By Mike Wise
Monday, September 24, 2007
They had a team on the mat and let it up. Simple as that. And when I say "They," I mean the offense of the Washington Redskins. Jason Campbell's growing pains at quarterback. Casey Rabach's brain-lock at center. And Al Saunders's play-calling throughout the second half, which ranged from predictable in the third quarter to downright puzzling at the end.
It's wise of Joe Gibbs to talk about togetherness after one of the most galling losses since he came back to coach in 2004. But there are two sorts of culprits when you lose a two-touchdown lead at halftime at home -- the contributing kind and the obvious kind. And yesterday against a New York Giants team ready to drop, Gibbs's largest questions going forward have to be whether his offense can be complementary enough to not let his defense do all the work.
Pete Kendall, the Redskins' veteran left guard, heard all the usual themes as to why his team squandered the second half and this game, 24-17.
The one about overconfidence leading to a lapse in concentration -- "an awfully tempting angle to break this down from, but it's wrong. No one in here was thinking that way." How a franchise that made the term "Gut" iconic managed to employ three spread-the-field plays -- one pass and two dreadful runs by Ladell Betts -- on first and goal from the 1.
"We scored on that play earlier in the game," Kendall said. "The coaches must have seen something on film that made them think that was going to work. These guys have been calling plays forever. I'm not questioning that."
But he wouldn't debate overall poor execution. Three straight three-and-outs and an inability to move the ball in the final two quarters resulted in Eli Manning having 10 more minutes with the ball than Campbell.
"We left our defense out there an awful lot," Kendall said. "It doesn't matter how good your defense is and who you have out there. If they have to stay out there that long, we're not doing our job."
When you give up 21 points inside of 20 minutes, you need work defensively. Anyone who thought Gregg Williams's unit was back to 2005 form did not see the recurrence of the big play that killed Washington a year ago. But with three takeaways -- and nearly a fourth inside the 10-yard line that would have changed the game dramatically -- it's clear this defense is improved enough to win some games.
This was a much worse day for Saunders, the assistant head coach in charge of scripting the offensive game plan. I understand Kendall's logic, but it's hard to fathom why throwing the ball to Mike Sellers in the flat from the 1-yard line makes any sense with a shot at overtime on the line; Sellers couldn't hang on to that same pass in the first half.
It's harder to understand the reasoning behind not having Clinton Portis on the field for the final three plays on offense. Irrespective of him being involved in a poor exchange earlier in the game and his size in regard to going straight up the middle, this is one of the few backs in the league who smells the goal line when he gets close, whose hunger to score is just flat-out greater than most players in such circumstances.
The coaching staff can feel as good as they want about the plays called and the players who executed them, which Gibbs, being the good general, attested to afterward. That still doesn't explain why Portis didn't get a look, or the 6-foot-5 Campbell wasn't given the green light to try and sneak his frame and the ball across the goal line. Is there a bootleg play in that 750-page playbook? Because I would take Campbell around right end in that situation before I would take Betts going wide left or Sellers in the flat.
That offense did not register a first down in the second half until less than five minutes remained. It's easy to second-guess Saunders, who was obviously trying to protect a lead by calling a bevy of running plays in the third and early fourth quarter. But at what point is playing not to lose better than keeping an already rattled defense off balance so you can put the game away?
Campbell was credited with three fumbles (one lost) and overthrew Santana Moss again on a deep ball in the fourth quarter. He marched the Redskins to the 1 when it mattered, but he, his teammates and the coaching staff put themselves in crisis when they had enough time to organize a genuine tying drive.
The Redskins were out of timeouts, but Campbell inexplicably spiked the ball with 1 minute 15 seconds left -- plenty of time to get to the line of scrimmage and not waste a down. Rabach, meanwhile, was called for two penalties on the final drive -- reminiscent of the mental errors from Jason Fabini last Monday in Philadelphia prior to halftime.
Most of the front office and the fan base would take 2-1 in a heartbeat after last season's anemic start. So this might come across as knee-jerk given the progression from a year ago. But this offense has got to show more than it did against the Giants for any peek at respectability or an eventual return to the playoffs.
If they found out anything yesterday, it's they're not good enough to blow out even a bad team. There are no inferior opponents on the schedule. The Patriots could have showed up and won by at least two touchdowns against the Giants. The Redskins are in the middle of a very middling NFC, a conference flat-out for the taking.
They had every opportunity to put a woozy team away with a roundhouse right. The main reason they could not is because their offense failed to bring the hammer down and finish the job the defense started.