washingtonpost.com
This Time, a Game Was All They Lost

By Mike Wise
Sunday, January 6, 2008

SEATTLE

There is no logic behind feeling cheated Saturday, but that pang is still there. Every time a stirring, pixie-dust run like this ends abruptly, an emotional response follows from the aggrieved player or fan, who believe teams with heavy hearts should have divine endings, who deeply feel the Washington Redskins deserve to keep going, because it would somehow be right and fair.

To them, Santana Moss and Clinton Portis say, it's all right, it's okay.

Let this unsightly loss to Seattle go.

They lost a game. Their season ended. No one laid a teammate to rest today.

"You hurt for losing anyway this time of year, you hurt because you can't do a little more for Sean," Moss said after this deflating 21-point playoff loss. "But that's not what it's about."

"This late run showed what this team can be. We came here with guys who are fighting and we left with guys who are fighting."

Portis seemed to grasp a larger significance, too, as he stood in a hallway inside the team's locker room at Qwest Field.

"I think the bigger accomplishment we had as a team was coming together," he said. "Guys loving one another, bonding with one another, building some relationships that are going to last and grow. We formed some bonds."

Wild, isn't it -- the two players who have a right to feel wronged the most about a playoff loss, understanding a larger picture?

When Moss spun around, lost the ball and then watched in agony as Marcus Trufant scored on one of the most breathtaking interception returns of the season, the Redskins' wide receiver had every right to be thinking he deserved a better finish. He also dropped one of Todd Collins's passes right in his hands early in the game on Saturday.

Neither he nor Portis, who rushed for 52 yards on 20 carries and often ran into instead of away from pursuit, had their best games on the final day of this unfinished fable.

This wasn't supposed to be how this season ended for Moss, the impish wide receiver who quieted the loudest mob in the NFL with a touchdown catch to complete a stirring comeback from 13-0 down. When Moss pulled in that 30-yard post route from Collins in the fourth quarter -- folding his arms in mock defiance, standing for a good 30 seconds at the back of the end zone, pointing to the heavens -- another emotional victory was the salve we thought he needed.

Same goes for Portis, who trudged slowly to the sideline near the final moments of a game Joe Gibbs's team came amazingly close to stealing in the fourth quarter.

A compact and often complete rusher the past month, Portis began cutting across the grain in the second half, reading his blocks better, finding nooks and crannies in Seattle's defense where once there were none. It had all the earmarkings of another spine-tingling day for a group of players who should come to be known as Team Tragedy after Sean Taylor's death.

But somehow, they could look back today and see from whence they and their teammates came the past tumultuous month. Moss and Portis, Taylor's closest friends on the team, understood the truth most of us could not fathom:

The Redskins probably weren't supposed to be here on Saturday, playing in an NFC first-round playoff game that had to unimaginable after Taylor was killed in late November.

The common theme throughout their surreal four-game winning streak was context, how many more important things remain larger than dissecting a postseason loss. So if that perspective has truly been gained within the organization, that's how it should be taken: as a loss, period.

It would have been one of the more incredible sports stories of the new millennium had they kept going in the playoffs in memory of Taylor, but it didn't happen.

The Seahawks showed themselves to be a more resilient team with their backs to the wall and deserve to go on; Washington doesn't. End of story. End of season.

Go ahead, take Shaun Suisham to task for missing a chip-shot field goal. Knock Collins for leaving the ball up there too long a few times or Chris Cooley, whose one-handed catch was pure Pro Bowl, for letting that ball touch the ground near the goal line with his team leading 14-13 and having every ounce of momentum on its side.

Fine. But don't disparage the turnaround, what it took to rebound from such a calamitous, awful circumstance such as losing a teammate in the middle of the season.

The argument surrounding this team heading to the playoffs: What triggered the turnaround? Was it the emotion of losing a teammate leading to a more focused, passionate unit? Was it Gibbs intuitively knowing what his team needed? Or was it simply Shawn Springs returning that interception against Chicago last month to the 21-yard line and Collins finding the most unlikely target, Todd Yoder, for, yes, a 21-yard touchdown before halftime?

Okay, it wasn't numerology. The people who naively believe the supernatural had something to do with this need to look at Saturday's final score, 35-14. And don't tell me, "Surely, Sean would have wanted us to lose by that many points." Enough.

But it was probably a mixture of everything else above. There is no question Taylor's death became a bonding experience for this team, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain cynical and ignorant to the inner workings of a locker room. And whatever wrong strings Gibbs pulled the past four seasons, he pulled the right ones when it mattered. He was indeed the right coach at the right time for this team. Same with Collins, who was the perfect backup quarterback to lead the resurgence.

The bottom line is, they got here. That needs to be enough after losing a teammate.

However bad the team's inspired legion of fans feel about this loss, they need to remember what Portis and Moss said on the final day of the season, that camaraderie and hope grew from real loss.

Gibbs walked into the locker room afterward and told his players he was proud of everything they overcame this season. When Chris Samuels was asked if his coach was coming back, he shot a quizzical glance, wondering if he missed something. "He's coming back," Samuels said. There was an unmistakable certainty in the voice of one of the players closest to Gibbs.

The gut here is the only way Gibbs would not return was if this team miraculously won the Super Bowl, not merely advanced that far. In his mind, there is still work to be done.

If some of these players are honest with themselves, there is also a genuine grieving process to go through.

"Most people could bury themselves in their work, but he was everywhere you looked," Antwaan Randle El said. "Sean's locker was still there. He was in the film we watched. Of course there will be some mourning in the offseason, all the times you can't just pick up the phone and talk to him."

What to make of the end of this memorable run?

"This?" Randle El said. "We can get over this."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company