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The Road Will Tell

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 19, 2007

IRVING, Tex. After nightfall at Texas Stadium, against a 9-1 Dallas team with Super Bowl aspirations, the Washington Redskins and quarterback Jason Campbell showed Sunday that the core of their season and the heart of their playoff hopes still lie in front of them. Despite another brutally close defeat to an NFC East division rival, this time a 28-23 loss to the Cowboys that dropped their record to 5-5, the Redskins actually produced more reasons for hope than causes for fresh anguish.

If the team that battled the Cowboys on even terms is the same outfit that travels to Tampa Bay next week, to New York and Minnesota in December, then a victory or two on the road -- which are essential to compensate for squandered leads at FedEx Field this season against the Giants and Eagles -- are perfectly plausible.

However, if this stellar effort turns out to have been some sort of last-stand maximum-effort eruption that can't be repeated consistently, then draw your own conclusions but make sure to paint them in somber colors.

Some games show a team's limits, its patterns of repeated frustration and failure. A week ago at FedEx, the Redskins had to confront all those self-doubts after squandering a victory they thought was securely in their grasp. Other battles, on rare occasions even defeats like this one, show every cause for long-term optimism that a team can muster when it looks in the mirror.

In this seesaw brawl, worthy of all but the very best Redskins-Cowboys games of the past, Washington absorbed every punch the red hot Cowboys could throw, including four touchdown catches by Terrell Owens from quarterback Tony Romo. Yet with less than two minutes to play, it was an injured Washington team, led spectacularly at times by Campbell, who threw for a career-high 32 completions and 348 yards, that had their hated Texas rivals hanging on the ropes, dodging knockout punches.

Before their final-week rematch with Dallas, the Redskins will get back their ferocious safety Sean Taylor who has, at times, intimidated Owens into a severe case of alligator arms. And, next season, injured cornerback Carlos Rogers will return. If the Redskins, without half of their defensive backfield and still missing the right side of their offensive line, can scare the Pokes this badly, how demoralizing can their future be? That is, if too many losses like this don't snap their will.

In time, of course, this loss may simply be seen as part of a larger sinful syndrome for these Redskins. Once again, they lost a halftime lead, the 14th time since Joe Gibbs returned. Again, they made wake-up-screaming mistakes when on the verge of victory. This time, Campbell's only interception -- at the Cowboys' 19 with 1:50 to play -- was the killer.

"Until we learn to make those big plays, we're not going to be any better than we are right now. We're a 5-5 team," said center Casey Rabach. "We've got to go 6-5 next week."

Good teams are hard on themselves in defeat. And the Redskins haven't yet fallen into the bottomless chasm of accepting moral victories. Asked if Taylor's absence had been a deciding factor, especially against Owens, linebacker London Fletcher said, "Sean doesn't play cornerback or linebacker. So many others have to make plays, too. He means a lot to us. You just don't know."

Despite the sting of this loss, some games are so electric, some defeats so honorable that they actually boost the loser's self-esteem. "That crowd was so loud I didn't hear a thing all day. Playing in that hostile environment, Jason was amazing," said Redskins tackle Chris Samuels of Campbell, who led the Redskins to a 423-359 edge in yardage and a 28-19 margin in first downs. "As long as we go out and fight like that, we will be all right and we can make the playoffs."

This day almost certainly announced that Campbell, who threw two touchdown passes, and the flamboyant but sometimes reckless Romo will have years of gunslinger showdowns in their future. If Dallas is already certain that they have discovered their next "franchise" quarterback, then perhaps the Redskins are closer than they think to theirs.

"I'm really proud of Jason," said Gibbs. "Coming into this tough place, he handled it all, made some great plays. We think we've got an exceptional player there." Mark down "exceptional." Gibbs judgment of quarterbacks has been a hallmark and this day easily produced his greatest enthusiasm about Campbell's future.

Of course, Campbell could not shake the memory of the day's most crucial play. On third-and-10 from the Cowboys' 19-yard line, Campbell scrambled to his right, improvising as he'd done on successful runs for first downs twice before. In a blink, he thought he saw an open Antwaan Randle El and flipped a pass more in the style of Romo than his own more analytical play. "I probably should have run it," said Campbell, who saw Terence Newman jump the route and steal the pass. "I should have hit the safety, head-on-head."

In a Redskins season of nauseating near-misses and might-have-beens, this game contained one of the most haunting. Leading 10-7 in the third quarter, Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh appeared to make a diving interception of Romo and return it nearly 30 yards to the Cowboys' three-yard line. The Cowboys challenged the catch, hoping the ball had come loose and touched the ground as McIntosh tumbled on the ground.

The Cowboys won the challenge and instead of being three yards from a touchdown and a 10-point lead, the stunned Redskins defense was back on the field and was hit with a 51-yard pass interference penalty on the next play. Four plays after the reversal, Owens caught his 31-yard bomb behind Shawn Springs, adding to a collection of scoring catches that included four-, 46- and 52-yard efforts.

"Maybe [the referees] had a [TV] angle nobody else saw. That could be," said Gibbs, in the corner of the locker room. "But, let me tell you, I was in shock when they upheld the challenge. I thought it had to be conclusive to overturn it. 'Conclusive evidence' -- that's why we have replay."

The biggest issue from this game may be the Redskins' reaction to yet another dispiriting defeat. Next week in Tampa, when they will face a Buccaneers team with fewer weapons than the Cowboys, which Redskins will show up?

"We have a huge game next week," said Gibbs. "If we keep on playing like this, our season is [still] all in front of us."

If they don't, then three narrow heartbreaking losses to the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys, their bitter division rivals, will loom larger as their postseason hopes expire.

"We always fight for Coach Gibbs. You saw how we played for him today," said Samuels. "But we've just got to stop letting these games get away."

If they don't, then the memory of too many games like this -- years of them, it sometimes seems -- will be their playoff epitaph.

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