seven yards needed for a first down, and Brunell rushed for one first down (in overtime) and added two more when wide receivers were interfered with.
"Mark's showing that he can do it in the clutch, that's the biggest thing," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "Here's another great win with him hooking up with Santana Moss. What else can you say? The guy is back. He's a great leader. He gives us a great spark. He's the real deal right now."
This game should not have been this close. The Redskins held the ball for 13 minutes 11 seconds in the first quarter, yet trailed 3-0. "We should have scored on four of the first six possessions," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. Novak's first attempt was blocked -- the kick was high, but the line sagged -- Seattle took over and Brown hit from 53 yards. The Redskins ran twice as many plays as the Seahawks in the opening 30 minutes, but led just 7-3 at the half after Brunell hit tight end Robert Royal for a one-yard touchdown to cap a 16-play, 85 yard drive.
Halftime was spent refining the blocking. The Seahawks' revamped defense was more aggressive than Washington expected, with the strong safety and strong-side linebacker overloading to one side. The offensive line atoned for a porous outing in Dallas by allowing two sacks, and none after the first quarter, by shifting more attention to that side.
"They brought the house at us today, and we did okay," left tackle Chris Samuels said.
The maneuvers reaped instant rewards. Washington moved 62 yards in a little more than two minutes in its opening drive of the second half. The Redskins were inept around the goal line last season, but were perfect twice yesterday, with Brunell hitting H-back Mike Sellers from four yards out to make the score 14-3. Sellers caught only one pass all of last season -- blocking is his forte -- and this time he ran a pattern Chris Cooley capitalized on repeatedly in 2004.
But Seattle answered. Shaun Alexander (98 yards on 20 carries) rumbled 34 yards, wide receiver Bobby Engram was left uncovered in the slot to convert on third and 10 and Alexander scored from three yards out. Novak hit a 40-yard field goal on the ensuing drive late in the third quarter, but the Seahawks, a premier offensive club, embarked on a 91-yard drive to tie the game at 17.
"We didn't answer the bell in the fourth quarter," linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said. "None of us are going to be happy with that. We weren't nearly as effective as we've been in the past."
With little more than one minute left, Brunell threw twice in a row to Clinton Portis, but the second pass went off Portis's fingertips into Herndon's hands.
Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren did not call a pass, however, after his offense took over with 49 seconds and one timeout, and Brown came up wide. In overtime, Brunell ran through end Bryce Fisher's arm tackle for 18 yards, and Moss slipped on a critical third and nine but made the grab anyway ("I just zoned in on the ball," he said).
On third and 10 from the 45, passer and receiver hooked up again. Seattle kept its safeties deep after watching Moss burn Dallas twice on film, so this time he gained inside position on tight man coverage. The Seahawks overloaded the line again, so the Redskins ran a spread formation, and handled the blitz ("That adjustment was the difference there," Bugel said). Moss pulled away from the coverage after the catch, sprinting to the 15, where Novak settled this affair, twice and for all.