Manning's Hits Hurt

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 23, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Washington Redskins got to touch greatness Sunday. They also got to rip its helmet off, bend it backward until it almost snapped, smash its forehead into the artificial turf and, depending on your perspective, cheap-shot it from behind in the knees. None of this did the Redskins any good or inflicted much harm on the great one in question -- the preeminent Peyton Manning.

Instead, all the mayhem the Redskins wrought on the Colts' quarterback while taking a 14-13 halftime lead -- some of it by rugged football and some perhaps by borderline kill-the-quarterback tactics -- merely served to anger and inspire Indianapolis. With the cobwebs cleared from his mind, Manning and his Colts dismantled the Redskins completely in the third quarter and, for all practical purposes, ended any plausible Washington playoff hopes. In the fantasy realm, feel free to concoct scenarios where a 2-5 record turns into a 9-7 season with a last-week playoff berth based on a seven-way wild-card tiebreaker. In reality, R.I.P.

The Redskins, desperate for a victory, took the risk of riling Manning with the kind of rough play that had the RCA Dome full of boos from righteously irate Colts fans. Manning simply paid the Redskins back by burying their season with a perfect quarter worthy of Canton. By the fourth quarter, he could've been on the cell to Eli, saying, "I took care of 'em for you, kid."

In the first 12 minutes 14 seconds of the third quarter, the Colts established what may be a new low for this progressively more demoralizing Redskins season, manhandling the Redskins on both sides of the ball and allowing them only eight offensive plays while Manning engineered almost effortless scoring drives of 55, 81 and 66 yards -- all culminating in touchdown passes. Manning ended the day 25 of 35 for 342 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. In the process, the Colts established another new high for yardage against Gregg Williams's defense. The latest adjusted figure is now 452 yards.

After that 20-0 blitz for a 33-14 lead, the final score of 36-22 was just a formality. "Our locker room was jacked up at halftime, but they kind of overwhelmed us in the third quarter," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Being 2-5, does it mystify you? Yeah. But all you can do is work your guts out to find the answer."

"When you play a team like Peyton Manning," said defensive back Shawn Springs with a fine slip of the tongue, "things like that can happen. He's probably the best player in the NFL. Or top three, not to disrespect anybody."

Just stick with "the best."

After three straight loses, each ugly in its own way -- two to the Manning brothers and the other to the awful Tennessee Titans -- the Redskins have been reduced to searching for signs of hope. "We've had leads in five of six games," Gibbs said. Even at this low point, Gibbs doesn't have a bad word for anybody on his team. That's always been his style, but it's more extreme this time around. None of his old raw edge from the '80s shows through, at least publicly. At times his praise for his team after brutal performances can seem almost bizarre.

The coach always shoulders the blame. At one point, the Redskins got so many consecutive rock-head penalties that they had to kick off from their 5-yard line. "I've never seen that before," said Gibbs. "All these [mental mistakes] come back to me. I've got to do a better job of selling things [to the players]." Of the team's apparent disorganization at such times, Gibbs said, "Those are things that are my responsibility, not the players'."

Not the players'? After returning a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, Antwaan Randle El bounced himself off the goal post, a flagrant violation of the league's current silly anti-celebration rules. Doesn't Antwaan watch any NFL games on his big screen? The refs are killing everybody for such antics. So the instant you put your team ahead 14-10, why guarantee yourself a penalty? And what about punter Derrick Frost getting a penalty for yanking his helmet off to scream at a ref? The illustrations are endless.

But Gibbs says he is surrounded by a great bunch of character guys who are going to stick together. "If you are going to be in a mess, I want to be in a mess with a lot of guys I have a lot of respect for," said Gibbs.

You get the feeling these days that Gibbs has become so mellow that if he heard that one of his grandchildren had wrecked the car, burned down the school and drowned the neighbors' cat, he would say, "Boy, that sure is an energetic kid."

The Redskins don't go so easy on themselves. "Right now, we don't have an identity, offensively or defensively," said Clinton Portis, who had only one yard on his first seven carries. "Last year, we were a dominating, punishing team. This year, we've been searching. This is the toughest year here. When we were 6-10 [in Gibbs's first season], we kicked people's butts. They just won on the scoreboard. Eventually, we'll find out who wants to fight and who doesn't.

"I'll stick around for the fight."

Said Springs: "We've got find a way to affect change around here. We've got to do something."

If the Redskins think that they are currently an intense football team, it's conceivable that they are incorrect. Less than a half-hour before this game, about half the team walked through a tunnel onto the field for warmups. A handful of players tried to make little pep-talk noises. The large majority were silent, expressionless while some laughed and chatted. Yes, it's pro ball, grown men earning a living, not high school or college kids jumping around at a bonfire rally. But playing it cool isn't working.

One lasting memory of this game will be of Manning's elegant passing after the assault he took in the second quarter when Redskins end Phillip Daniels bent him backwards over Andre Carter and ripped the helmet off his head. The torque in Manning's spine sprung him back so violently that he flew face-first -- a 180-degree flip -- into the turf. Once back on the sideline, he still had a dozen bits of artificial turf imbedded in his forehead. On one subsequent series of downs, he seemed to be taking a standing eight count. "We had him where we wanted him," Daniels said, "but we let him off the hook."

However, the most vivid and, for the Redskins, disturbing images from this game will be from the first five series of the second half. The Redskins should, as they say, watch the film. On every part of the field almost every Redskins player was beaten on almost every play because the Colts simply performed with far more desire, more recklessness and perhaps more anger.

The most visible problems so far this season have been with the mental mistakes that lead to ludicrous scenes like a team being forced to kick off from the shadow of its own goal post. But the deeper problems may be in the heart, not the head. Some of us remember Gibbs's old teams up close, how they carried themselves in a tunnel before a game, responded to challenges to start the second half and even how their furious faces looked in a losing locker room.

Any resemblance between these Redskins and those is purely coincidental.

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