By Michael Wilbon
Monday, November 14, 2005
TAMPA -- It's the newest, coolest, most exciting play in football: going for two points to win instead of settling for a point-after kick to tie and take the game to overtime. After years and years of playing it safe, men from the most conservative fraternity in sports, pro football coaches, are now suddenly saying, "What the heck?" The winner soars into the next week, the loser is crushed like a bug.
Jon Gruden crushed the Washington Redskins like a bug Sunday. Figuring one yard with Mike Alstott was favorable to overtime against a hot Mark Brunell, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach had his team go for two, and won the game, 36-35.
Standing at Gruden's hip while the coach was trying to make his decision, one that might reverse the fortunes of both the Buccaneers and Redskins, was Simeon Rice, lobbying for the bold move.
"If you come out of it on top," Rice said, "you get to beat on your chest and scream, 'I knew it! I knew it would work!' And it looks ingenious? I mean, genius is crazy and insane, right?"
If the Buccaneers get to beat their chests, what do the Redskins get to do between now and Sunday, lick their wounds?
The Redskins led late in the third quarter and all but the final minute of the fourth quarter, yet lost a game that may haunt them the rest of the season. They wasted a day in which the offense tagged the NFL's No. 1 defense for nearly 400 yards, highlighted by Clinton Portis's 144 yards on 23 carries. Wasted was Brunell spreading the ball to nine receivers. Wasted was a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ladell Betts. Wasted was a chance to tie the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East. Wasted was a chance to tie the Falcons or slip past the Cowboys and Buccaneers in what we now see will be a frantic race for two wild-card spots.
Wasted Sunday was an opportunity for the Redskins to demonstrate they're something more than just a so-so team that can win at home but isn't good enough to win on the road. It's the time of year when a truly ambitious team needs to make a move, especially one with no pedigree, with no recent history of second-half kick. Yes, one victory on the road can have that kind of impact. A lot of pretenders can get it done at home, but winning on the road brings teams a sense of accomplishment. The Patriots struggled Sunday, but they ultimately won down in Miami to avoid a tie in the standings and remain in first place in the AFC East. The Broncos went to Oakland, one of the league's scarier places to play, and beat back a despised rival, the Raiders, to put a chokehold on first place in the AFC West.
The Buccaneers were ripe to be beaten. The quarterback who led the Bucs to 5-1, Brian Griese, is hurt. The running back who led the Bucs to 5-1, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, has been reduced to a Geo. The Redskins' defense, No. 1 in the NFC three weeks ago, ought to be able to pound a struggling kid quarterback such as Chris Simms and a limping rookie runner such as Williams. But very quickly -- and this should be of great concern in the second half of the season-- the personality of the team has flip-flopped, beginning in Kansas City. In the first quarter of the season, the defense was the unquestioned strength of the team and the offense was, to say the least, challenged. But lately, the defense has been ordinary to disappointing, while the offense, far from unstoppable, has been occasionally potent. The 16-play, 76-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter might have been the Redskins' most impressive march of the season, seeing as it came on the road against a defensive team that includes Rice, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and one-time Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson. The Buccaneers walked onto the field with the top defense in the NFL, just the way they used to when Warren Sapp and John Lynch played with the guys mentioned earlier.
But the Redskins' defense allowed young Simms to look like his daddy. A few weeks ago, the defense was concerned mostly with forcing more turnovers and helping the offense score or operate on a shorter field. Now, having given up 36 points twice in three weeks, the defense needs to find its earlier form in a hurry, before explosive teams such as the Chargers and Rams have a picnic. See, a team can manufacture ways to overcome an anemic offense. But bad defense, ultimately, is fatal. If the defense can't get Cornelius Griffin and Sean Taylor back, Gregg Williams and the boys had better figure out how to play a whole lot better without them.
It's a fact that the way the Redskins were playing Sunday led Gruden to his game-deciding decision. He trusted that Alstott, the nearly forgotten power back from the Buccaneers' glory days, could get into the end zone because he had already done it twice for touchdowns. And Gruden didn't want to go to overtime because he knew his defense was in trouble if the Redskins won the coin flip to start overtime because the Bucs couldn't stop Brunell and Portis, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley. Gruden even went as far as saying he wouldn't have been able to sleep Sunday night had he settled for OT without giving Alstott a shot.
Gruden said he didn't even know the particulars of Dick Vermeil having his Kansas City Chiefs go for the winning touchdown at home against the Raiders last week instead of settling for an easy field goal that would have tied the game and sent it into OT. The Chiefs won that game when Larry Johnson scored the touchdown. It's noteworthy that the two coaches who parted with tradition of going to OT have already won Super Bowls.
Anyway, as linebacker Brooks said of Gruden, "He was just itchin' to do it anyway."
Also, there was Rice. "I was screaming for him to go for it," he said. "And Brunell, for whatever reason, has turned it around this year. Brunell is no joke. So, you go for it."
Probably, the Redskins would have had the chance to win in overtime if not for about one-quarter of the team jumping offside to earn a penalty that moved the ball from the 2 to the 1. Two yards isn't so tempting.
But a coach is inclined to scratch the itch when he's got Alstott and one yard for victory. "We're on the one-foot line here, men," Gruden said. "We're not going to get much better than that."
The offside, as it turns out, was enormous. So was the Redskins' inability to pick up a first down with just more than two minutes left that would have kept the ball away from Simms. But there were a dozen such plays -- and replays. We still don't know if Betts stepped out of bounds on his touchdown return. We still don't know if Alstott actually crossed the goal line. Either score could have been negated; perhaps justice was served that both stood.
As Rice said, the two-point play allowed the winners to beat their chests and the losers to clutch theirs. "That's the beauty of it," he said. "There's a story to tell."