By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006
If they had lost, they were finished. They all admitted it in one way or another, and relied on their belief systems more than at any point in the season. There was the players-only meeting last week, where the common thread was to believe in "it," in finding some impossible way over the next few weeks to resurrect the season.
And when yesterday's bizarre and wholly surreal 22-19 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field was complete, when the Washington Redskins first mobbed place kicker Nick Novak for making up for missing a critical field goal in the final minute with a 47-yard game-winner with no time remaining, and then safety Troy Vincent for blocking what would have been a season-crushing 35-yard field goal by Dallas place kicker Mike Vanderjagt that gave Novak his second chance, the players say they found something else: an emotional formula, however unlikely, that gives them hope.
"We won the first game of our one-game season. Next week, we have another one-game season," said middle linebacker Lemar Marshall, who made his first super-sized play of the season by dumping Cowboys running back Julius Jones for a first-quarter safety. "If we keep winning these one-game seasons, one play at a time, one quarter at a time, well, we'll see what happens."
The Redskins are 3-5 on a season that for the next eight weeks has no room for error, ending a three-game losing streak without injured wide receiver Santana Moss. Defensive tackle Joe Salave'a described the energy on the field and the sidelines yesterday as a street fight, the kind of game where nothing matters except, he said, "bleeding your way to a win." Outside linebacker Marcus Washington said he and his teammates told each other to reduce the game to one play that would win it for them.
"Let's keep punching each other in the jaw," he said. "And let's make sure they fall first. We wanted it to be the Thrilla in Manila."
On the sidelines, there was Vincent, playing in just his second game with the Redskins, telling his teammates during the moments in the second half when the Cowboys had appeared to take control of the game, "Continue to believe that somehow, we're going to win this game."
They were dead if they lost and at critical times seemed dead during it as the Cowboys seemed poised to strike a mortal wound, but something kept them alive. Much of it was the Cowboys themselves, committing 11 penalties for 153 yards -- the third-highest total in their 46-year history -- with the biggest being the first play of the fourth quarter when Roy Williams was called for interfering with Brandon Lloyd on an Antwaan Randle El option pass down the sideline. It was a 48-yard play that led to a Chris Cooley touchdown that tied the game at 19.
Each penalty breathed life into the Redskins. For weeks, they had not been able to force a turnover, but they made the biggest play of the day on special teams, when Vanderjagt lined up from 35 yards after Novak missed his 49-yard attempt wide right with 35 seconds remaining.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo took the ball at the Dallas 39, hit 3 of 4 passes, the seeming death blow coming when tight end Jason Witten beat safety Adam Archuleta down the middle of the field for 28 yards to the Redskins 17. In the scrum, Witten crowed to Vincent that the game was over.
But on the kick, Vincent found a seam and broke through uncovered, blocking the ball. Sean Taylor recovered at the 26 and raced 30 yards. Haunted by penalties, Cowboys guard Kyle Kosier was called for a 15-yard face-mask penalty that pushed the ball to the 29, and, this time, Novak nailed his kick.
"If you're going to get dirty, you might as well get rewarded for it," Salave'a said. "You want to talk about momentum, about having it and having it taken away from you and getting it back. You couldn't write an action movie script like this one."
The game swung on a play Vincent made -- and even on a play he did not. On first and 10 from the Dallas 26 and trailing 19-12 in the third quarter, Vincent lined up on the left hash mark, shading toward cornerback Rogers. His positioning signaled to the world that he was standing there only to provide cover to Rogers should Romo attempt a deep pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens.
Romo, who threw for 284 yards on the afternoon, went deep down the left side of the middle of the field.
The play stood as an example of the thin margins of competition. The Redskins had been so thoroughly beaten in the seams between the hash marks that yesterday it was Vincent, and not Archuleta, who started at safety alongside Taylor. And yet here was Owens slipping past Vincent and Rogers on his way to a game-breaking, 74-yard touchdown.
But Owens dropped the ball. The score would have given the Cowboys a 26-12 lead.
"It's a game of inches, it's a game of error," Vincent said. "When we look, people will ask, 'Was T.O.'s dropped pass really the difference?' Some will say yes, others no. Was the blocked kick the difference? At the end of the day, we're leaving here with a victory."
Street fights, Salave'a admitted, are not pretty, and much of what the Redskins tried did not work, but the goal simply was to stay alive. They began the game committed to returning to their former incarnation as a power football team committed to breaking the resolve of their opponent. On the opening drive, they drove down the field, powered by Clinton Portis and the running game, aided by big Dallas penalties.
Then they stalled. On first and goal from the 4, the Redskins had seven chances -- with the help of a penalty -- to punch the football into the end zone and couldn't. On fourth and one from the 1-yard line, Coach Joe Gibbs called timeout, called Novak off the field, went for it and saw Portis stuffed at the goal line. A 14-play, 79-yard opening drive ended with no points.
Two plays later, Marshall stopped Jones in the end zone for a safety. On their next possession, the Redskins took a 5-0 lead on a Novak field goal. The Cowboys answered each time, taking a 9-5 lead before Portis answered with a 38-yard touchdown around the left end.
In the middle, they sagged. Quarterback Mark Brunell, having an exceptional day, fumbled a snap that stalled another. The Cowboys began to take the game, scoring on four consecutive possessions, the last a four-yard slant to Owens that broke a 12-12 halftime tie and gave Dallas a 19-12 lead.
"We told ourselves to let it stop there," lineman Andre Carter said. "We told ourselves that this is it."