By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 18, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- As the crowd in the Superdome roared its loudest and the New Orleans Saints drove steadily down the field, the Washington Redskins on the sideline screamed "Shut the box!" to their defensive teammates. This wasn't some obscure NFL code. The box in question was simply the cardboard container on the New Orleans sideline in which the Saints had stored their NFC South Division championship hats. After a season in which the Redskins have disappointed their own fans so often, Washington players wanted to spoil someone else's celebration.
And why wouldn't so perverse a Washington season take such a twist? "Tape that box shut," yelled the Redskins, clinging to a 16-10 lead as Drew Brees led the highest-rated offense in the NFC to the 16-yard line with a minute to play. Finally, on fourth-and-seven, Carlos Rogers spun in the end zone and, at the last instant, deflected a pass away from Terrance Copper.
As the ball dropped and no penalty flags appeared, the Superdome fell silent and Redskins players began to jump and dance. Guard Randy Thomas bear hugged defensive back Troy Vincent and tight end Chris Cooley exchanged high fives with defensive end Andre Carter. Offense and defense bonded as the team improved to 5-9. To look at them, you'd have thought the Redskins had won a crucial game.
"After everything that has happened to us this season, I've never been prouder of a bunch of guys," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who presumably was fairly proud of his three Super Bowl champions. "It would have been very easy for them to say, 'Hey, I'm checkin' it in.' But they played as hard as they can play."
Then, because he just can't control his decency, Gibbs added, "If we can't get in there [to the playoffs], we wish the Saints the best." Who doesn't? As luck would have it, other NFC teams lost and the Saints did get to the playoffs, winning the division title.
Still, the contrast was hard to miss. The Redskins, who have everything, think they have "overcome adversity" because they finally played one polished game -- with no turnovers, no dropped passes, only three penalties and just one gain by the Saints for more than 20 yards. Ladell Betts rushed for 119 yards, caught passes for 43 more yards and outperformed Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush combined (162 to 101 total yards on offense). Where has this been for 14 weeks? Now they show up?
Meantime, it is the Saints who have come to symbolize hope in defiance of long odds to football fans across the country. Last year, they were 3-13. Now they're one victory from bringing a home playoff game to New Orleans. No city has ever wanted a long postseason run more desperately. Each playoff game would bring dollars to an economically devastated city that counts every French Quarter tour and po' boy it sells.
"Nothing bounced our way today. The Redskins came out ready to play. It took us a while to get going," said Brees, held to a 59.9 passer rating by the Redskins' best defensive effort of the season. "We still had a chance to win in the end. But we didn't.
"Still, look where we are now after everybody picked us to finish last before the season. It's a pretty big accomplishment."
And yet it was not one gained at the direct expense of the Redskins. The Saints can wear their NFC South title hats -- Monday.
"They were ranked number one [in offense]. People were saying we were near the bottom of the barrel on defense," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "But we've stuck together. We played for pride, for each other and for the uniform."
And, like almost every one of the Redskins, Griffin gets excited every time he realizes that, in the last month, Gibbs has taken the team back to his old intimidating running style. "I love to watch Ladell run downhill. He's a bad boy," Griffin added. "When we get Clinton [Portis] back, we're going to wear some people out next year."
That hope certainly keeps the Redskins focused. Betts had 22 carries, the same as McAllister and Bush combined, yet he outgained them 119-62. For the fourth straight week, the Redskins stuck to their new/old mantra: Run the ball, stop the run. "We drew a line in the sand. This is what we want to be. This is Redskin football," Gibbs said. "In general, we've stuck to it." With better execution or a few takeaways, all four games might have been won. Regardless of their record, however, the men in the trenches are playing with violent relish once more.
"On the sideline, our [offensive] linemen are saying, 'Let us have it. We want to run it,' " Gibbs said, chuckling. Also, the more the Redskins run, the easier pass protection becomes and the less pressure quarterback Jason Campbell feels to produce flashy statistics and risky plays. Early in the season, the team had to adapt to the offensive system of new coach Al Saunders. Now the game plan is a two-way street, attempting to marry Saunders's 700-page playbook with the existing talents and temperament of Redskins who are more inclined to put 700 welts on somebody's forehead.
"We kind of got away from it," Thomas said. "This is what we do." Then Thomas let out a menacing but comical grunt, akin to Tony Soprano saying, "This is what we do" after somebody is found encased in cement.
The largest mystery of the season has been the almost complete lack of takeaways and sacks by a Gregg Williams defense that can only justify its high-risk existence by making game-changing plays. Even in this stellar effort, the rewards were minimal. Brees was sacked twice and intercepted once -- by Rogers.
"I teased Carlos about the fact that he wants three interceptions for that one, because it took him three times to catch it. He almost dropped it twice," Williams said of the critical fourth-quarter interception that was the first in Rogers' hands-of-stone season. But that applies for much of the defense.
"If we would have caught half of the balls we've dropped, this would have been a different season," Williams said. Then, holding his fingers half-an-inch apart, he said, "It's been that kind of year."
Is that absolutely classic excuse-making? Or are the Redskins closer to a Gibbs-style rebuilding than many think? No question is more crucial because the answer informs every offseason decision on personnel. Yet it's a devilishly tricky issue.
Late-season games by out-of-the-hunt teams are notoriously poor measures of future ability. Many teams, especially the highly-paid, underachieving kind, like the '06 Redskins, get ornery and productive as soon as their season has been torched. One of the worst reproaches in sports is to say a gifted team only plays its best once it is reduced to being a spoiler.
The Redskins have little choice in how they view themselves. Like Williams, they have to believe they are far closer to success than any normal NFL measure would suggest. After all, what's their alternative? Gibbs has almost finished three years of his five-year contract. If the team he has built is fundamentally flawed in either talent or competitive personality, then the Redskins have to blow up their roster this offseason -- again.
That's not going to happen. The Redskins' hope is that the team on display against the Saints -- the one that emerged after Gibbs drew his line in the sand -- will be the outfit that shows up for the last two games. And next season, too, albeit with a more polished Campbell at quarterback. Truth or delusion? Wait and see. It's the only option.