By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 6, 2006
Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs are antithetical NFL animals, rivals for three decades. Maybe they shake hands after a game, maybe they don't. But yesterday at FedEx Field, Parcells sifted through a mob scene of Washington celebration at midfield to find Gibbs, whose team had just escaped with the most exciting, inspired, dumb-lucky and miraculous final-second victory in the last 50 years of Redskins football. Others will have to attest to earlier times.
In their eight decades in Washington, the Redskins have had plenty of plays in the final seconds to win games -- plays that sent teams to Super Bowls or won titles -- that were more important than anything in this 22-19 win. But they never had a crazier, more thrilling or more complex ending. Even Parcells had to take proper note of it. Finally, he spotted Gibbs, grabbed his hand, broke into a brief grin and shook his head in disbelief as if to say, "Is this what we came out of retirement for?"
Parcells takes pride in being a hard loser but even he had to acknowledge the magnificent bizarreness, the gods-are-crazy caprice of seeing so much hard work and precise planning culminate in so much uncontrollable mayhem. One instant the Cowboys were lining up for a 35-yard game-winning field goal by Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, with just six seconds to play.
Then Troy Vincent, who had never blocked a kick in his career, smothered Vanderjagt's attempt when it had barely left his foot. Next, Sean Taylor returned the kick 30 yards, reversing his field, terrifying the Cowboys and sending the crowd of 90,250 from a roar to a subsonic boom. Finally, Cowboys guard Kyle Kosier was called for a 15-yard face-mask penalty against Taylor, moving the ball to the Dallas 29-yard line. Suddenly, because a game can't end on a defensive penalty, the Redskins were awarded an extra play even though the clock read :00. So Nick Novak, who'd been the goat when he missed from 49 yards with 31 seconds to play, suddenly found himself the hero as he kicked a 47-yarder to win the game.
"Gosh, I don't know if I've ever experienced anything like that," said a genuinely stunned and ecstatic Gibbs. "I've never seen a finish like that, needless to say. . . . I don't know whether I came back [to coaching] for stuff like that or not. I'm about shot. I may not make it through the night."
Gone, utterly, from Gibbs's mind was the speech he'd have had to give if Vanderjagt's kick had been good -- "In most cases, they're going to make that field goal" -- and his team had reached the halfway point in its season at 2-6, not 3-5.
"We're in position to win. All we had to do was kick the field goal," Parcells said. "We just had to execute that one play and we didn't. . . . It's a heartbreaker . . . a really tough pill to swallow. It's very disheartening."
You can be sure Gibbs is enjoying breakfast, just reading the words over and over. His Redskins may still only be 3-5 while Parcells's Cowboys are 4-4. But the Cowboys' momentum, gained with a victory at Carolina the previous week, has been destroyed. "As high as we were last week, it's the exact opposite," Vanderjagt said. "On a scale of 100, we were 98 last week and we're two this week."
And the Redskins? "You know how they put that defibrillator on somebody's heart and give them a shock and bring them back to life? That may be us after this game," Rock Cartwright said.
The Redskins were as good as dead, that's for sure, as Vanderjagt lined up. At 2-6 would NFC East life have been worth living with a trip to visit the Eagles in Philadelphia next week? Except for the game-changing play, this might have been a new abysmal bottom for the Redskins. They were outperformed on offense (378 to 300 total yards), didn't force a turnover and allowed young Tony Romo, starting his second NFL game, to complete 24 of 36 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns despite constant blitzing. If Terrell Owens hadn't dropped a picture-perfect bomb that should have been a 74-yard touchdown, Romo might have totally shredded the Redskins. As it was, his 28-yard pass over the middle to Jason Witten on third and five looked like it would be the game-winner, setting up Vanderjagt's attempt.
That's when the Redskins' season may have changed from utterly miserable to something considerably better. All week, special teams coach Danny Smith put in a field goal-block scheme, based on flaws seen in film study, where Vincent might break free.
"I got a good jump," Vincent said, "and just went for my block point." His block point? How would he know what one is? "I asked if he'd ever blocked a kick before in his life," Gibbs said. "He said, 'No.' "
One delicious element in this game was savored in the Redskins' locker room. A dubious strategic decision by Parcells cost the Cowboys this game. With just two minutes gone in the second quarter, Parcells went for a two-point conversion with Dallas leading 6-5 and failed.
With just one more point -- that easy automatic conversion -- the Cowboys would have led 20-19 when Novak missed wide right with 35 seconds left. At that point, Dallas would've been taking a knee and thinking about its playoff chances.
Instead, the Redskins are getting the last word. In a New York Times Magazine story last week, Parcells was candid in many comments about the Redskins, saying that tackle Jon Jansen "isn't the same player he was two years ago" and that Redskins cornerbacks were a weakness to be exploited, among other things. "We answered a call from a guy who said some things about me and about our team," Jansen said.
On the flight back to Dallas, perhaps Owens and Parcells can sit side by side. Owens can rationalize how he dropped that certain touchdown bomb and another open pass. Parcells can explain why he tells players not to stir up opponents by popping off, then does it himself and compounds his sins by giving away a crucial point.
Long after this victory, Gregg Williams, whose defense is finally healthy yet would have shared in the blame for another loss if not for The Play, was in a cheerful mood. Seasons, even those that begin atrociously, can have radical mid-course corrections. After all, a 5-0 run got the Redskins in the playoffs last year.
With six seconds left in the first half of their season, the Redskins appeared headed to 2-6 and the indignity of being the biggest disappointment in the NFL. Instead, a blocked kick, by a man who'd never blocked one in his life, and a face-mask penalty on a Cowboys offensive lineman who is never supposed to have to make a tackle, transformed the game in a blink.
Will it change a season? Or will this be a dazzling fluke in a dismal season? Answers lie in Philly.