By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, January 15, 2006
SEATTLE -- If the Redskins didn't max out, they came reasonably close. For the first time in a long time, they went about as far as the talent on hand should have taken them, which doesn't, however, include advancing in these playoffs. We've known all season the Redskins were offensively challenged, that they were at least one receiver short, that Mark Brunell lately has appeared injured and tuckered out, that Clinton Portis was intent but battered. They struggled to move the ball during the regular season finale in Philly, couldn't move it a lick last week down in Tampa, and on Saturday looked for most of the game against the Seattle Seahawks like a unit desperate and overmatched.
The Redskins' six-week rush ended because they ran into a better team, a Seahawks team talented enough to win without the NFL's most valuable player, running back Shaun Alexander.
It's not often you see a team fumble away the ball three times in a playoff game and win, which is what the Seahawks did. But the Redskins couldn't do enough with those gifts, not even on a short field, not even when the Seahawks, complete strangers to the playoffs that they are, looked on the very edge of panic. When the Seahawks kicked a field goal to make it 17-3 less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Redskins had gained a grand total of 140 yards -- half of what Seattle had gained to that point, even without Alexander.
Yes, Seattle's smallish but fast group of defenders is pretty good, but it isn't among the league's elite. They shouldn't be able to lock down a team with a decent offense. But the Redskins struggled for three quarters again on offense -- Brunell passed for 89 yards to that point -- and a brief burst in the fourth quarter tightened the game but wasn't enough. The fanatical optimist will point to the drive that pulled the Redskins within 17-10, to the frenzied sequence that followed Seattle's kick-return fumble and the Redskins staring hopefully at a game-tying score.
But it was then that the game settled into a very familiar pattern.
The Redskins couldn't score.
They couldn't stick it in the end zone, couldn't even make a field goal that might have put some pressure on the jittery Seahawks.
They've gone from 6-10 to 10-6 and into the playoffs in a year's time, which is certainly worthy of praise. But part of last year's story was this season's story, too. The offense still isn't big-league enough, not to beat a good team on the road.
The defense, good but not great, nonetheless kept the Redskins in the game. But the offense, once again, couldn't produce the kind of yardage or plays that scare a good team in the playoffs.
If you can hold the NFL's No. 1 offense to 20 points at home, you've got a shot. It's not like anybody is going to shut out the Seahawks at home.
But if you can't score more than 10 points, you're not worthy of being in the NFC championship game.
"That's my responsibility and obviously we wanted to be much more productive than we were in the playoffs," Coach Joe Gibbs said of the offensive futility. "That'll be one of the things we look hard at."
The last thing the Redskins needed was poor field position to start the game, and they got plenty of it, having to start drives at the 11, 12, 15, 8, and 15 in the first quarter. Afterward, Portis talked about being unable to hear the snap count because the crowd at Qwest Field was so loud and the Redskins were backed up so close to the stands in the closed end zone. With that help from the crowd and knowing of Brunell's struggle to complete passes last week in Tampa, the Seahawks' defense was emboldened early. "They stacked the box and started sneaking an eighth man up to the line of scrimmage," said Portis, who rushed for 41 yards on 17 carries. "It was a good game plan by them."
Brunell's assessment was even more blunt. "They stuffed us," he said. "Eight guys in the box is how you stop the run."
Of course, defenses only put eight men along the line to stop the run when they feel fairly certain the opponent's passing game is no threat, and that was certainly an accurate assessment.
Brunell wasn't well-served by injuries to offensive linemen Jon Jansen (thumb), Chris Samuels (knee) and Randy Thomas (broken leg), and secondary receiver David Patten. Plus, Brunell recently sprained his knee, though he said emphatically he felt fine physically, and he did manage to throw several nice passes while rolling out in the fourth quarter.
But as Brunell pointed out after the game, "We played a really good team on the road and you've got to be at your best."
That certainly wasn't the case, not with the offense. Then again, it isn't like Saturday's performance was totally out of character.
Still, the better team won. "That was a tough assignment here, a tough environment here," Gibbs acknowledged.
The folks who thought the Redskins were going to come on the road and win were certain the Seahawks were going to choke the game away, that they were going to be Charmin soft and absent-minded, and play in general like a team that rarely goes to the playoffs and never wins. And as obvious as that appeared to be several times, so was the difference between Matt Hasselbeck at 30 and Mark Brunell at 36. Asked about several key scrambles, including his six-yard touchdown run that put Seattle ahead, 14-3, Hasselbeck said he ran only because he was "out of options . . . nothing left to do."
That dash to the corner will be one of the lasting impressions from this game, as will Seattle's Mack Strong bolting for 32 yards on third down in the fourth quarter when the Redskins needed the ball, as well as Brunell firing high to a wide-open Santana Moss down near the Seattle goal line in the fourth quarter.
Going from 6-10 to 10-6 is about as big a turnaround as should ever be expected of a team in one season. Gibbs talked very proudly of getting "a lot of things done this season. Our goal is to keep everybody together, add to our team [people and schemes] and hopefully build from here. We certainly accomplished a lot."
As much as the Redskins earned praise for coming so far in one season, the reality is that until Gibbs can put together an offense as reliable as the defense has been the last two seasons, one that can turn three fumbles into victory even on the road against a good team, the second round of the playoffs is about as far as this team can reasonably hope to go.