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Too Close For Comfort

By Mike Wise
Monday, October 22, 2007

This was more than an on-the-ledge win to avert a Week 7 embarrassment. If the Redskins don't survive yesterday's game, it's not a reach to call it the beginning of the end, a defining moment that would set in motion Coach Joe Gibbs's second retirement from coaching after this season.

It would have been another blown double-digit lead and a devastating home loss. Followed by defeat in New England next Sunday, it would put the Redskins at 3-4.

With four of the next five games on the road -- including at the Patriots, at Dallas and at Tampa Bay -- the postseason would be an afterthought by December. Bill Cowher's agent would soon get a call from this and other newspapers. And Gibbs would spend a solid month talking about everything but his football team. The indignity of that alone might put him over the edge before his maddening team.

The worst-case scenario for the loyalist is still out there. But yesterday's escape against the Arizona Cardinals gives Washington a real reprieve at 4-2, in a conference where 9-7 or 8-8 might mean playoff-bound, in an NFL where the difference between euphoria and starting over can come down to a couple of inches.

"That's where the league is right now," Gibbs said after yesterday's 21-19 Redskins victory.

He's right. Beyond the Patriots playing Star Wars and Indianapolis looking like a defending Super Bowl champion, there are a lot of question marks in the NFL that make for good drama. Tampa Bay might be the second-best team in the NFC -- and the Buccaneers lost yesterday to a Detroit team that looked dreadful here two weeks ago.

But among slim margins for error, nowhere has that line been more visible than in Washington.

There is a natural lament around 'Skinsville because the home team is not 5-1 -- or even 6-0 -- heading to Foxborough to face the Patriots. Indeed, a late stop or inventive play-call from the 1-yard line against the Giants last month and a knockout punch thrown against the Packers while they were reeling on Oct. 14 makes a genuine case for perfection.

But it goes the other way, too. The Redskins are this close to being 1-5. They barely got by Miami and Philadelphia in the first two weeks of the season, and yesterday finally got to old man Kurt Warner in the fourth quarter to avert a touchdown and a possible two-point conversion that would have tied the score at 21.

Even after Andre Carter sacked Warner and Phillip Daniels recovered the fumble, some of the late-game execution was awful. Needing to kill the clock with less than four minutes left, the Redskins embarked upon a possession the somehow lasted 48 seconds. Forty-eight seconds! Quarterback Jason Campbell threw dangerously downfield on a second down and running back Clinton Portis inexplicably ran out of bounds on third down to save precious seconds for Arizona. Somehow, they survived.

"I think of it as golf," veteran offensive lineman Pete Kendall said. "You hit a ball one time bad off the tee, it hits a tree and you wind up in the middle of the fairway. You don't spend much time grousing about the ball being in the middle of the fairway. But you do spend all that time complaining about the eight-footer that slides right by.

"I think we have had some eight-footers that slid by. But [today] the ball bounced off the tree and ended up in the middle of the fairway. You put the cover on the driver, march right down the fairway and act like that's how you aimed it -- just as you expected. And you move on. And that's what we have to do."

Bless Al Saunders's heart. Gibbs said he called an excellent game yesterday. But Gregg Williams should just grab the title of assistant head coach defense and offense. Because when the Redskins' defense is on the field lately, it seems to be Washington's best opportunity to score. The cut-and-paste offensive line helped pile up 160 yards of total offense, and all five of the Redskins' second-half first downs came on one drive in the third quarter.

There are games NFL teams can't lose, and this was one of them. The ramifications of giving the Cardinals this gift would have reverberated beyond this week.

Bottom line, I don't think Gibbs returns as coach if the Redskins do not return to the playoffs and win at least a game. This is just a hunch, but I don't think he would want to come back if he couldn't right the ship any better than that after four years.

The reservoir of goodwill built up after three Super Bowls is running dry among some season ticket holders, who feel the franchise is trapped in the past. Gibbs will rightfully always be revered as St. Joe around here, but even the most loyal congregations eventually find someone else to deliver the sermon when they feel the man behind the pulpit is overworked and has done all he can.

The feeling here is owner Daniel Snyder would trumpet the stability Gibbs has brought to the organization and the legendary coach would either move upstairs or aside.

That all might be in the offing at some point, but any speculation relating to such developments will have to wait for another day.

At 4-2 and taking a feared defense to New England, this was a good afternoon for the Redskins to, like Kendall said, march down the fairway as if this is how they planned it.

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