Working Through Their Emotion

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 3, 2007

For generations of Washingtonians, "Hail to the Redskins" has always been played up-tempo, making your step quicker, your heart dance a bit more on a crisp football afternoon. The first notes alone are enough to start you humming.

But 20 minutes before kickoff yesterday at FedEx Field, as tens of thousands of fans stood in silence, the team's band stood at midfield and played "Hail to the Redskins" as a dirge, slow and mournful. Then, as quickly as the music had started, it stopped short in a version that was abbreviated, like the life of Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins' 24-year-old safety who was murdered this week.

If anyone in the full house had not cried yet, that "Hail" -- played as a farewell -- probably did the trick.

However, the tears to be shed yesterday afternoon were not over. On a day when sadness and tributes, enormous effort and utter disappointment were both on display in full measure, the Redskins ended the day with a 17-16 defeat as bitter to swallow in every respect as a mere game can be. Nobody said life had to be fair, but this is getting to be ridiculous.

At what may have been the saddest game in Redskins history, when 85,831 fans and the entire franchise tried to pay its best possible tribute to a slain teammate, perhaps the most respected person in team history -- Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs -- blundered in the final seconds, coming as close to losing a game as a coach ever will. After returning from retirement to help a staggering franchise, after his composure in leading his grieving team all week, this is what he gets?

By calling an illegal second consecutive timeout to ice the Buffalo place kicker -- a mandatory 15-yard penalty when the kicker is on the field -- Gibbs provided Rian Lindell with a manageable 36-yard game-winning field goal with four seconds left instead of a 51-yard attempt which, in a drizzle on a grass field on a chilly day, might have been a 50-50 proposition.

Of course, in character, he took the blame entirely. "To be quite truthful, I made a decision there at the end that very likely cost us the game," Gibbs said. "That's on me."

Unfortunately, Gibbs is completely correct.

"Coach Gibbs is a stand-up guy," said linebacker London Fletcher. "But for him to take responsibility isn't necessary. We all played a part in it." Many other Redskins generously covered their coach's back as well. But it doesn't change the facts.

Now, the Redskins will fly to Taylor's funeral today in Miami, then return to Washington to prepare for the next game which, diabolically enough, is Thursday night at FedEx Field.

All week, people throughout the NFL said that Taylor's death "put things in perspective." Perhaps this is the time for the Redskins to truly live by those words. They probably weren't going to the playoffs this season, much less the Super Bowl. After this disappointing season of narrow defeats is done, one loss, more or less, won't be remembered very long. So, instead of bitterness, maybe this depleted team, which gave its best after days of emotional duress, should cut itself some slack. What mattered most on this day -- the tribute the franchise organized and the effort Taylor's teammates gave -- was exemplary.

Ceremonies and symbols don't unravel death or turn back the clock. But paying sincere respects, in every possible form, is the best partial medicine that man has found for an incurable pain. To that end, the Redskins handled an eight-minute pregame tribute with restrained yet powerful confidence, helping the crowd and team come together in their mourning. A team that has often been criticized for crass over-production on game day somehow found the perfect tone when it mattered most.

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