By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 17, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Many have wondered in recent weeks, as a mountain of Redskins misery and mourning has grown, whether Coach Joe Gibbs would, should or could return next season. Especially if his battered team arrived here in the Meadowlands where they have lost the last two years by a combined 55-3 and played a dispirited game to let their last sensible playoff hopes die?
After all, how much could his team take? And how much disappointment could he, personally, bear?
Put those questions to rest. Gibbs may forget a rule once in a while, like whether you can call consecutive timeouts to ice a kicker, but he can still motivate a football team. His men play for him in circumstances when almost any other coach, at any level, would have "lost the team." These Redskins, however, are not lost. On a raw, blustery night, on a field surrounded by piles of snow and before stands that were almost empty by the final minutes, the Redskins stormed to a 22-3 lead over the New York Giants and held on for a stirring, almost inspiring 22-10 victory to reach 7-7 and remain in the NFC playoff chase.
Gibbs has had far better teams. But he has seldom had one with more heart in the face of sorrow and defeat.
Confronted with the murder of a popular star player, the loss for the season of a young quarterback-of-the-future and the accumulated distress from blowing five second-half leads, the Redskins responded with a physical domination of the Giants that can rank -- for pride, if not for glory -- with almost any triumph during the coach's first 12 years in town.
"We're thrilled . . . . This football team has been through a lot and I appreciate everything they've done . . . I just appreciate them taking me with them," said Gibbs, his voice hoarse to a whisper from hollering. "I don't care what's happened to them, they keep firing, staying after it, fighting."
Now, a trip to Minnesota to face the Vikings next week should be loaded with playoff implications and the season finale at home against the Cowboys may even be first-class drama, not an occasion to wonder if one of Washington's most beloved athletic figures is shuffling toward a second retirement. After his team's effort on this night, Gibbs should have all his choices open to him for next season. His players have their flaws, and, this season, their sorrows, but they play like demons for him.
"For four years [since Gibbs returned] every game has been a dog fight. We done let a lot of close games slip away. It's only a matter of time before the tables turn," said Clinton Portis, who rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries and has reached 1,082 yards for the season. "If, some kind of way, we can get into the playoffs, then we can cause some static."
On a night when a strong frigid crosswind would unhinge any passing game, Todd Collins -- starting his first NFL game in 10 years and two days -- easily surpassed the Giants' young hotshot Eli Manning. The veteran coped. The kid cracked. Collins struck seldom, completing only 8-of-25 passes, but he hit deep when he connected. He amassed 166 passing yards and calmly commanded an offense that never turned the ball over. "Todd made a few plays [deep] down the field that loosened things up for me," said Portis.
Meanwhile, Manning needed 52 passes, many of them ugly or desperate, to complete 18 and gain 184 yards. And Eli fumble as well.
"It was wild out there trying to throw the ball or catch it," said tight end Chris Cooley. "That's more dropped passes than I've ever seen in a football game." But most, at least 10, were by Giants.
With a battered team, missing many starters and playing with a career backup at quarterback, the Redskins simply beat the Giants with desire. Across the field, in hundreds of skirmishes, the Redskins fought for the extra inches that prevented a New York first down or broke up a crucial Manning pass or, in the case of two long acrobatic catches by Santana Moss, made almost impossible plays. For the Redskins, after what they have been through this season, it was a game to hang your hat upon and, believe it or not, start thinking about a patented Joe Gibbs playoff run in December.
Ironically, the quarterback for that run, if there is to be one, will be Collins, who is undoubtedly the only 36-year-old in the NFL in near-mint condition. "Todd labored that long, sat all those years staying prepared . . . You're looking at him maybe never getting his chance to play. So, it's a great story. Thank goodness, he's getting to play for us," said Gibbs.
In recent years, with the pressure of high payrolls, perhaps unrealistic expectations and a passionate but occasionally unhinged fan base, the Redskins have tended to be tight under the gun. Whatever happens, Collins won't fit that description. "Todd was real poised. But he's cracking jokes in the huddle. He's just goofy. He's fake chewing people out or giving a rah-rah high-school coach speech, but so it's funny," said center Casey Rabach. "And when it counted, he made the throws."
Even though, after practice on Friday, owner Dan Snyder lent Collins his private plane to fly home to Massachusetts for the birth of his second son, then flew him back in time for Saturday's walk-through practice. "On Friday I told Dan, 'We have a problem. Todd's wife is having a baby.' He said, "I'll get him my plane in a hour and a car when he gets there,' " said Gibbs who was most pleased that Snyder didn't even bother to ask, "Which Todd?" on a team that has three.
Perhaps no team in the NFL has as much excuse to quit this December as the Redskins. No professional team should, of course. But, every season, as bad breaks and internal dissension mount, as poor leadership and injuries seem insurmountable, plenty of team roll over and pack in the season a few weeks early. All the normal aches and complaints of late-season football beset the Redskins. But in their case, the burden is much greater, so their ability to play through it is that much more remarkable.
The murder of 24-year-old Sean Taylor, perhaps their best defender, would be enough to take the heart from many teams. As if this weren't enough, the Redskins have those five squandered halftime leads. Try to remember the last Redskin team that continued to give its best effort after disappointing itself so repeatedly, incinerating its own best efforts. Since '81, only teams coached by Gibbs would pass that litmus test.
Every team has injuries, but the Redskins have been swamped. In addition to Taylor and the knee injury to Campbell, they've lost standout veteran linemen Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas as well as cornerback Carlos Rogers for the season. Almost every week there is a quorum call to find enough wide receivers.
The season's nasty twist is that one of the guiltiest Redskins has been Gibbs, whose game management has ranged from debatable to dubious to inept in the final seconds of the Bills' loss. For a team built around his aura, personality and four seasons worth of expensive personnel decisions, doubts about him could be the final straw to break a team's back.
Finally, as if to roll up all this potential for disappointment up into one abysmal night, the Redskins arrived here in Giants Stadium, the scene of some of their worst beatings. When Gibbs' great teams were at their best, they struggled here. What now?
The Redskins played as if there were no place they would rather be. By the time Portis plowed behind right tackle for a five-yard touchdown just 2:52 into the third quarter, the underdog Redskins had a stunning 22-3 lead.
A 22-3 lead? With almost a full half left to play? On the road? In the Jersey swamps? After a full season of late disaster, bitter memories, ingrained failures?
Could this team, having lost so many such games in the last four years, finish the job in this one?
Why not? After so many disappointments, perhaps a new season, with a different tone, is just beginning.