By Mike Wise
Friday, December 7, 2007
More than 82,000 people who braved the chill and a miserable first half of football became trapped in the moment. Many shuffled out of the stadium gates last night believing their team had genuine postseason hope for the first time in a month, and their favorite tight end summed up a reinvigorated locker room afterward:
"I don't want to say I was thinking we actually forgot how to win," Chris Cooley said. "But I was worried we were learning how to lose. Four weeks in a row and we almost gave the game away. I've never been involved in anything like that."
So, for the loyalists, Washington 24, Chicago 16, felt good at midnight, almost reassuring.
But only in Washington, only during this unforgivably cruel season, does the home team win the game and lose its immediate future. Only here, only this season, is the hint of optimism bulldozed by the starting quarterback taken from the field in a motorized cart.
There are technically three games remaining. But if Jason Campbell can't come back before the regular season finale against Dallas, this resilient victory after a week of real-life hell was for the optimist. The realist probably saw the last, painful images of a lost season from FedEx Field: Campbell grimacing in agony, then clutching his left knee after a blindside hit. An air cast immobilizing his leg. The young quarterback carted away for the night, his kneecap dislocated, his season halted.
It's not over. Not mathematically. Beating back the Bears on a frigid, 26-degree night that felt like Chicago -- three days after attending the funeral of Sean Taylor -- must qualify as a major feat of perseverance.
With hardly any time to prepare and needing a victory to have any playoff hope in the wide-open race for the final NFC berth, the Redskins delivered for their crestfallen fans looking for any sign of progress after last Sunday's meltdown against the Bills.
Taking a micro look, who can quibble with Todd Collins coming off the bench, seeing significant playing time for the first time since he last started an NFL game in 1997? His last regular season pass was thrown the year Joe Gibbs returned in 2004.
Clinton Portis put his head down and made big plays. Return man extraordinaire Devin Hester never tap danced all over Washington on the way to the end zone. With the exception of two misses by Shaun Suisham early, Danny Smith again coached-up his special teams. Shawn Springs turned this game around with -- miracle of miracles -- his first interception of the season and a pretty return.
This was, in every way imaginable, an elimination game. Unless you believe 5-8 teams can run the table and rely on someone else to falter, the Bears are done. The Redskins survive, for at least two more weeks.
But the margin of error is beyond slim if Campbell doesn't come back. It's especially slim without a guy who was trying to become the first quarterback to start and finish all 16 games in Washington since Brad Johnson in 1999.
Campbell had growing pains, no doubt. He was tremendous before the red zone, marshaling his team downfield. But he seemed allergic to the end zone once the Redskins got within 20 yards of it. For his own psyche, he needed to throw a touchdown pass late to win a game rather than having it intercepted.
But even when he took a step back, his season-long growth was essential to whatever shot the Redskins had of reaching the playoffs this season and to Washington's hopes of contending in the future.
If Taylor was the cornerstone of the future on defense, Campbell is that player on offense.
Clearly, the moment Taylor was killed a week ago, this season -- and a piece of this franchise's soul -- was forever altered. Whatever hopes Gibbs and his forlorn players had of erasing the memory of 5-11 in 2006, of restoring belief to a nation of fans beginning to lose faith in a man who was once their unquestioned leader, everything was put on hold when their 24-year-old free safety died of a gunshot wound in a Miami hospital.
And yet, even after the tragedy, in Campbell there was still one, tangible player to bank on as this long, deflating march toward January continued. He was one of the few redeeming aspects of this franchise that could be groomed and molded into something special, so that all those last-minute losses and sideline brain lock would not go in vain.
Maybe Collins has got something left in those 36-year-old bones. Maybe Portis is still intent on carrying the Redskins. Who knows, maybe yet another return to hard-hat football -- the kind of man-up offense Gibbs still wants to run in an arts-and-crafts league -- will carry the day once more and shock the Giants in New York next week.
Winning even two of the last three -- at New York, at Minnesota and at home to Dallas -- might be the kind of redemptive play that provides a temporary balm after every unimaginable ordeal this team has gone through this season. That type of finish might even get the Redskins into the playoffs.
But if that doesn't happen, the season becomes a mulligan.
For real criticism purposes -- and that includes anyone who decides the coach needs to step aside -- you have to look elsewhere than 2007. It wasn't about football the moment Taylor died and, even with a spirited win at home on a night they badly needed a victory, it wasn't about a sincere playoff push last evening.
After all the personal trauma lately, it was about starting over professionally and surviving the Bears to make the Giants matter.
"You have to deal with what's in front of you," Pete Kendall said. "And [the Bears] were what was in front of us."
Who knows what Collins will look like after a team has a week to prepare for him. Who cares? They move forward without Campbell, the most important offensive player injured in a year that has already lost Jon Jansen and big chunks of its offensive line.
It's Collins's team now, and who imagined that at the first of the year? Who imagined any of this?
They won amid a big loss. In these awful times, this team and its legions will take any good with the bad.