Yard Work Needed

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 24, 2007

The Washington Redskins have a full two weeks to watch the film of their 24-17 loss to the New York Giants at FedEx Field. They shouldn't waste the opportunity for such a penance. Say bye-bye to the bye week. Watch the images over and over. Hunker down and focus on the excruciatingly small differences between being a contender and a pretender in the NFL. No one has to tell them, of course. The Redskins already know it.

A kind of numb disbelief hung about the Redskins yesterday as they recalled the final four plays after they reached a first down at the New York Giants 1-yard line with 58 seconds left to play -- then couldn't gain that final longest yard in four attempts.

"I coached it. We all played it. We understood the importance of it. We didn't get it," said Coach Joe Gibbs, his sentences clipped and his expression fiercely composed. "I'm a big part of it. It was hard fought. We couldn't find a way."

Opportunities arrive in different sizes. This one was extra-large, bordering on humongous. The Redskins had a chance to start their season 3-0 with the lowly Detroit Lions, who gave up 56 points to the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday, as the dessert on their plate at FedEx in two weeks. When they dominated the Giants in the first half, building a 17-3 lead, they seemed on the verge of the kind of start to a season that almost always generates a playoff run.

Now, they've squandered the momentum of their Monday night win in Philadelphia and have the same 2-1 record that was expected by many who saw them as a .500 team.

"We felt like we were in control of the game at halftime. I don't know what happened. It was like a completely different team went out there in the second half," said Ladell Betts, who was handed the ball on the game's last two plays and was held to no gain and a final, stunning loss of two yards.

Twice, with the game on the line, the Redskins ran their most predictable, but also their most powerful, play -- running off the healthy left side of their line behind Chris Samuels and Pete Kendall, rather than the replacements for injured Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas on the right side. However, twice, the Giants were waiting for them.

"On the last play, I don't know if they had our snap count down or what, but they were really off on the ball," said Betts. "They got penetration so fast."

"We feel comfortable with them both," said Gibbs of his two running backs, Portis and Betts. But from the 1-yard line, only Betts played. Portis, who missed the preseason with tendinitis in his knee, may have been too rusty to trust. The final two runs were old-school Gibbs. "They were hat-on-a-hat and move the pile,'" said Betts. But the pile never budged.

One instant the huge crowd of 90,803, the largest in FedEx history, was on its feet, expecting a touchdown and overtime. The next moment, the whole house had fallen silent, except for small pockets of brave Giants fans cheering, as safety James Butler led a phalanx of Giants who stormed Betts and his blockers behind the line. That last play was fitting because, in the second half, the Redskins' offense was pathetic: conservative, inefficient and, with the game on the line in the final drive, often alarmingly disorganized.

"We didn't give our defense any help. We went three and out, three and out," Betts said.

Actually, the Redskins gained only 15 yards in their first four possessions of the second half. Meanwhile, the Giants were mounting 200 yards of offense, completing drives of 61 and 62 yards with one-yard touchdown plunges and tying the game at 17. The Redskins' third possession of the second half ended in a punt after Clinton Portis dropped a third-down pass in the flat. The next time the Redskins got the ball, quarterback Jason Campbell fumbled it away on second down while trying to hand it to Portis, one of three fumbles Campbell was charged with on a day when he completed 16 of 34 passes for 190 yards and one touchdown.

That fumble was especially unnerving. It gave the Giants the ball at the Washington 44-yard line in a deadlocked game with 7 minutes 33 seconds to play. After a third-down pass interference penalty on Shawn Springs kept the drive alive, 6-foot-5 wide receiver Plaxico Burress caught what appeared to be a harmless short hitch pass in the left flat; however, the defense had been on the field far too long.

As running back Rock Cartwright said: "If you don't give the defense a chance to rest . . . eventually something is going to break. And it did."

What broke was the tackling of defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Sean Taylor who both ended up missing Burress as he broke free for what proved to be the game-winning 33-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning.

Almost every memory from the second half of this game will bring a Redskins shudder. In Washington's final drive, the Redskins began from the New York 35-yard line with 2:19 to play. Campbell completed passes of 25, 18, 15 and 20 yards on that drive -- a total of 78 yards. Yet the Redskins ended up one yard shy. How is that possible? Center Casey Rabach had both a holding and a false start penalty, one of them negating a long gain. Campbell also took a loss after fumbling a snap in the shotgun when the ball simply hit him in the chest when he wasn't paying attention.

Those foul-ups were simply emblematic of an entire afternoon of mistakes at the worst time. "We just have to learn to finish," defensive tackle Phillip Daniels said. "Go up the first half, 17-3, and end up losing the game -- that's crazy. Right now, I'm speechless. You don't get a second opportunity in this league.

"We're still a good team," added Daniels.

That is almost true. The Redskins are close to being a good team. But that has been the case several times in the last decade, yet often those teams self-destructed, often beginning the process with a defeat much like yesterday's brutal loss.

The Redskins' final four plays will be scrutinized hardest. First down was used to stop the clock with a spike because the Redskins were out of timeouts, having used them all in the Giants' previous possession. Should one timeout have been saved, letting the two-minute warning stop the clock instead? In the final 51 seconds, just one timeout could have prevented a general lack of poise by the offense. "Everything was happening so fast," said Betts. It always does. Except for truly polished teams.

On second down, the Redskins called a pass in the flat to 284-pound fullback Mike Sellers, seldom used as a pass receiver. Campbell threw slightly behind him and Sellers dropped the ball. On a team with so many highly paid offensive weapons, including recently re-signed star tight end Chris Cooley, it was curious to see the ball aimed at Sellers and handed to Betts twice in the final minute.

"We spiked the ball, then we called what we thought were our [three] best plays," Gibbs said.

Nevertheless, almost nothing about the final 2:19 seemed like what Gibbs has, in the past, called "a smooth operation" on offense. Part of that is the herky-jerky rhythm associated with the development of any young quarterback like Campbell. But when, since Gibbs returned, have the Redskins looked half as smooth as they always seemed to be in Gibbs's first term?

Brutal defeats late in a season can be killing. Loses that leave a team at 2-1, facing the Lions next, should not be devastating. With two weeks to meditate on their sins, the Redskins may emerge a tougher team.

But they won't be 3-0. And they should have been.

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