By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007
Brian Westbrook's 57-yard prance to the end zone late in the fourth quarter did not decide this football game -- the plot was far too convoluted -- but it was a rare virtuoso performance on an afternoon of blunders. Westbrook, like a cross between a ballet dancer and a sprinter, turned a simple screen pass into a backbreaking excursion, stunning players on both sidelines and putting the Philadelphia Eagles ahead for good.
Without it, perhaps Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs would not have been asked about coaching decisions, wasted timeouts, penalties and another blown lead after a 33-25 defeat at FedEx Field. The outcome rejuvenated an important rival -- at 4-5 the Eagles are alive in the NFC -- and stunted the Redskins (5-4) ahead of road tests at Dallas and Tampa. The Redskins committed 11 penalties -- the defense extended drives with third-down infractions; the offense succumbed to procedural mistakes near the goal line -- and for the 13th time since 2004 they lost a game in which they led at the half, most in the NFL.
"We've got to learn how to put the dog away, point blank," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "I felt like we were the better team, but they played better, and guess what happened? They won the game off our mistakes."
Gibbs said he remains baffled by the second-half letdowns -- "I don't think anyone has the answer to that," he said -- and fretful over mounting injuries. Wide receiver James Thrash's superb effort was ended by a high ankle sprain and the Eagles posted 158 yards and four touchdowns after Sean Taylor, the anchor of a deep zone defense, sprained his knee late in the third quarter. Beyond that, the offense again failed to cap drives with touchdowns (settling for field goals from the 3 and 5; fumbling at the 29), to cloud quarterback Jason Campbell's 16th start.
Westbrook, too, rose above the muck. The DeMatha graduate accounted for 183 combined yards and scored three touchdowns, reaching the end zone to open and close this game. Westbrook touched the ball seven times on the Eagles' opening drive, for 47 yards, including a four-yard touchdown catch. Smoot aided that possession with an illegal contact penalty on third down, and though he claims receiver Kevin Curtis ran directly into him, Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, has been infuriated by the recent rash of third-down penalties.
"Don't put [the referee] in position to have to make good call or a bad call," Williams said. "That's our fault."
The Redskins answered in the second quarter on Thrash's third-down touchdown catch (it was Campbell's first touchdown pass to a wide receiver since last December, a span of 44-plus quarters), but Shaun Suisham missed the extra point. The miss prompted Gibbs to try a two-point conversion after Campbell and Thrash hooked up for a 12-yard touchdown on Washington's next drive (Thrash also caught two 31-yard passes on that drive -- Washington's first receptions of that length since Oct. 7).
With no one open, Campbell threw the ball away on the conversion attempt, but should have forced the pass since an interception cannot be returned. Gibbs said he "felt good" about the decision to try the conversion rather than kick the extra point, but the Redskins led just 12-7 at the half. The Redskins opened the second half with a drive, but fullback Mike Sellers mistimed his leap on third and one at the 5, and was stuffed. Gibbs opted to call a timeout before kicking the field goal "to make sure we were squared away," he said.
Taylor hurt his knee on the following drive -- his 15-yard face mask penalty moved the Eagles to the 11 as well -- and rookie safety LaRon Landry failed to get inside position on tight end L.J. Smith's eight-yard touchdown catch to cut the deficit to 15-13 ("That's a young mistake," Williams said). The Redskins countered with their last touchdown.
Gibbs finally let Campbell orchestrate more of the offense, going no-huddle in the shotgun continually ("He seemed to take right to it," Gibbs said). Campbell was 7 for 9 for 57 yards and a touchdown in the no-huddle, and hit veteran Keenan McCardell for another third-down touchdown and a 22-13 lead. But cornerback Shawn Springs negated a second-and-20 with an illegal-contact penalty and quarterback Donovan McNabb tossed a ball up for grabs into double coverage, swinging the game again. Linebacker London Fletcher fell, safety Pierson Prioleau turned the wrong way, and wide receiver Reggie Brown caught the ball for a 45-yard touchdown.
The Redskins moved at will on their next drive, but at the 29 Gibbs put the ball in tailback Ladell Betts's hands for the only time all day; he was twisted around, whacked by safety Quintin Mikell and fumbled (Gibbs's challenge failed, erasing the final timeout). Defensive end Andre Carter forced McNabb to fumble on the next play and the Redskins recovered at the Philadelphia 24.
Tailback Clinton Portis (30 carries for 137 yards; 66 rushes the past two weeks) worked it down to the 2, but tight end Chris Cooley's false start on third down pushed the ball back to the 7, and rather than pass, the coaches called a draw play for Portis. "We felt like they might be playing soft there," Gibbs said of the Eagles' defense, but Portis did not get close, and the ensuing field goal provided a 25-20 lead with less than five minutes to play.
Westbrook overcame that on a seven-second burst, covering 57 yards and ravaging an entire defense. He caught the ball a few yards downfield on the right flank, with three linemen harassing McNabb, who held the ball as long as possible to draw them near. The Redskins were in man-to-man defense, with much of the secondary shadowing wide receivers or tight ends downfield, and linebacker Rocky McIntosh was immediately blocked by guard Shawn Andrews.
Tackle Cornelius Griffin was the only Redskin within arm's reach of Westbrook near midfield, but tackle Jon Runyan upended him. Westbrook was free to slash left and sprint off. Landry had half a chance at the 7. "I didn't notice it was a screen," Landry said, "and once I saw him, he made a nice cutback and that was it."
The Eagles failed on a conversion -- they led 26-25 -- and Campbell was hit and fumbled on the next drive. With the Eagles at the 10, Williams gave Fletcher and Prioleau strict instructions. "If they're not smart enough to take a knee, let them score," Williams said. So Westbrook waltzed into the end zone, keeping it a one possession game with over two minutes to play. But there were no timeouts and the offense sputtered.