The Knock-Out Punch
Monday, December 11, 2006
The salient images from yesterday afternoon -- the Redskins repeatedly storming the lines of scrimmage -- and the one-sided statistics that followed would normally accompany a blowout victory for Washington, but this season has been rife with illusion. The Redskins battered the Philadelphia Eagles, holding the ball for 15 1/2 more minutes, running 25 more plays and outgaining them by 152 yards, yet fell, 21-19 at FedEx Field.
They were undone by the same maladies that have derailed them since September. The offense withered amid penalties, and was held to two or fewer touchdowns for the ninth time in 13 games. The defense succumbed to another big play (a 60-yard pass in this case) and dropped two possible interceptions. It was the 10th game in which the unit has had one or fewer sacks and it only has eight forced turnovers this season.
Thus despite playing brawling football for the third straight week and executing much of their game plan, the Redskins are just 4-9 and eliminated from postseason contention. They also ensured a last-place finish in the NFC East for the second time in three years since Coach Joe Gibbs came out of retirement.
Surely, this will be remembered as one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, as it began amid a heady air of Super Bowl expectations after last season's playoff run and another winter of heavy spending on coaches and players. Gibbs finished below. 500 just once in his Hall of Fame stint from 1981 to 1992, but now will struggle to match the six wins from 2004 (his lowest total). These Redskins are just 3-4 at home, 2-7 against the mediocre NFC and 1-4 within their division.
"That's what we talked about this week, we didn't want to go down with a losing record," Gibbs said. "There was a lot wrapped up in this game, just like this next one. The way you finish is what people remember. It's the way you fight down the stretch, even sometimes if there's nothing but pride."
Washington played with more vigor and abandon than the Eagles, who at 7-6 are very much in the playoff hunt, nearly erasing a 21-3 deficit before 84,164. Tailback Ladell Betts, signed to a lucrative contract extension last week, posted career bests for the second straight week (33 rushes for 171 yards) and Washington amassed 210 yards on the ground to Philadelphia's 99. Novice quarterback Jason Campbell led a resilient second-half offense, posting a 113 rating in the final two quarters after tossing two interceptions in the first half (29.7 rating). But the Redskins settled for four Shaun Suisham field goals yesterday, and failed to score a possible winning touchdown despite having a first down at the Eagles 3-yard line with about six minutes left.
Two disruptive blitzes by the Eagles and a penalty for too-many men in the huddle led to Suisham's final kick, a 35-yarder that made it 21-19 with 4:58 left. The Redskins never got the ball back.
"We have to convert in the red zone and eliminate some of the crazy penalties," said wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who has yet to score and lost his starting spot to fellow free agent Antwaan Randle El yesterday. "It's not like we can go and practice on it, or work on it somehow. We have to focus on that and eliminate them."
The sagging defense was as stout as it has been all season, although again without a turnover (they have been held without one in seven of the last nine games). They handcuffed the Eagles in the second half (91 total yards), but could not prevent Philadelphia from securing three first downs on its final possession.
"We were definitely more physical than they were," defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn said. "I felt that we had the upper hand. We made a great push towards the end, but on defense we have to get off the field there. We played so great for four quarters, but that last series, we've got to give our offense an opportunity."
Betts ran five times for 43 yards on Washington's opening drive to grab a 3-0 lead, but Campbell, in his fourth NFL start, misread a zone blitz on the next possession, and his pass to Santana Moss was intercepted by linebacker Omar Gaither at the Washington 31, leading to a four-play touchdown drive. The Redskins were approaching the red zone on their next drive when Campbell's hard pass to tight end Chris Cooley was deflected by cornerback William James and returned 84 yards for a touchdown by safety Michael Lewis for a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
"There's nothing you can do about it as a quarterback," Campbell said of the second interception. "It's a one-step throw, and you try to fit it in there and the [defensive back] did a good job of getting his hand in there."
Philadelphia scored what would be the winning touchdown about six minutes later. On a second-and-six play cornerback Carlos Rogers bit on a double-move by wide receiver Reggie Brown, safety Vernon Fox provided no support and again Washington faltered on a long pass right over the middle, this time for 60 yards. Four plays later, quarterback Jeff Garcia hit wide receiver Donte Stallworth with a three-yard pass for a 21-3 lead.
"We can't play a whole game or a whole season how we're doing it," Rogers said, "getting penalties, giving up big plays, not making big plays. That's how the season has gone."
Successive false starts on Washington's next drive -- the Redskins committed 11 penalties yesterday -- prompted a third and 17; Suisham was true from 45 yards and kicked a 32-yard field goal early in the second half. Late in the third quarter Campbell lofted a perfect, 34-yard pass over Randle El's shoulder in the back of the end zone, cutting the margin to 21-16. "That's as good a throw as you can make there," said Al Saunders, associate head coach-offense.
Campbell scrambled to the 3 with 6:15 to play, but the coaches opted to give rarely used short yardage back T.J. Duckett the ball on first down; he was stuffed by a "divide-blow" blitz according to Gibbs, and Betts never got a touch on this vital sequence. Cooley was knocked down in the end zone on second down -- Campbell alertly threw the ball away -- and the 12-man-on-the-field penalty forced a pass on third down.
Safety Brian Dawkins sacked Campbell -- it was a roll-out play designed to be a run or pass for the quarterback -- Suisham stepped up on fourth down and for all of their effort, the Redskins never got the ball back.
"I'm proud of the way our guys went after it," Gibbs said. "And I'm proud to be with them."