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It's All Up in the Air

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 22, 2007

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald began leaping on the sideline as the Arizona Cardinals' field goal attempt sailed toward the goal post, throwing his arms over his head and running onto the field to celebrate what he was certain would be a come-from-behind victory over the Washington Redskins, a win built on a relentless comeback from a 14-0 deficit and the recovery of a perfectly executed onside kick with just 20 seconds to play.

After all, why shouldn't he and his teammates celebrate a victory over a Washington team they had bettered in almost every area, outgaining it by more than 200 yards (364-160), besting it by a 73-47 margin in plays and, from the late second quarter onward, dominating it in nearly every area. Why, if that two-point conversion hadn't failed with 26 seconds to play, they would already have tied the score and would be headed toward overtime. But 55 yards is a long way, just as an NFL season can seem interminable with all of its complex last-minute games in which, one week, you feel like you threw away a victory while, the next, you escape with a win you're not certain you deserve.

Neil Rackers's kick was long enough to be good from 60 yards, but, at the last second, it curved wide left and failed by a foot at most. So, Washington danced with the same kind of relief at its 21-19 triumph that Green Bay felt last week when the Redskins outgained them and outplayed them but lost by an infuriating three points because of a fluke touchdown on a fumble return off a gadget play. The Redskins pounded each other on the shoulder pads, laughed and headed up the tunnel at FedEx Field as delighted as the New York Giants were four weeks ago when the Redskins had first and goal at their 1-yard line with a minute to play but couldn't send the game into overtime.

Occasionally this season, the Redskins will play one-sided games, like their 34-3 win over the Lions at home earlier this month. And, with an offensive line composed of players who barely know each other's first names, lopsided defeats may be inescapable, too. If they play no better in New England on Sunday than they did against the Cardinals, they will probably lose by several touchdowns. How many? Pick your favorite single-digit number. Oh, the Redskins know that.

"We hurt ourselves today. We can't keep doing that," said middle linebacker London Fletcher, probably the team's most valuable player so far and the star of this game with a 27-yard touchdown on an interception return and 13 tackles. "We need to take a hard look at ourselves. The Patriots are not going to beat themselves. Any weakness we've shown they will try to take advantage of. It will take tunnel vision and focus. It will take a valiant effort because right now they are playing exceptional football."

Actually, some fairly valiant football may be required for the next five weeks because the Redskins will play four of those games on the road: at New England (7-0), at the New York Jets (1-6), at home against Philadelphia (2-4), at Dallas (6-1), and at Tampa Bay (4-3).The early-season parade of wins at FedEx against such manageable victims as Miami, Detroit and Arizona is now officially over. There's only one marshmallow left on the schedule -- Buffalo at home in December. So the refrain by every Redskin after this game, starting with Coach Joe Gibbs, was obvious: "We have to play better."

Still, there's a lot to be said for winning ugly, for battling when your offensive line is in shreds and for a defense -- now No. 1 in the NFC in fewest points allowed per game -- that hangs together fiercely on a warm day, refusing to fold when its offense is nonexistent.

"You take a win any kind of way you can get it," said quarterback Jason Campbell, who was held under 100 yards passing on his home field (12 for 18 for 95 yards), a rarity in the NFL. By comparison, Mark Brunell, when young, was not held under 100 yards until his 62nd start. "We appreciate the defense's efforts. They continue to keep fighting. One day, [the defense] is going to count on us."

But that day may not be soon because the Redskins' running game, assumed to be the team's strength before the season, barely exists after being held to 73 yards on 28 carries (a 2.6-yard average). Clinton Portis gained only 43 yards on 18 tries, including two short scoring runs and candidly conceded, "I don't think I'm getting everything out of the runs that I should. This is the healthiest I've felt. I'm glad I have five touchdowns [this season], but it should probably be nine or 10.

"If we ever get 11 guys healthy together on offense and defense, we're going to cause somebody trouble. But, for now, we'll battle."

And most of that battle will be carried by the defense. The Redskins actually amassed more yards on their two interception returns -- Fletcher's score and a 48-yard return by Sean Taylor to set up the Redskins' first touchdown -- than they did running the football (75 to 73). The single biggest key to the improvement of that defense has been Fletcher, who may, in six games, have established himself as the Redskins' best middle linebacker in the last 50 seasons.

Granted, except for an aging version of Sam Huff in '64 and the hard-hitting but limited Neal Olkewicz, the Redskins have not had a star at middle linebacker. But now fans can finally see some of what electrified followers of players like Mike Singletary, who seem to have a sixth sense for finding the ball.

"London has great excitement. You'd think a guy that has done all the things he's done wouldn't have the enthusiasm of a rookie," Gibbs said. "He sits in the front row of the meeting room, knows every single call. After practice, sometimes he'll even correct [assistant head coach-defense] Gregg Williams and say, 'You know, that wasn't supposed to be that way.'

"He's a bona fide leader and a great producer. I can't brag about him enough."

If Fletcher, 32, isn't the central personality on the team, he's getting close. Others on the defense wear shoes with yellow toes, yellow stripes, white streaks and stripes -- everything but afterburners. Fletcher's are just black. Twice yesterday, he broke up passes deep over the center of the field with huge hits. Once, on the goal line, he blitzed to ring up a runner for a loss. Twice, he stopped third-down plays with tackles in the open field and forced punts. And once, he got so excited after obliterating a receiver who dropped the ball that he was penalizing for taunting the Cardinals' bench.

"Absolutely ridiculous," Fletcher said of the call. "He was just getting the crowd into it, not taunting," said Gibbs.

Whatever. The fire burns. "London's invaluable. He played spectacularly today, but you don't see everything he does. His 'checks' in the run game and 'alerts' against the pass -- he's getting everybody around him to play at a high level," Williams said of Fletcher's ability to play his position and verbally tip others before the snap. "He fires us up. Coaches can say [the same] things. But it means more when it comes from a warrior who's there bleeding with you."

In far too many of the last 15 years, including last season, far too many Redskins have overestimated themselves, talked a better game than they played, anointed themselves offseason champions and then showed up flat against beatable teams.

Fletcher, finally, is a free agent who is the antithesis of this pattern.

"We are not good enough to look past anybody," Fletcher said of this narrow escape that gave the Redskins a 4-2 record. What does he see in the team around him? "We can be great. Or go the other way."

In the next five weeks, that direction will be determined.

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