By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The glitz was worthy of a Super Bowl, with 90,608 fans waving flags on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a national television audience tuning into the first Monday night game of the regular season, and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hobnobbing at FedEx Field with his new Hollywood pals, actors Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Jamie Foxx. That pageantry was the backdrop for the Washington Redskins' grand unveiling of another record-setting offseason splurge -- from associate head coach Al Saunders to a bevy of prized free agents -- and the start to a season of great expectations.
From an entertainment standpoint, America was not disappointed, but to the Redskins, the evening was a failure. They lost, 19-16, to the Minnesota Vikings last night, distinguishing themselves neither on offense nor defense, with Vikings place kicker Ryan Longwell connecting from 31 yards in the final minute, and beleaguered place kicker John Hall missing wide left from 48 yards, with much improvement required when the Redskins open their grueling NFC East schedule Sunday night at Dallas.
Washington, with Coach Joe Gibbs no longer running the offense and coming off its first playoff appearance since 1999, moved the ball at times, and received a lift when tailback Clinton Portis returned from injury to assume a prominent role. Yet the Redskins faltered in the red zone, settling twice for field goals with the ball inside the 10. The defense continued its preseason hangover, when the team went 0-4 and opposing offenses plundered on third down. The Vikings repeatedly converted on third and long, and were 9 for 17 overall in third-down situations.
"They were just a little better than we were tonight," said quarterback Mark Brunell (17 of 28 for 163 yards without a touchdown or interception).
What had been a nip and tuck game began unraveling for the Redskins late in the fourth quarter. The Vikings began a drive at their 33, and running back Chester Taylor (who managed 31 carries despite his small frame) took over. He squirted free for 10 yards, and, with the Vikings facing third and nine from around midfield, the Redskins' defense again wilted. Quarterback Brad Johnson, a former Redskin, hit wide receiver Troy Williamson near the first-down marker, but cornerback Carlos Rogers could not bring him down, continuing the drive and what was an ugly night for the second-year defender.
"One of our major things is getting off the field on third down," Rogers said. "We didn't do that good at all tonight."
Safety Sean Taylor picked up a 15-yard face-mask penalty on the play as well, putting Minnesota in range for Longwell, one of its big free agent signings, to convert his game-winning kick.
"I didn't pull his [face mask], but they called it," Taylor said. "That's how it is." The Redskins, out of timeouts, scrambled for a possible tie, getting Hall, injured much of the last two seasons and erratic in the preseason, an opportunity from 48 yards, but his attempt was not close.
"It was kind of into a crosswind," said Longwell, watching Hall's kick from the other sideline. "I knew he'd have to hit it perfect."
The Redskins' defense opened the game in preseason form as well, its summer hangover bleeding into the first series of the regular season. The Vikings carved up 80 yards for the opening score, converting three straight times on third and long. Johnson attacked the secondary all evening, a strategy made all the more inviting with top corner Shawn Springs injured and safety Pierson Prioleau, who serves as Washington's nickel back, suffering what might be a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff.
Prioleau's replacement, Mike Rumph, a free agent signed midway through camp, was an immediate target, and Williamson burned him on a 46-yard reception before Taylor scored easily from four yards (a botched exchange on the extra point left the Vikings with a 6-0 lead). Minnesota did not score another touchdown in the half, but that had as much to do with mental errors as Gregg Williams's defense. Twice Williamson beat Rogers downfield -- once for a sure touchdown -- but he muffed both passes, while penalties stalled other drives, and pricey free agents Adam Archuleta (safety) and Andre Carter (end) languished and the pass rush was null.
The Redskins' offense countered Minnesota's opening drive with a precise march of its own, but had to settle for a field goal, a theme throughout the night. Portis followed a hefty block from fullback Mike Sellers to score on a sweep from five yards in the second quarter, but two drives later the Redskins stalled at the 9, with Brunell's fumble wasting one play; Hall hit from 27 yards for a 13-6 lead at a time when a touchdown might have put the Vikings, in their debut under Coach Brad Childress, away.
Another drive died at the 4, when safety Darren Sharper dislodged a touchdown reception from Santana Moss with a vicious hit.
"We left too many points on the field," tackle Jon Jansen said. "We've got to learn to capitalize on those."
Longwell nailed a 46-yard field goal as the first half expired, and the Vikings sliced into the defense again to start the third quarter, benefiting from strong field position again on another inconsistent night from punter Derrick Frost. Washington's safeties and corners were vulnerable throughout the drive; Billy McMullen beat Archuleta over the middle for a 22-yard gain and Rogers was fooled by Johnson's three-step drop, expecting a short pass and not the 20-yard lob to Marcus Robinson, who had a few steps on the defensive back for the touchdown. Minnesota led 16-13, and the Redskins, who finished with only 266 total yards on offense, could not dent the end zone again.
"It was just a matter of us not getting it done as an offense," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, by far the most productive of the 2006 free agent class last night and a dervish on punt returns. "That was the bottom line."