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A Solid Building Block

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 10, 2007

A few NFL teams are wonderful. A handful stink. But most are like the Redskins. They're somewhere in the vast vague middle of the pack, clawing every week in games usually decided by a touchdown or much less. For them, all that matters is if they win. Not how, not whether they play by the book. No matter how humble, a win provides the fuel for more success, just as failure opens the maw of more defeats. Few teams know it better than the Redskins.

Each of the past two years, the Redskins' opening game at FedEx Field set the tone for the whole season. A humble 9-7 win started their playoff run of '05. The next two weeks, they won by one and three points. And an ugly 19-16 upset loss to the Vikings last season began a nightmare season in which they were 1-4 in games decided by three points or less. So, feel free to read as much as you please into yesterday's 16-13 overtime victory over Miami. The Redskins do.

Now the Redskins can focus on Shaun Suisham's game-winning 39-yard field goal after a 58-yard drive built on smash-mouth rushing. They can remember 191 yards rushing against Miami's tough defense while their own defense stuffed the Fish for only 66 yards on the ground. Run and stop the run -- it's the "back to Redskin football" mantra reborn last winter.

With a win, the Redskins can look at quarterback Jason Campbell's performance and see a productive 12 for 21 for 222 yards rather than recall his two ugly interceptions, both on unnecessary first-down throws into coverage. They can praise the fine blocking of 325-pound rookie tackle Stephon Heyer from Maryland rather than obsess about what will probably be a season-ending ankle injury to the man he replaced, distinguished Jon Jansen. Why, the Redskins can even laugh now at the sight of Fred Smoot dropping an interception -- a pass that hit him between the numbers -- in the last minute of regulation.

"That would have been a walk-off-homer of an interception," said assistant coach-defense Gregg Williams, who seldom jokes about mistakes. "I hope what I said wasn't on TV when he dropped it." So, everything is funny now. Opening wins do that.

Few things are more fragile than the self-confidence of a middle-of-the-pack NFL team. In the trenches, their games are shrouded in the fog of war. To them, victory proves the pain and sacrifice were worth it. Defeats breed doubt in teammates, coaches and in the very price that they pay to play the game. "This was the confidence boost we needed," Williams said.

No style points, please. Even Coach Joe Gibbs, whose teams used to win by enormous margins, no longer cares about them. After three seasons back in the NFL, Gibbs knows his current Redskins won't dominate the league. This time, every game seems to hang by a few slim points. So, with a Redskins first down at the Miami 22-yard line in overtime, Gibbs sent in the field goal team, even though a 39-yard kick is no certainty. Long ago, with a dominant team, he'd have run John Riggins or Earnest Byner down the Dolphins' throats. Now he knows the enormous value of Just Win, especially in an opener at home.

"I have lost two games here in the past three years by needing a field goal, but trying to make more," Gibbs said, after Suisham's kick ended a game full of fourth-quarter blunders and blown chances by both teams. "Bad things happen to you. Holding penalties, fumbles. I'm sure I was called some names. I said, 'Hey, look, I'm not passing up a chance at winning a football game . . . I have learned my lesson on that. . . . My heart was in my throat. I'm sure you guys would have let it slide," Gibbs said, laughing with reporters at their penchant for kindness.

Last season, Washington followed its opening loss with a defeat at Dallas. The Redskins never got their heads above .500 all season. Now, due to this one homely win, the world looks bright to the Redskins. Instead of traveling to Philadelphia next, worrying about the same 0-2 start that blighted last season, they'll have a shot at the Eagles, followed by games at home against the Giants and Lions, with a bye in between. See how 1-0 gives birth to thoughts of 3-1 or 4-0, just as 0-1 brings images of 0-3?

"The win is huge," tight end Chris Cooley said. "Season openers set a big standard for the team."

"It was critical to win the first game. Doesn't matter how," Ladell Betts said. "At the end of the season, nobody cares."

Few teams have tried harder to hand away a game than the Dolphins did in the fourth quarter. After an interception, they got an unnecessary roughness penalty. After an interference penalty on third down by Smoot gave them a first down, they killed their own drive when their tight end dropped a wide-open third-down pass. As the Redskins drove for a 13-10 lead on a 44-yard Suisham field goal with 5 minutes 35 seconds to play, Miami helped the drive by having 12 men on the field.

Most amazing, when Miami had a serious chance to win, getting a first down at the Redskins 8-yard line with less than four minutes to play, the Dolphins immediately got holding and grounding penalties, driving them back 20 yards. In a final attempt to lose in regulation, Miami put its great defensive end Jason Taylor back deep in its prevent defense with just seconds to play. Instead of batting down Campbell's heave, the out-of-position Taylor batted it directly to Antwaan Randle El for a 54-yard gain to the Miami 3, where Taylor, to prevent complete humiliation, made the saving tackle.

The Redskins can now ignore the Miami largesse and simply crow: We won. And they can also bask in the praise of the lowly Dolphins, who were 6-10 last year and now have a new coach and quarterback. "They've got a good blocking team. They did a great job up front. I'll give them that," Miami's star linebacker Zach Thomas said. "They are an aggressive team. We got momentum and they took it right out of us."

"We pride ourselves on stopping the run," defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday said. Yet Clinton Portis (98 yards on 17 carries) and Betts (59 on 17) grew more successful as the sweltering afternoon went on.

"Our offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage," Williams said. "You could see their defense taking a knee between plays, even before overtime."

There are few sadder moments than seeing an injury to a veteran leader as respected as Jansen. "Jon was hollering. I couldn't even look at it any more," Campbell said. However, Heyer's rookie energy and bulk may provide a spark.

"Look at everybody talking to Stephon. I don't give a rookie any credit at all. It's a long season," said veteran guard Randy Thomas, raising his voice to tease Heyer.

"People criticized us all preseason saying we couldn't run the ball," Thomas added. "We showed that we can get this train going."

For teams like the Redskins that are good enough to contend, but also flawed enough to fail, every year is a kind of train ride. If you start with a win, even if a modest one, the trip becomes smoother and the track suddenly seems to slope a bit downhill.

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