Wide Kick, Narrow Win
Monday, October 22, 2007
At precisely 4:04 p.m. yesterday, the kick that could break the Washington Redskins' season began its long flight off the foot of the Arizona Cardinals' Neil Rackers. And as it twirled through the late afternoon sunlight, something died for a moment inside Ladell Betts.
"I thought it was good," the Redskins running back later said.
So, it seemed, did most of the 85,640 fans at FedEx Field, many of whom gave the same strange reaction when the ball made a last-second turn, sailing harmlessly just left of the goal post, thus preserving the most precarious of Washington wins this year, 21-19. They neither screamed nor jumped nor danced happy jigs in the stands.
Rather they gave a great sigh of relief and left quietly, gratefully toward the parking lots.
There are, in football seasons, games like these -- ones in which disaster comes pouring downfield and a victory once-ensured slips rapidly away. The Redskins have had their share of these so far in 2007. In fact, it could be said that five of their six games have followed something of the same script. But this could have been the worst. Because they had dominated the Cardinals for three quarters, squelching one of the league's most talent-laden offensive attacks to lead 21-6. Then in the fourth it all came apart.
Two touchdowns, a near-miss on a two-point conversion, a recovered onside kick, two completed passes and suddenly Rackers was lining up for the 55-yard field goal that would steal the day and somehow the Redskins didn't know how it had gotten to be like this.
Later, cornerback Fred Smoot grumbled in the locker room that he and his teammates could not keep allowing these games to unravel. "Finish it off" is a phrase the Washington players often use to describe games in which they appear to be in control early. They had come close to not finishing "it off."
"Once you got the dog down you got to kill it," Smoot said.
Much like the rest of his teammates, Smoot had the same empty sensation as Rackers's game-winning attempt climbed into the sky. From the edge of the field, the kick looked like it had sailed through the goal posts. But Smoot has sweated through enough of these near-defeats to know not to watch the ball in such situations. Look instead for the fans behind the goal posts. They have the best view. Their reactions won't lie.
And when enough arms raised into the air he knew the Redskins had survived.
Then as they gathered in their locker room beneath the FedEx Field stands, Coach Joe Gibbs came in and told them that over all his years of coaching he has learned not to question victories when they come. They are precious entities, he said. Each to be cherished.
"Take it," the players said he said. "A win is a win."
But none might have taxed his team more than yesterday's. Washington needed it desperately after fumbles and dropped passes cost it a chance to win at Green Bay last week. A loss yesterday would have dropped the Redskins to 3-3 and thrown Washington significantly behind Dallas and the New York Giants in the NFC East. And while the Cardinals have been besieged by injuries, most notably at quarterback -- Matt Leinart is out for the season and yesterday's starter, Kurt Warner, has torn ligaments in his left (non-throwing) elbow -- Washington's offensive line has been torn to bits with a variety of ailments.
Yesterday, only left tackle Chris Samuels and left guard Pete Kendall had started the season at their positions, everything else was makeshift. Mike Pucillo started at center, Jason Fabini at right guard and Todd Wade at right tackle. For a group of players that rely more on precision and unity than raw talent, it put the Redskins in a tight spot.
Still none said he felt the offense had been pared down to accommodate the patched-together line. Betts insisted the plays were the same ones they had run before. Kendall, who arrived in training camp, said he hadn't been around long enough to know what the coaches might have held back, but also seemed to think the team was running a normal load of unique plays.
Washington had more success than might have been expected. It did manage 160 offensive yards, which is a small number for most winning teams in the NFL but nonetheless larger than the situation might have dictated. In the end, it was just enough.
And it was up to the team's defense, which has been its strength most of the year, to win this one. At times it was outstanding, such as when linebacker London Fletcher made several critical tackles that ended Cardinals drives, or defensive tackle Kedric Golston blocked the extra point on Arizona's first touchdown that forced the Cardinals to go for a two-point conversion near game's end to try and tie, providing the difference in the final score.
Yet there were also moments like the personal foul Fletcher received for supposedly taunting the Cardinals after one crucial tackle (a charge he denied) and the inability in the final quarter to stop the 36-year-old, broken Warner, who had 211 passing yards in the second half.
"We won but I think we could have finished better," Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels said.
Nonetheless, as Gibbs told them to, they took it. With a game at New England next week against the league's presumed top team, Washington needed to be 4-2, with an ability to withstand a loss to the Patriots and still remain in playoff contention.
"Sometimes it's luck, sometimes you maintain injuries, sometimes you like to flatter yourself and think some of it is execution" of your own plays, Kendall said in describing the way teams win close games. "But you look at today and I'm not going to talk myself blue in the face and say we 'out-executed the Cardinals.' "
In the end they survived.
By the edge of a ball sailing past a goal post.