Before Halftime, a Harbinger?

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 12, 2007

NASHVILLE Perhaps months from now, we will look back on a steamy night in Tennessee when the Redskins won a preseason game, 14-6, over the Titans with two touchdowns in the final two minutes. Maybe then, contrary to all traditional NFL logic, what will matter is that Washington, which lost all its preseason games last season, finally won in August, even though third-stringers and rookies who hold no prominent place in the plans of either team scored those final points.

However, that's unlikely. It's the first half of these initial preseason games that matter, that set a tone, that give a team a sense of momentum or frustration. And by that method of measure, the image of the Redskins that may linger longest is the final image of the first half. With 12 seconds left before intermission Saturday night and the ball deep at the Redskins 18-yard line, Joe Gibbs sent quarterback Jason Campbell and most of the first-string offense back onto the field for their seventh futile series of the night.

In what is normally a take-a-knee moment, Gibbs grabbed one final opportunity to give Campbell -- and his "attack" that had been held scoreless -- a chance, any chance, for a pleasant memory. Anything would be better than leaving Campbell with the image of two sacks on which he fumbled deep in his territory both times. Instead, the Redskins immediately got a penalty and went to intermission trailing 3-0 to a Tennessee team that was hamstrung and distracted because young star quarterback Vince Young was benched an hour before the game for violating a team rule.

With an opportunity to start their preseason on an optimistic note, the Redskins began their work with an inefficient first half -- far too reminiscent of last season -- that left Gibbs standing on the sideline, arms folded, his lips pursed as if tasting bile. He hasn't had so much fun since his meeting to clear the air between his NASCAR drivers Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

"We were struggling like mad," Gibbs said of his offense, which gained 34 rushing yards in the first half. "I think it was a rough start for Jason, he'd probably tell you that. Last year he did a real good job of protecting the ball. This time, he lost it twice. That's huge. We had some disappointment with the running game.

"Had we roared right down the field two or three times, you'd probably get [Campbell] out of there. But we did intend to play him roughly a half."

However, the bizarre sight of the Redskins trying to salvage a final feel-good play with 12 seconds left in the half had an eerie eloquence.

Yes, it's only one meaningless preseason game. But given the similarity of recent Redskins preseasons to their regular season results, it's probably not too early to start worrying. Just a little. A go-ahead one-yard touchdown by rookie Marcus Mason is nice. And winning is better than losing. But the number that means the most is the point total at half: zero.

This inert start to a new season -- not an ugly performance, but one utterly without flow or rhythm -- wasn't supposed to happen. Not after an interminable offseason of introspection, self-reproach and internal retooling.

Campbell was not supposed to fumble twice, even though he completed three elegant passes for gains of 20, 20 and 39 yards in a 6-for-14 passing performance. Shaun Suisham's 47-yard field goal attempt wasn't supposed to hit the left upright -- not on a team that has been plagued by loses of three points or fewer since Gibbs came back.

For every big hit on defense by free agent acquisition London Fletcher or rookie LaRon Landry, there was a no-show night for safety Sean Taylor (one tackle) or a missed block that held Ladell Betts to six yards in four carries. Only the defense, presumably helped by Young's absence, could say, as Shawn Springs did, "We had a very simple plan, and we got it done."

This was the night the Redskins wanted to show renewed spirit. Humbled by their 5-11 disaster last season, they wanted to show everyone, especially themselves, why they had realistic hopes for a winning season, even with a young quarterback in his first full season. Instead, the first half felt like deja vu.


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