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Turns Out, Preseason Was a Precursor

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

All the nightmares of preseason, all the premonitions of overconfidence and under-preparation in game conditions that dogged the Washington Redskins throughout their August exhibition games came back to haunt them last night in a 19-16 season opening loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Before this game, Washington was worried, fretful, apprehensive after watching one of the worst Redskins exhibition seasons in decades as the team was barely competitive when its first team was on the field and no better when its reserves played. After this unexpected loss at home to the underdog Vikings, Redskins fans may be well advised to hide sharp objects and stay off bridges. Watching replays of this defeat -- in which Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, a former Redskin, seemed to be the only dominant force -- could lead to self-destructive impulses among the fanatical faithful.

After seeing a 48-yard field goal attempt by John Hall miss wide left in the closing seconds, the Redskins can only ask themselves if they would have been better served by showing more of their schemes and tactics in the preseason, in hopes of acquiring polish under full-speed pressure from other teams. Under fourth-quarter tension, in a 16-16 game, it was the Vikings who looked more crisp under the leadership of Johnson, who completed 16 of 30 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions or fumbles from his offense.

"I'm always surprised at the little respect that Brad gets," Redskins tackle Jon Jansen said.

The Redskins may have been guilty of a casual disrespect for the Vikings in general, a sense that they could win when they wanted. That led to odd and unsettling scenes. After Vikings wide receiver Troy Williamson dropped a perfect first-half pass for what would have been a 50-yard gain, the defensive back he beat, Carlos Rogers, did a victory dance as though he had been the cause of the incompletion. Later, Rogers was the victim of a 20-yard touchdown catch by Marcus Robinson.

With 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Santana Moss made a clutch 23-yard reception to move the ball to the Vikings 39-yard line. He, too, celebrated extravagantly, this time as if a tying field goal, at the least, were sure to follow. Yet it didn't. Win first. Strut later.

Now, heading to Dallas on Sunday after a short week of work to play the frustrated Cowboys, the Redskins have to find their "Start" button. For weeks, they have acted as though they could turn a switch and play their best on command. Last night, before a national TV audience and with actor Tom Cruise perched next to owner Daniel Snyder, they found suddenly that they couldn't.

"It's never one play that beats you. It's everybody, including me," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who seemed unperturbed in defeat, except for an undercurrent of displeasure with some officiating calls. "We have to find a way to fight our way out of it."

If anything, this loss was remarkable for how easily the Redskins seemed to let it roll off their backs. That was an unsettling characteristic of several of the underachieving teams -- with high salaries and reputations, but no playoff glory -- that inhabited Redskins uniforms in the 11 years when Gibbs was at the NASCAR races.

"The only thing we messed up tonight was our perfect season," Clinton Portis said after rushing for 39 yards.

Several Redskins praised the Vikings as though they had lost to a Super Bowl contender. More likely, Minnesota, under new coach Brad Childress, will end up a rebuilding, middle-of-the-road team. Then, this defeat may sting even more.

"In the red zone [inside the 20-yard line], we have some things that we don't have completely down yet," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who caught five passes, ran the ball twice and returned three punts, yet gained only a modest 69 yards in all as Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell seldom tried to throw the ball deep. "To us, we know this [offensive] system works, but we left about 11 points out there. It was little bitty small things. Fine tuning."

Gibbs called the game "hard fought" and found no fault with any player. However, he did come as close to grousing about officials as he ever does. "Our guys felt like the [interference] penalty that wasn't called on our side of the field [in the final series of the game] was similar to one that was called [on Sean Taylor] earlier in the game," Gibbs said.

For more than three quarters, as the teams played to a 16-16 standstill, the Redskins proved that they were not nearly as bad as they appeared in preseason, but also not nearly as close to a Super Bowl contending team as they had hoped.

With more efficiency, the Redskins might have taken control of the game before halftime. But because they didn't, they found themselves in a battle ultimately decided by a field goal. Just as the Redskins seemed on the verge of taking a 16-6 lead, after a 37-yard pass to Moss, Washington fumbled a handoff exchange between Brunell and Portis, who recovered alertly for a three-yard loss. Rather than scoring the touchdown that had seemed imminent, Washington settled for a short field goal and lost a chance for a sharp swing in momentum.

When Johnson led the Vikings back for a 46-yard field goal of their own as the halftime gun sounded, Minnesota had found a way to stay squarely in the fight despite a horrendous first half by second-year wide receiver Williamson. In a sense, he was the Most Valuable Redskin. Early in the second quarter, the Vikings' Johnson threw as perfect a bomb as he has in his long career, dropping the ball precisely over Williamson's shoulder and into his hands for what would have been at least a 50-yard gain inside the Washington 10-yard line. Williamson whiffed the catch.

Instead of getting points, the Vikings had to punt. Two series later, Williamson was back doing his valuable work again, dropping an ideal first-down pass at midfield. When the Redskins think back on this loss and are tempted to forgive themselves, they should imagine what the final score might have been if Williamson had caught those two simple balls.

Redskins opening games are always anticipated in Washington at an emotional level slightly below an inauguration. However, the beginning of this season, as the team came off a preseason with nonexistent offense, mistake-prone defense and, at times, embarrassing special teams has been particularly heart-stopping for the fanatical followers of the most valuable franchise in all of American sports.

The reason for this region-wide concern has not been clearly articulated as the Redskins played their lowly August games, but it has rumbled in the city's collective stomach, unspoken but palpably present. This is the season in which the second coming of Joe Gibbs was supposed to come to fruition, or something quite close to it. After a 10-6 season and a playoff win, the Redskins added almost every imaginable piece of the puzzle that Gibbs claimed he lacked. He wanted a quality wide receiver, and was given two of them. He wished for a speed rusher at defensive end and a hard-hitting safety. Gibbs even wanted a new offensive coordinator -- at a head coach's salary -- to take over those duties from him. All were granted.

For weeks, the Redskins rationalized that they were keeping their weapons under wraps, hiding their secrets and "waiting for Monday night." Yet, when Monday night came, they were outgained 309 yards to 266, didn't force a turnover, only managed one sack and then complained about the officials. When the "Start" button was needed, there was no ignition.

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