By Michael Wilbon
Monday, January 7, 2008
With every team at the end of every season, you wonder what will happen when the players fly home for the final time, then scatter. Who'll be back? Who'll move on? Was what transpired between training camp and the final defeat encouraging enough to be the starting point for the next season?
The Washington Redskins, for some traditional football reasons and one unique reason, have as many of these issues to address over the next six months as any team that reached the playoffs. Only six weeks ago, after the much-discussed double-timeout loss to Buffalo, a growing chorus suggested Joe Gibbs would walk away from coaching after this season. But the way Gibbs managed the weeks after the killing of Sean Taylor and the subsequent four-game winning streak that landed the Redskins in the playoffs might have changed all that, including the way Gibbs feels about coming back for at least one more season.
The big question involving any NFL team is who'll be coaching it, and Gibbs will probably begin to address that question today when he speaks with reporters. But there's little question Gibbs likes the players he has, their makeup and the team's chances of winning with them. The way they pulled themselves together and won four straight games after Taylor 's death impressed Gibbs, who said after Saturday's playoff loss in Seattle, "Losing Sean the way we did, his life changed a lot of other lives."
While Gibbs is certainly right, it's impossible to assess how that dynamic will affect the Redskins when the team won't play again for the next seven months. Asked what happens from this point on, Clinton Portis said: "Out of a season you take the positives and the positives were you had a franchise grow together. You had a team come together. You had a bunch of guys build love for one another and appreciation for one another. That's the best thing that can happen in sports because of [teams] always changing teammates, with guys leaving and guys coming. It's hard to grow and it's hard to get used to guys. But I think as a team this organization turned from a team to a family. You found a lot of guys who developed a lot of love for one another. That's the best thing that can ever happen out of a season."
Of course, there are team dynamics that have to be addressed. And if the No. 1 issue with any football team is who is coaching, the No. 2 issue is who's playing quarterback. The answer is simple: Jason Campbell is the starting quarterback when this team reconvenes. He has to be. Yes, Todd Collins got the Redskins to the playoffs, but he's not a franchise quarterback.
Collins did what teams pray the backup quarterback does, which is to play well for a handful of games. In those games, he outperformed three other starting quarterbacks of varying talent (Chicago's Rex Grossman/Brian Griese, the Giants' Eli Manning, Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson). But in Seattle on Saturday, a very fast but (statistically) mediocre Seahawks defense forced Collins into making the kinds of mistakes that remind you why he's been a career backup. That isn't intended as a knock on Collins. In fact, he is another of the team's inspirational stories, a man hardly ever given a chance to play in 10 years who proved not just to his team but to himself that he can be a primary contributor to a winning season. Suppose he had finished his career and never had the opportunity to know for sure that he had this kind of impressive stretch of football in him? If there was such an award, Collins would probably be the Backup Quarterback of the Year in the NFL. Nobody worked out of the bullpen as effectively as he did.
But now it's time to go back to the ace, and that's Campbell. The Redskins might need to amend their offense scheme to better suit him, figure out how to make use of his skills the way Al Saunders's system makes use of what Collins does best. They are very different players with different skill sets and different personalities. If a coach's job, as they're quick to say, is to put the players they have in the best position to succeed, then the Redskins had better figure out how to maximize the talents of the most important player in their locker room: Jason Campbell.
Otherwise, the Redskins earned the right to feel good about the way they go into the offseason. "I think you become battle-tested over a period of time," Gibbs said, adding that you find out what you've got in a team when it experiences "real success and real adversity." As disappointing as the loss in Seattle was -- it was a game the Redskins could have won in a postseason field in which they could have held their own with anyone in the NFC -- they spent this season and particularly the last five weeks finding out how to negotiate severe and tragically adverse times. It's difficult to believe that won't serve them well competitively. Now it's their task to find out whether they're as adept at dealing with the "real success" Gibbs spoke of, should they be good enough to figure out after everything that has happened, how to create it.