Veering Off Track After a Running Start
They had packed away their screens, their slants, their double reverses, closing forever the box of toys Al Saunders brought with him to Washington. It was time for adult football now, with helmets down, shoulders out and pads smacking hard. For a time it worked just as it had in the old days, with the Redskins rumbling down the field, the ball tucked safely in the arms of Ladell Betts.
Then on a day they were in control of a football game, with the Atlanta Falcons broken and all but defeated, they let Saunders -- their offensive mastermind -- open the box. And out burst the jumping jacks, the Slinky and the pogo sticks set to bounce extra high.
A long pass to Santana Moss that went out of bounds.
A reverse to Antwaan Randle El for minus-two yards that looked straight out of the September, October and November playbooks when it didn't work, either.
A pass to Randle El that dropped at his feet.
And then the air began to drain from an afternoon overinflated with misguided hope.
It was the start of the second quarter, the Redskins led 14-0. In fact they not only led the game, they were dominating the game, pounding Betts through the left side of the line, knocking Atlanta's John Abraham and Grady Jackson into the sandy grass and stomping on their backs as they thundered past. The defense had just stopped Michael Vick on a fourth down near midfield. Momentum was theirs. So it seemed a curious move to go back to the chest of forgotten toys.
"We stopped being physical," running back Rock Cartwright blurted out in the middle of the locker room when the question was posed to his teammate Mike Sellers.
At that moment any attention given to Sellers was turned to Cartwright, who stood by his locker and shook his head with amazement. "Ladell is in a groove, he's running great. Why do you do that?" Cartwright said.
It would take a few moments before Cartwright realized he had asked the question that lingered in the eaves of FedEx Field even after most of the 86,436 had stomped out of their seats and up the aisles in disgust. His answers became more restrained, more rehearsed in the way a player usually is after a game.
But the question had already been asked far higher up the ladder of power.
"Throughout the game we lost our momentum and quit making plays, which is what it really amounts to," Coach Joe Gibbs said in his news conference. "We have stuff that we believe in. When we stick with it I think we can win football games."