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Hold 'Em, Or Fold 'Em

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.

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.

Never has a game been more of a metaphor for the parity of the NFC, where no pedestrian team is ever out of a game. The Redskins somehow lost four fumbles on their first five possessions. Think about the failure rate there: They lost the ball 25 percent of the time in their first 16 snaps. And they still nearly plucked this one from the trash and started a push toward playing in January.

They have now lost three straight winnable games, and Gibbs has to sleep with the knowledge that a chip-shot three points at the end of the third quarter Sunday might have gotten his reeling team over the hump. He has to live with the fact that Campbell's job could have been easier on those last two possessions.

Of course, he did his best to justify the decision, saying "that was the smart call" and adding that it was one "he had to make." Campbell, he said, had an option to run a quarterback sneak for what he said he was "inches."

"I thought, 'Hey, if we get that then we have a chance to score right there and I felt like we could get it,' " he said, and he meant it.

Several players were unsure of the distance, but a review of game footage showed the distance to the first down to be a smidgen over the length of a football. When Doug Williams, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for Gibbs and now a Tampa Bay scout, was asked what he would have done in a similar situation, he smiled wryly and replied, "I'm not going to answer that one." Although I had no quibble with the call at the time, with how everything played out -- how well Shaun Suisham was kicking and how well Campbell was moving the ball -- it became another Gibbs gamble that disastrously backfired.

It became another, almost awkward moment to question a man who probably last fielded these kinds of what-are-you-doing inquiries when he was 0-5 in his rookie year as Redskins coach in 1981.

The most telling moment for how much this is grating on Gibbs came as he was speaking in a small, makeshift news conference room at Raymond James Stadium. He was asked about Campbell's throwing motion and the way he holds the ball -- and whether that contributed to his first-half fumble. Gibbs cut the questioner off, anticipating that he was being grilled about whether he should have challenged the play, which he unsuccessfully did.

Before he actually addressed Campbell's plight, he launched a preemptive -- and unnecessary -- defense of another in-game decision. Sad, no? It's as if he were almost waiting for the media to pounce on him. Somehow, the whole exchange didn't seem right or dignified for a plain-spoken Hall of Famer, born 67 years ago Sunday.

But then, neither did that call at the end of the third quarter. Neither did this game. After this day, this whole season is beginning to feel wrong.

Five games left to salvage everything. That's it. The Redskins run the table like 2005, they're in. They finish 3-2 or worse, they're probably out -- and Gibbs has a much bigger decision than fourth down and the length of a football.

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