By Michael Wilbon
Monday, November 5, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. What happened six days earlier, on the Monday after the massacre, won't show up under yards rushing or tackles made. There's no way, exactly, to tell how serious self-examination six days earlier affected time of possession or a place kicker's accuracy in overtime Sunday against the New York Jets. But the Washington Redskins, particularly the coaches and old pros who've had to recover from football humiliation a time or two in their lives, knew the overtime victory here in the Meadowlands over the Jets couldn't have happened without some honest soul-searching 24 hours after Sunday's embarrassing loss in New England.
"People think bouncing back is more about effort," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "But bouncing back is more mental than physical. Folks think games are won on Sunday, but this game was won last Monday as much as it was today. Monday was critical. It's not like we had to beat the Patriots, but to lose like that? We didn't stand up as men last week, so there's no bouncing back without coming to grips with some things. We had to sort things out."
Of course, clearing the air doesn't mean a thing if the running game doesn't come together to produce nearly 300 yards rushing or if Shaun Suisham doesn't make that 46-yarder in overtime to win it. And we are talking about the 1-8 Jets, not the Patriots or Colts, or even the Packers or Cowboys. Still, the Redskins were smart enough the day after being whupped by the Patriots to know that they had to get their team in order, emotionally and psychologically, to bounce back to beat even the Jets.
Joe Gibbs, whose demeanor was "What, me worry?" was a poker face early in the week. But he admitted as much after sweating out the victory over the Jets.
"Everybody was so distraught and down," Gibbs said. Instead of grading the horror flick and dismissing everybody Monday, which is more or less customary in the NFL after such a putrid game, Gibbs put the players in pads Monday for practice and they took his cue.
Instead of moping or lashing out, the players did the smartest thing they could. They got introspective and beat themselves up pretty good. Smoot said the defensive backs began to meet with each other, then were absorbed into a bigger group when London Fletcher said everybody on the defense had to be accountable. Pretty soon, the offensive units joined in, and after that players met individually with each other to air issues. Then some met with Gibbs individually, then collectively, and individually again.
There's no way to keep track of all the meetings that took place Monday at Redskins Park. "They were there all day meeting with everybody," Gibbs said.
What impressed Gibbs most after the worst loss of his career was, "They took it dead serious and it showed on Monday."
As a result, what showed against the Jets on Sunday was a patience that has been absent too often this season and a resolve that shows up occasionally but not enough. The Jets were desperate, too, and surely thought they could have a moment of joy in their sorry season by beating the still unproven Redskins. They wanted to jump on top and did.
What we've seen too often from the Redskins after a game plan is set is quick abandonment and a jump to Plan B. Not Sunday. Down 14 in the second quarter, it would have been easy (and silly) to start throwing the ball all around the yard.
Instead Gibbs and Al Saunders stuck with running it. Portis, still the team' s best runner, responded with his best rushing day as a Redskin, 196 yards.
Ladell Betts ran nine times for 64 yards. Jason Campbell ran twice for 31 yards. In all, the Redskins ran 48 times for 296 yards, which allowed Campbell to throw it only 23 times. "That's more the look of what I envision Redskin football to be," Gibbs said.
The coach knew he couldn't promise to keep playing like this, but you could hear in his voice that he sure wants to. "Back to the look we'd like to have on offense," he said. "I think [the players] want to run it. Hopefully, that's something we're going to lean more heavily on as we go forward." Gibbs told the team emphatically before the game they had worked on running the ball in practice during the week too hard to not run productively against the Jets.
He and his veterans knew with a degree of certainty that even though the Jets were struggling mightily themselves and even though their young quarterback, Kellen Clemens, was making just his second NFL start, this would be a grind-it-out battle that would be far tighter than the teams' records might suggest. The Redskins aren't good enough to blow out anybody (okay, the Detroit game was an aberration) and weren't feeling sure enough about themselves in the wake of last week's beat-down to jump on any team -- not even the woeful Jets.
So, the Redskins got what they needed: a win by any means necessary.
Gibbs, who has been pretty grim after some victories in his life, was anything but Sunday. Asked how he felt, the coach used the word "euphoria," which knocked some veteran Gibbs watchers back on their heels. It's understandable he felt that way. Still, if you want to try to make sense of where the Redskins are halfway through their season, good luck.
They've needed overtime to defeat the Jets and Dolphins, teams with a combined 1-16 record. They needed a big dose of blind luck to defeat 3-5 Arizona at home. Their three losses have come to teams (Giants, Packers, Patriots) who are 22-3. They could be 6-2 (with a win over the Giants) or 2-6 (with losses to the Dolphins, Jets, and Cardinals).
You want to look at the good stuff from Sunday? The Redskins won on the road, coming from behind. They won the week after being bludgeoned in one of the worst losses in franchise history. They got the running game going the way it should have been the last two years. And the defense allowed only one touchdown (the other was that stunning kick return by Leon Washington to start the game).
You want to look at the bad stuff from Sunday? They gave up a touchdown on the first play of the game. They were down 14 points before halftime. The passing game was completely ineffective. They had to kick field goals in the red zone instead of scoring touchdowns -- again. They needed overtime to beat a 1-8 team with a new quarterback.
Here's what I'm ready to conclude about the Redskins at the midway point of the season:
All right, they've got resolve. They've got smart players who seem to not just understand but also accept the fact that one struggle after another can still result in a successful season. Does that mean they're going to beat Philly at FedEx Field next week? No. Does a 5-3 record at the midway point mean they'll finish 10-6? Does it even mean they'll make the playoffs? No and no. But it does mean they're alive in the NFC with half a season to go. Just seven days earlier, that was no safe bet.