By Michael Wilbon
Friday, December 7, 2007
Usually victory on any given Sunday, Monday or even Thursday is about all that matters in the NFL, whether it's the undefeated Patriots, winless Dolphins or everybody in between. Pro football, demanding as it is, doesn't waste a lot of time with context.
But the Washington Redskins have entered that rare athletic twilight zone where winning isn't everything. Yes, it helps. You could see that in the smiles after they beat the Chicago Bears, 24-16, last night. Still, winning is tempered, first because of tragedy, then sporting misfortune that leave tiny room or desire for a full feel-good victory celebration. "It's been such a struggle for us," Joe Gibbs said afterward. "It's been hard for anybody to laugh or have some fun."
As if it weren't trying enough to bury a teammate and play two games in a five-day span, the Redskins were hit with another disappointment last night, nothing tragic but nonetheless a downer, when quarterback Jason Campbell was carted from the field with a dislocated left patella. If there's good news in such a situation, it's that Campbell didn't appear to damage ligaments, though an MRI exam will be needed to determine the extent of the injury.
Surely, it says something tremendous about the Redskins and their spirit that they were able to rally emotionally and competitively in such a short time with so little preparation in the days after Sean Taylor's death, the crushing loss Sunday to the Buffalo Bills and Taylor's funeral Monday.
They put to shame the Bears, who were inadequately prepared and utterly inept, to the point even of being an embarrassment to their profession. If there's little joy under such circumstances, perhaps the Redskins found some solace or relief in winning.
But the victory, desperately needed, still doesn't change the fact that the Redskins reported to work this morning with a 6-7 record and their franchise quarterback's status up in the air.
It was a brutal evening from the outset of a game that should have been postponed until the weekend anyway. The Bears were plunged into their own disappointment when defensive tackle Antonio Garay was carted off the field with a leg injury. And as pitiful as Rex Grossman has played quarterback this season, nobody wanted to see his leg twisted under his body when he was crunched by Redskins defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, whose concerned face told the story of Grossman's injury.
Pretty soon that concern was directed inward. Campbell was sacked by Chicago's Mark Anderson and his leg was twisted in much the same way Grossman's was. While Grossman ultimately got up and walked to his bench, the Redskins' medical staff quickly placed an air cast on Campbell's left leg and carted him off the field.
Todd Collins came in and played exceptionally, throwing his first touchdown pass in five years. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and a 144.6 passer rating. That's Tom Brady-land. Collins, for all practical purposes, won the game. Gibbs called it about the best off-the-bench performance he's ever had. It's got to be one of the highlights of Collins's 13-year career, to come in from the bullpen and perform as he did.
But it's the big picture we have to survey now, not the snapshot.
Collins is a 36-year-old journeyman backup who is only here because Al Saunders is running the offense. No matter how well Collins played last night, he isn't the future of the Redskins; Campbell is. Campbell is the player the Redskins traded draft picks to acquire. Campbell is a player the club has invested in heavily, financially and emotionally. Campbell is the first young franchise quarterback the Redskins have had in a long, long time, since who, Trent Green? Mark Rypien? Jay Schroeder?
Watching him develop has been the No. 1 story line of this season, seeing how calm he's become in the pocket, how much better he's gotten at going through his progressions, at finding check-down receivers. Sure, the kid has thrown some killer interceptions that have cost the Redskins, but that's what kid quarterbacks do. Last night, remember, was only Campbell's 20th start.
He's a neophyte, but a talented one, the player the Redskins have to build around.
And now he's gone indefinitely with games at the Giants, at the Vikings and at home against the Cowboys on deck.
Last night's game featured two of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. The Redskins, from the time they gave away that game in Week 3 against the Giants, have proven themselves to be just good enough to break your heart, what with their late blunders against the Giants, Packers, Eagles, Cowboys, Buccaneers and Bills. And the Bears are in even worse shape, what with no quarterback, a decrepit offensive line, no running game and an offensive system that's straight out of the seventies. It's hard to imagine a team falling further in one calendar year than the Bears.
At one point during last night's telecast, right after the Bears committed their sixth penalty of one drive, the NFL Network's Cris Collinsworth said, "Is this really the Chicago Bears who were in the Super Bowl a year ago?"
Well, not exactly. Their season, at 5-8, is over and done, a pitiful showing that indicts both the coaches and players.
This isn't what the Redskins expected either, arriving at Week 14 with a 6-7 record and chasing the likes of the Vikings and Cardinals. Fans will exult over being one win from .500. Those a little less emotionally attached won't see the Redskins, fresh off a four-game losing streak, winning consecutive games on the road in New York and Minneapolis.
Then again, when you consider the death of Taylor, football results are hard to get overly excited about. When Gibbs said he simply looked forward to sleeping in one day (and I doubt he will), it was completely understandable.
The Redskins' playoff hopes are alive for the moment, but the concern this week will be about Campbell's health as much as the wild-card standings. The Redskins are in search of some good news now, some really good news, something bigger and farther-reaching than beating the sorry, no-account Bears. They need some good news from the doctors who will examine Campbell, something that will raise spirits and give the franchise a reason to look forward to, if not tomorrow, then next week, next month, next season.