By Mike Wise
Saturday, December 29, 2007
The debate all week has been about whether Washington-Dallas tomorrow amounts to a big game. Seeing as how the Cowboys have nothing to play for -- they've already clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs -- and the Redskins need this game to somehow finagle a postseason berth out of this impossibly turbulent season, it's a fair question.
The answer is, irrespective of who plays for the Cowboys, it's a monster game, the biggest single event involving the Redskins in the 10-year history of FedEx Field.
That whole win-and-you're-in proposition is part of it. But as important as this game is to the Redskins' seat-of-the-pants thrill ride toward the postseason, it also is about something less tangible. It is about seizing an opportunity, about becoming part of the national conversation again.
A loss would not undo the resilience shown by the Redskins the past few weeks in the wake of Sean Taylor's death, but it would mean the Redskins would essentially become a footnote at the end of NBC's NFL broadcast tomorrow evening, in which Bob Costas says, thoughtfully, "We wish the Redskins well after a very trying and tumultuous season."
A victory, on the other hand, would change everything, especially the national perception of the franchise. For the first time in forever, a victory that puts Washington in the playoffs would cast the Redskins as underdogs.
"The Redskins instantly become that sentimental favorite if they win a playoff game," said Brian Mitchell, the former kick returner and now a radio and television analyst. "They become the team that everyone roots for nationally."
It wouldn't just be the maudlin nature of the national media seizing on how Taylor's death devastated the club, which it did. Of course Santana Moss and Clinton Portis are playing for something larger than themselves right now.
It wouldn't just be about Todd Collins finding time in the pocket and zinging the ball downfield after having started exactly zero games at quarterback from December 1997 to November 2007.
In the aftermath of Taylor's death, Greater Washington has seen a different public face of Gibbs, team owner Daniel Snyder and the entire Redskins organization than it has glimpsed before, and the new portrait is that of gracious, respectful men in the face of tragedy.
Before this season, the image of a free-spending, maniacal billionaire unsuccessfully playing chess with his players and coaches -- using money and bravado to try to buy a championship -- was the only portrayal America got of Snyder.
Taylor's death provided the public with a different picture, a more human side to an organization that has taken its lumps on the field and in the court of public opinion the past decade.
On the field, rebounding from a 5-7 start, from essentially kissing the season off with one more loss, is a huge accomplishment. Beating Dallas would reaffirm what began after the Buffalo loss a month ago.
Back to Collins for one moment. The idea of a player whom no one had heard of in the past decade -- outside of perhaps Kansas City and Buffalo -- matching up against telegenic Tony Romo or, who knows, future Hall of Famer Brett Favre in a couple of weeks has tremendous potential as a story line.
For the dreamers among us who know the NFC is for the taking, who could resist stately, old St. Joe against that dastardly villain Bill Belichick? All of it remains possible if the Redskins can get by Dallas.
One of the disappointing things to hear the past few days is how this is not a big game for Cowboys fans. It's easy to see where they are coming from. Dallas's goal is to get another shot at New England in February, and the beginning of that quest means Romo and the starters are not dinged up in January. Regardless of any perceived rivalry on this end, Dallas's goal is not to win this game; it is first to ensure no one of consequence is hurt.
But it takes away from the larger picture, which is: This is the biggest game for the Redskins in the FedEx Field era. This is easily the biggest game of Gibbs's second tenure with the franchise.
Win and they're in. Beat the Cowboys and it becomes instant validation of how Gibbs has miraculously righted this ship that was headed into the abyss less than a month ago.
Not only that, a victory over Dallas makes the possibilities extend far greater than just a wild-card playoff game.
A victory over Dallas creates the potential for making the Redskins a national conversation piece. It makes the Redskins the feel-good story of the NFL playoffs. The Cowboys might not have anything to play for tomorrow, other than perhaps getting a look at their foe two weeks from now. To get to a place where the Redskins could even attempt to think about being a game away from the NFC championship, they have to win tomorrow.