By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 28, 2005
You can't make this stuff up. One week, Norv Turner beats Joe Gibbs in FedEx Field in the final minute. The next week, Marty Schottenheimer beats Gibbs in overtime after erasing a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit. Add the defeats together and the Redskins, who looked like playoff contenders three weeks ago, are in danger of a fourth straight losing season.
We've gone through the looking glass. For Redskins fans, these last two weeks have not been a pleasant trip. But, at least, they may prove instructive. To understand the present, it helps to get the past sorted out. For example, who was the coach the last time the Redskins were not a losing team? Yes, it was Schottenheimer in 2001. He took a team that started 0-5 -- losing those games by 112 points -- and, with Tony Banks as his quarterback, finished 8-3 to reach .500. By the last two months of that season, Marty's Redskins had actually developed a smash-mouth style. Now, in bitter retrospect, it is clear that was the last Redskins team that had a clear identity.
And who was the last coach to have a winning record in Washington over an extended period of time? No, not Gibbs II or his predecessor, the certified (college) genius Steve Spurrier, but Turner, who was 40-36-1 in his last five seasons.
Each week, as the Redskins' season deteriorates, the work of Turner and Schottenheimer in Washington -- modest as it was compared with Gibbs's enormous accomplishments from 1981 to 1992 -- seems more dignified. In fact, perhaps it has taken recent failures to show Norv and Marty in a fair light. After all, if Gibbs can't get these guys to stop beating themselves in some new and diabolical way each week, maybe we should take another look at these two former coaches that Redskins fans (and the team's owner) loved to hate.
To their credit, both Turner and Schottenheimer have showed enormous respect for Gibbs the past two weeks and have not taken a single cheap shot at owner Daniel Snyder. However, after his 23-17 win, Schottenheimer gave his own short and tart evaluation of his Redskins work in '01. "I think it may have been the best job I ever did," he said.
Yesterday, Marty had the kind of talent that, in retrospect, he never had in Washington. Now, he has LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the best running backs in NFL history, who tied this game with a 32-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, then won it on the second play from scrimmage in overtime with a 41-yard scoring romp. At quarterback, he has the gifted Drew Brees, rather than the stop-gap Banks. At tight end, he calls on all-pro Antonio Gates, whose 24-yard reception set up Tomlinson's final run.
In his Washington stint, it is almost a shock to realize what a patchwork team Schottenheimer was handed. His best tight end was Zeron Flemister. His wide receivers were mega-bust Michael Westbrook and Rod Gardner. His starting fullback for 14 games was Donnell Bennett. His starting guards were Dave Szott, Ben Coleman and Matt Campbell. Yet, for the last 11 games of '01, Schottenheimer's offense averaged more points (20.4) than either Spurrier's (18.6) or Gibbs's (16.9).
For decades, Schottenheimer thought he understood what mattered in the NFL. "Most of the time, eight or 10 key plays determined the ballgame," he said yesterday. "But now, that's changed. So many games come down to just one, two or three plays. You never know when the next play will be The Play.
"My mantra is, 'One play at a time.' This business is all about the ability to recognize -- intellectually, not physically -- that if you just play this play and disregard any that precede or that follow, you would be amazed at what could happen."
Perhaps the Redskins should adopt Marty's mantra -- to live one play at a time. It certainly couldn't hurt. The team's complete inability to make the crucial play in the fourth quarter, or to avoid the disastrous one, has produced the disappointing 11-16 record under Gibbs. "This is tough. This is tough stuff," said Gibbs, who watched as an egregious holding penalty by center Casey Rabach turned a potential game-winning 42-yard field goal attempt in the final minute of regulation into a difficult 52-yarder into the wind by John Hall. Forced to make a maximum-effort attempt, Hall missed wide right and a bit short.
"We'll see what we're made of," said Gibbs. "All of us."
As his Chargers danced on the field, Schottenheimer sought out Jon Jansen, who, along with Chris Samuels, were the key blockers for Stephen Davis (1,432 yards) in '01. Then, he wandered all over the field to make sure he could shake Gibbs's hand and offer words of commiseration. In the offseason, Schottenheimer and Gibbs are neighbors with homes about a half-mile apart on a lake outside Charlotte. Occasionally, they golf together.
"Joe plays left-handed and always wants to play from the back tees," Schottenheimer said. "He's 65 now. I always ask him, 'Joe, what are we doing back here?' " Then he shook his head, struck once more by how difficult, and yet capricious, the life of an NFL head coach must be. "Three losses like the ones Joe's had can wear you out," he said. "This is a tough business."
Finally, on his trip around the field, he sought out LaVar Arrington, who was a dominant star in Marty's defensive system, but was in the most remote doghouse at Redskins Park earlier this season. Schottenheimer simply stood in front of Arrington with his arms wide. After a moment, the disappointed linebacker couldn't help but break into his trademark grin and give his old coach a bear hug.
"Can't tell you what we said," said Arrington, who got a pep talk from Schottenheimer via a mutual NFL friend a few weeks ago when his battles with the Redskins' coaching staff and front office seemed most intense.
"Things were a little rough for LaVar earlier this season," said Schottenheimer. "I didn't think it was appropriate for me to contact him directly. But there are certain players throughout your career of whom you are just very fond. LaVar is one of them for me. I love his energy. He just loves to play the game."
Life in the NFL is a peculiar blend of professional respect and controlled fury. Those you respect the most, and may have worked beside in the past, become your arbitrary enemies on Sunday. Your fiercest opponents also are your truest measure of yourself. Yet, after investing almost insane amounts of time in physical labor and mental gymnastics in preparation for each game, victory and defeat seems increasingly to hinge on one or two plays.
For example, the Chargers are 7-4, but all of their losses have been on plays that went against them at the end of games. The Redskins' season has been even more ridiculously close. With a half-dozen plays reversed, their record could be almost anything you want to name, from 8-3 to 3-8. But, in fact, it is 5-6. The record, as Turner and Schottenheimer discovered when they got the boot, is a coach's ultimate reality.
In the last two weeks, these coaches who were both fired in far-from-dignified circumstances have returned to the scene of their embarrassments to make it painfully obvious that the Redskins, under the Hall of Famer Gibbs, are no better, and perhaps are not even as good, as they were under Norv and Marty. Gibbs has his bronze bust in Canton and those three Super Bowl trophies at Redskins Park. But, each week, as his team finds some new heart-cracking way to lose, the new facts on the ground become clearer. That was then. This is now. And the two are very different.