By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006
The Washington Redskins' season mercifully ended last night, in a game that offered enough moments to give them hope in the form of a young quarterback showing promise, but also with enough reminders of a season gone horribly wrong.
After the 34-28 loss to the New York Giants finished the Redskins' season at 5-11, Coach Joe Gibbs said he already had ideas for the offseason, and for a straightforward man who constructs his thoughts around the bottom line, this season was a bitter one, he said.
In the past three years, he has produced the two worst seasons of his Hall of Fame career sandwiched around a storybook year last season when a 5-6 team won five consecutive games to make the playoffs. He is 21-27 in his return. In the three years previous, the Redskins were 20-28.
There will be much data over which Gibbs must pore, unshakeable facts that go beyond character and heart and toughness. He has established that he likes the men who play for him.
"I think we have a bunch of players that will play their hearts out," Gibbs said. "I've got to find a way to do a better job from my standpoint."
More difficult is reconciling that respect with a team that in 2006 had too many big plays against it while being unable to counter with knockout punches of its own. The Redskins set a record for producing the fewest turnovers in a 16-game season in league history, and nearly set a team record for most yards allowed since the inception of the franchise in 1932.
"I would have never guessed this for us," said wide receiver Santana Moss, who caught six passes for 103 yards, including a nifty 48-yard touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El. "But what are you going to do now? Talking about it won't change it. The cookie doesn't always crumble the way you want it to."
Last night's loss could have been a slideshow collection from this long season. The Redskins on their first possession moved the ball inside the Giants 20 but running back Ladell Betts fumbled on the next play, setting up a Giants field goal.
On the goal line in the first half, safety Vernon Fox dropped an interception. Later on the same drive, Giants running back Tiki Barber scored on a 15-yard run.
And, with 7 minutes 20 seconds remaining, in the midst of a furious Washington comeback, Redskins cornerback Kenny Wright committed a penalty on third down that kept a New York drive alive. Barber scored on a backbreaking 50-yard run two plays later.
"That is it for us," assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "On those three plays, they were able to put [scores] on the board because we didn't bounce back from the negative play, call or whatever. And you have to will yourself back into it."
Finally, backup Mark Brunell, who lost his starting job to Jason Campbell six weeks ago, made an appearance just long enough to be booed by a smattering of angry fans, who despite ample evidence of numerous deficiencies on offense and defense seemed to focus on him as the symbol of a lost season.
"Long, hard, tough season for us," Gibbs said. "I think our guys wanted to make a statement at the end of the year. . . . I thought they played hard. . . . Obviously, there were a lot of things we could have done better to give us a chance to win the football game."
The Redskins played for pride while simultaneously attempting to avoid infamy, and if they accomplished anything, it was in not folding under the weight of a 27-7 deficit and forcing a shaky Giants team to earn its victory and likely playoff berth. Down 34-28, the Redskins had the ball with about two minutes left but were unable to gain a first down, much less a scoring opportunity.
In the end, New York (8-8) earned a victory fueled almost single-handedly by Barber, the longtime Redskins tormenter, who in what likely was his final regular season game before retirement rushed for a career-best 234 yards and three scores.
Barber's other two scores were from 15 and 55 yards. He had 137 rushing yards in the first half alone.
"For the first two years [since his return] we played exceptional football on defense," Gibbs said. "We need to get back to that."
And then there was one massive scare, when Campbell was knocked out of the game in the second quarter after taking a hit to the chest by Giants linebacker Brandon Short.
With the Redskins trailing 17-7, Campbell couldn't find a receiver on a first-down play and scrambled upfield.
Throughout his time as a starter, Campbell has joked that he doesn't know how to slide and that sliding would be among the many aspects of his game he planned to work on after the offseason.
But on the play, Campbell was nearly down when Short drilled him on the left side of his chest. Campbell lay motionless for several moments before jogging off the field as Brunell was greeted by boos.
"It was a situation where they covered our pass play and I was trying to run and make a play. I tried to cut inside my linemen, I saw [Antonio] Pierce at the last minute and I tried to get down," Campbell said. "He hit me in the shoulder, but my head hit the turf and I was out for about five seconds. Believe me, I tried to slide."
Campbell came back and finished with 220 yards passing, completing 21 of 31 throws.
Said Gibbs: "I think what Jason did for me was make a statement. He had a pretty good shot in there in the first half. He got tagged. He said he was ready to go in on the next series. He came back in the second half and gave us a chance to win."