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Hold 'Em, Or Fold 'Em

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By Mike Wise
Monday, November 26, 2007

TAMPA If a coach goes against the book and his own play-it-safe nature, it's got to work. If Joe Gibbs goes for it on fourth down and a little more than the length of the football from the 4-yard line, his confidence in his offense has to be rewarded with at least a first down, if not six points. At least.

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Anything else, he's former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez on the mound too long against the New York Yankees. Anything but a first down, he's leaving himself open to monumental second-guessing, which Gibbs faces today.

At the time, with the Redskins trailing 19-10 in a game they would lose by two field goals, a gamble of just that magnitude seemed a plausible way to fuel a comeback and seize momentum.

Really, why shouldn't the man go down with a scrap on his 67th birthday? If he's going to be labeled Mr. Rogers in a burgundy-and-gold ballcap -- and Greater Washington is going to forget Gibbs's aerial days of old, all the reverses and deep throws downfield -- why not remind them of his guile and gumption before the whole season implodes?

Furthering the rationale, if a coach asks his team to come up big, at what point does he have to put himself on the line?

In hindsight, it was a hasty, very un-Gibbslike decision that likely cost his team its sixth victory. In hindsight, Gibbs has to take this loss on the chin for that call.

Now the season is five games from over and the backstretch is not just about a playoff run; it's feels like a two-minute drill to refurbish a legacy. The more these maddening losses become like a broken record, the more the next month becomes less about the team and more about Gibbs and whether he will return to finish the final year of his contract.

That's a flat-out distraction. And as much as it is brought on by us jackals in the media, it surely was brought on by that call. On the road. Against one of the stingiest defenses in pro football -- a team that Sunday won the takeaway game, 6-nil.

When Clinton Portis was stopped cold and the Buccaneers took over with 2 minutes 10 seconds left in the quarter, Gibbs's decision essentially made Jason Campbell have to score a touchdown in the final minutes -- or else.

Instead of helping a young quarterback win a game by marching his team downfield into field goal range on successive drives -- which happened (and would have at least tied the game and sent it to overtime) -- Gibbs put major pressure on Campbell a week after the 25-year-old wept in the locker room after a failed comeback against the Cowboys.

Campbell threw two interceptions in Tampa Bay territory in the last four minutes, which is exactly the kind of finish that contributes to a crisis of confidence in a young player. And Campbell is playing too well and doing too much for this team to have many more late-game meltdowns. He certainly didn't need to have this one.

Before their latest infuriating finish to date, the Redskins went 66 yards in seven minutes of the third quarter for nothing.


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