By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Nov. 4 Once again victory came by a few spinning lengths of a football climbing toward the goalpost on Sunday afternoon. This time, for the Washington Redskins, the ball dropped through and it mattered not to the players in white jerseys, delightedly holding their helmets aloft, that this 23-20 victory came in overtime against the New York Jets, a team widely considered to be the second worst in the NFL's American Football Conference.
Nor was it of great importance that one of their other five wins this year was also in overtime, also by a field goal over the only team worse than the Jets -- the Miami Dolphins. And the fact that the Jets and Dolphins have combined for all of one victory halfway though this season wasn't even discussed in their joyous march beneath the Giants Stadium stands toward their locker room.
"You're not going to apologize for victories," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said.
All that seemed of interest to Washington's coaches and players was that they reached the midpoint at 5-3, which, given the precarious nature of their conference and division, puts them in far better position for a playoff run than a 4-4 record and a loss to the Jets would have done.
That is probably why Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs stood in a tiny room late Sunday afternoon and, after being asked about his emotions of the moment, said, "I'd say right now it's euphoria, but it's relief right along with it."
It had been a tough week. The team flew home from a 52-7 trampling by the New England Patriots in despair. A once-promising season was threatening to fall apart. The players were mocked for their inability to stop the Patriots from scoring and felt humiliated when the points kept piling up. Within hours of returning, messages flew around the team headquarters calling for players-only meetings.
Soon there were several. There was a meeting of just the offensive players in the Redskins Park auditorium. Then one for the defense and one for special teams. This was in addition to the main team meeting run by Gibbs. Some players compared the meetings with the team-wide address made by Gibbs last November in which he declared the Redskins would become a running team. The speech was later seen as a turning point in establishing a run-first style that Gibbs likes to call "Redskin football."
Other players were less moved by Monday's meetings. "I guess if some players felt we needed to air something out, it was good we had it," said guard Pete Kendall, who came to the Redskins from the Jets just before the season.
But everyone agreed they had reestablished an identity. The word they used to describe it was "physical."
In the offensive meeting, called by wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a decision was made to hit opposing players harder, to push the line forward and to make the running game work. Several players spoke. Many took blame for things that weren't working. Then the coaches delivered a game plan Wednesday that had been pared down from the original cutting of the offense put together by Al Saunders, the associate head coach-offense.
Ultimately on Sunday, it seemed to work as the Redskins ran and ran and ran at the Jets, chipping away at New York's early 17-3 lead.
"Once we had success with a play, we ran the same play 15 times," said tackle Todd Wade.
Most of the plays were runs pretty much up the middle of the Jets' defense. Eventually they led to 196 yards rushing by running back Clinton Portis and another 64 by his backup, Ladell Betts.
"That was more the look of what I envision Redskin football to be," Gibbs said.
This was, however, the Jets. And even if Washington fought back from 14 points down and established some version of what Gibbs envisions "Redskin football" to be, the fact remains the Redskins simply survived against a team they were supposed to beat. This has happened often this year, with narrow victories over Miami, Arizona and now the Jets. The team's only decisive win was 34-3 over the Detroit Lions in early October.
Otherwise the offense has not scored much. No wide receiver has a touchdown catch. Until Sunday, Portis hadn't really broken free in a game and there seemed much confusion and debate in the team headquarters as to whom the lead running back should be, Portis or Betts.
Still, a solid defense has helped carry Washington. Sunday, it was more aggressive and delivered jarring hits, something many players feel it has to do for them to dominate teams in the second half of the season. While the Redskins won on this day, few players acted as if they controlled the game. "It felt like we had a hangover from the New England game when we started," Fletcher said.
But survival is a large part of life in the NFL. Sunday, the Redskins trailed for most of the game, took a small lead and saw it disappear right before the end of regulation. Even with Shaun Suisham's 46-yard game-winning field goal in overtime, it was far too close for a game against a team with one victory. A significantly harder schedule looms in the second half of the season.
And only so many games can be won by the length of a ball flying toward the goalposts.