Minus One, Redskins Play On
Monday, December 3, 2007
All through yesterday's memorials, moments of silence and strings of Sean Taylor highlights, the Washington Redskins' defensive players held close a secret unknown to even Coach Joe Gibbs. It was a formation, devised the day before by Gregg Williams, the team's assistant head coach-defense. Its title a jumble of code save for the one word Williams placed in the middle: "Taylor." They would use it the first time they were on the field.
Drawn on paper, the play called for 10 living Redskins to fill their normal spots, with their dead teammate's name and his No. 21 marked in the 11th. As Williams handed it out Saturday night, he said that even though just 10 players would be on the field, the one missing would still be by their side.
"He was going to ride with us one more time," Williams said.
History will not look kindly upon the success of the Sean Taylor formation. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson took a handoff and ran 22 yards. Nor will it show the Redskins won their first game after Taylor's death from a gunshot wound Tuesday. Instead, a botched strategic move by Gibbs, who illegally called two consecutive timeouts to rattle Buffalo Bills place kicker Rian Lindell's nerves, allowed Lindell to kick an easy 36-yard field goal through a steady rain, giving Washington its fourth straight loss, 17-16.
As the game ended and what was left of the 85,831 fans, who filled FedEx Field clutching white towels with Taylor's 21 printed on the front, shuffled through the aisles, the Redskins' players jogged off the field with lips sealed and eyes staring straight ahead. Running back Rock Cartwright slammed his helmet on the ground. Then they came into their locker room with Taylor's locker preserved behind Plexiglas, his jersey in shoulder pads, ready to be worn, and heard Gibbs apologize to them for the mistake in calling the two timeouts at game's end.
It was, many of them would admit, a surreal moment on a day that never seemed right.
"Someone said to me earlier, 'Didn't you think you would have a fairy tale ending?' " guard Pete Kendall said. "I said win or lose it was not going to be a fairy tale ending."
Then he shook his head at the thought of the funeral today in Miami, which will be attended by the whole team.
"This is only going to get harder," he added.
Yesterday the sun never shined at FedEx. A damp cold filled the air as many fans pulled Taylor jerseys over heavy sweatshirts and jackets. The crowd seemed to arrive early, a constant mass gathering in front of a Taylor shrine near the team's store, staring at the collection of photographs, homemade signs and flowers spread under a makeshift tent. Then quietly it moved inside the stadium. Most of the stands were filled 20 minutes before kickoff when the scoreboard asked for silence and the Redskins band played "Goin' Home" a spiritual adapted from Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9.
Some fans dabbed at tears. A few cheered when a clip appeared of Taylor saying the best part of life in the National Football League was "playing home," in front of the fans in Washington. But mostly people were subdued. A banner that read "Forever on the Field. RIP Sean Taylor" fluttered from the upper deck. Among the many signs scattered through the stands were ones that said "God needed a safety" and "Heaven got one hell of a safety."
The mood did not improve as the game began. The Redskins' first play, a completed pass to wide receiver Reche Caldwell, drew a modest spattering of applause. Even when the team moved easily down field and kicked a field goal, the roar did not grow. In fact, it seemed the stadium never got loud, not until Washington scored the game's only touchdown, a third-quarter run by Clinton Portis who was one of Taylor's closest friends on the team.
But it wasn't until the day's last desperate few seconds, with Washington's game-long lead suddenly in jeopardy at 16-14, that the noise grew. Yet this is when Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards hit wide receiver Josh Reed with a 30-yard pass that gave the Bills hope and set up a 51-yard game-winning field goal attempt. Then Gibbs called his two timeouts.
The first was legal, coming just before Lindell struck the ball, and it forced the Bills' kicker to have to line up and try it again. The second was not allowed under the rules. The officials' flags flew. The ball was moved up 15 yards and a difficult kick became simple.
Later, Gibbs would say he asked the official standing next to him on the field if he was allowed to call consecutive timeouts in that situation and said he was told he could. He said the official asked him, "When do you want to call it?" But he also insisted the responsibility was his. "To be quite truthful, I made a decision there at the end that very likely cost us the game. That's on me," he said.
As he left his office beneath the stands and walked toward the interview room, Gibbs was met by the team's owner, Daniel Snyder, who had been unusually visible all week, flying to Miami on Monday to visit Taylor's bedside and delivering the news of the player's death to Gibbs and many others in the organization. As Snyder came toward the coach, Gibbs shook his head solemnly and apologized for the timeout calls.
"That's okay," Snyder replied. "We're all in this together."
While a few players seemed agitated by the timeout mistake, many others said they didn't blame their coach. It had been such a hard week. They were beyond such trivial things as criticizing Gibbs. "We shouldn't have let them get down there where they could kick that field goal," linebacker London Fletcher said.
He looked around the room, toward the locker tucked between the stalls of Shawn Springs and Pierson Prioleau, normally indistinguishable from the others but this time impossible to miss because of the glass covering that shined with the reflection of the room's lights.
Someone said the ending felt all wrong, as if somehow the Redskins should have been destined to win for all that had happened.
"It's not even fair," Fletcher said, agreeing. Then he laughed dryly. "Life isn't fair."
On the other side of the room, defensive end Phillip Daniels heaved his giant shoulders, sighed and said he was sure Taylor was on the field with them. He could feel his teammate, he said.
"I just wish he could have knocked that last ball down at the end," he said laughing. "But we don't blame him. We understand."