By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 11, 2006
This Washington Redskins season has been filled with losses that merited self-reproach and produced waves of well-earned criticism. Yesterday at FedEx Field, however, this dismally disappointing team finally produced a loss, 21-19 to the Eagles, that contained traces of dignity. In 171 yards rushing by Ladell Betts, who has a glittering 430 yards on the ground in the last three weeks, there was undeniable hope.
Imagine how well he might combine next season with a healthy Clinton Portis. In Jason Campbell's resilience, ignoring a horrid first half to lead a comeback that barely fell short, there were signs of leadership. And in the team's refusal to quit when trailing 21-3, there was, according to Coach Joe Gibbs, cause for pride. "I would go anywhere with them," he said.
Of course, looked at another way, this just shows how low the Redskins have sunk: They now take pride in "good" defeats.
For months, the Redskins have digested losses with embarrassment or undisguised confusion. A team that talked about the Super Bowl in August was stunned by its lack of identity, its inability to muster a professional level of effort in consecutive weeks or even remain competitive on the road against the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. But finally in the last three games, all at FedEx Field with Betts gaining 104, 155 and 171 yards, they claim they can glimpse a future worth embracing. They know who they are. They just aren't very good at executing their roles yet. They're the smash-mouth team that still shoots itself in the foot.
In this loss, 11 penalties and two interceptions by Campbell did them in. Yet, after this defeat, the Redskins almost universally thought they saw progress, especially in the revived running game around Betts. "We keep fighting even when we are behind, even when the fans are on our butts," said guard Randy Thomas after the Redskins outgained the Eagles 415-263 and dominated time of possession 37 minutes 46 seconds to 22:14. "Ladell is a confident guy, but not with a swollen head. And he's getting this chance."
Because of the 5-foot-10, 222-pound Betts, the Redskins may be rediscovering the most emblematic element of Gibbs's best teams -- a power rushing game that eats up the clock, rests the defense, sets up play-action passing and defines the physically intimidating personality he prefers in his teams. Just days after signing a five-year contract extension, Betts had the best rushing game of his career while adding two pass receptions to his season total of 41.
"I knew I could carry the load," said Betts, who had 33 carries. "Everything I've done I've always known I could do. I believe in what Joe Gibbs has [planned] for us. And I think we're going to turn it around. We ran our inside zone plays all day long -- the gut plays, running downhill. This is what we want to do, except we want to get seven points out of these drives instead of three."
Without Portis, who ran for 1,516 yards last season and 523 this year despite multiple injuries, the Redskins are accidentally discovering that Betts is considerably better than anyone thought during his first four seasons as a kind of all-purpose back. Associate head coach Al Saunders quickly spotted Betts's ability to run, catch and block "in that order" in training camp and has been comparing his versatile style and patient use of his blockers to Priest Holmes. If Saunders and his 700-page playbook have been mocked at times, then let the record show that he also has been a Betts booster all along.
"A lot of good teams in this league have a one-two punch," said Saunders, pleased to imagine a Portis-Betts tandem.
The Redskins may be encouraged by Betts and proud that Campbell could amass a 113 passer rating in the second half after his two-pick first half. "I think I showed my teammates something," said Campbell. "Everyone is looking at you when things aren't going the right way. 'Will he get down and go in the tank?' I'm going to be with them through thick and thin."
Nevertheless, scoreboards are the ultimate reality check. That's where words are measured against deeds, effort against execution, intentions against results. Year after year, the scoreboard is the Redskins' worst enemy. That's where the payrolls of summer collide with the goal-line penalties of December. Despite cheerful news, like the emergence of Betts, the larger reality is that the Redskins are in the 14th consecutive year of a rebuilding project. Since Gibbs left after the '92 season, only five teams in the NFL have won fewer games than Washington. And in many years, like this one, those losses came at an astronomical cost in payroll. Among the most recurrent of all Redskins themes in this era has been boneheaded plays.
This game added a beauty to the list. The "12th man" is supposed to be the fans. With the game on the line -- with third down and goal from the 3-yard line with 5:29 to play and Philadelphia clinging to a 21-16 lead -- Washington was penalized five yards for 12 men on the field. Why not 13 or 14, you ask -- aware that the Redskins have seldom been able to count to 11 on a consistent basis in crisis situations in recent years. This time, the number just happened to be 12.
Faced with a far more difficult third-and-eight situation, Campbell was sacked, the Redskins settled for a field goal and never touched the ball again. "Twelve men on the field is a big penalty. I was trying to get a timeout so that we could avoid the penalty," said Campbell. "Unfortunately the referee had already caught it. It was a big mistake."
"We really hurt ourselves," said Gibbs, perhaps recalling four penalties on third down in the first half alone. A top-quality high school team would be ashamed of such a number. Then, he explained the 12-man penalty. Perhaps he shouldn't have. "We had a guy that had to play tackle in there that wasn't aware that you can come off of the field after you signal that you are in as an ineligible receiver that becomes eligible." How could anybody screw up when coaching explanations are that clear?
The last three weeks of this season will be an appropriate penance for the Redskins. They have been eliminated from the playoff chase in the very season in which it should have been almost impossible to avoid the postseason. At the moment, an 8-8 record in the NFC may gain a wild-card spot. Instead, the Redskins have lost four games at home -- none to powerhouse teams. This two-point loss at FedEx Field was merely the latest proof that the Redskins can't even defend their home turf in games when they are evenly matched. Simply file this game with close losses to the Vikings and Titans, as well as a blown 14-0 lead at home last week against the Falcons.
Right now, as they try to feel their way toward a new style of play with a kid at quarterback, the Redskins still aren't good enough to finish games at home. What will they do in the next two weeks on the road against powerful New Orleans and still-in-the-hunt St. Louis?
"The most important thing you look for in a team is heart and fight because that's the hardest thing to get. But we just have to play smarter than this," Gibbs said as he ducked back into his office after his 10th loss by three points or fewer in the three seasons since he returned. Once Gibbs ruled the close games. Now they own him. Does that translate: Lost a step?
"We've got some tough stuff coming up here," said Gibbs of a holiday season that promises little Redskins cheer.
The progress -- loosely defined -- of the last three weeks will be tested sorely the next two weeks on the road. Then perhaps we'll find out whether the Redskins' patter after this defeat was just cheap talk or a precursor of better things.