By Mike Wise
Monday, August 4, 2008
CANTON, Ohio What a spectacle this weekend: Washington fans overwhelming this nook and cranny of the Midwest, taking over the cradle of professional football, filling restaurants, hotels and a 22,000-seat high school stadium for what ostensibly became their 25-year reunion, where they all agreed Darrell Green never aged.
What an odd and surreal juxtaposition for the nostalgia addicts, too -- communing over the comfort and certainty of their shared past one night while confronting their very uncertain future the next.
The same people who filled Hall of Fame Field to pay homage to Green and Art Monk on Saturday night during their induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame filled Fawcett Stadium again on Sunday night, eyeballing The Guy Who Replaced Joe Gibbs as he trotted out for his first preseason game.
Beware, Jim Zorn.
The die-hards will shake your hand. They'll tell you a neophyte coach gets the benefit of the doubt until he gets his bearings. But the pomp and pageantry of Canton this weekend reminded them of who and what they once rooted for, how their team once competed in four Super Bowls in 10 years. They remember how intoxicating it was believing in the Redskins in the 1980s and early 1990s, how, really, that feeling never completely went away, despite more than a decade of bad decisions, wrenching losses and outright heartbreak.
Until they win like that again, the compare-and-contrast game will never end. Sad but true: The best of what they have now will never come close to the image of what they had then.
So, the advice here: Wing it. Treat this job like Colt Brennan treated his pro debut against the Colts in the second half, as if nothing ever happened before he dropped back and cocked his arm, and nothing was certain the moment he rifled the football downfield.
Because if Jim Zorn doesn't have to be Joe Gibbs, if Clinton Portis can never be John Riggins, if Jason Taylor will never frighten a quarterback like Dexter Manley and Jason Campbell will never be the first to accomplish what Doug Williams accomplished, being a new-millennium Redskin is all about starting over, moving past yellowed newspaper clippings and grainy film footage of celebrations and touchdowns.
Playing for now in Washington -- for current teammates and the current coach and not simply for someone else's legacy -- suddenly becomes liberating, less of a burden.
No one can tell what the Redskins have or lack from this trivial first exhibition game, just as no one will know what they have or lack for the next few weeks, other than a few more healthy bodies.
Whether Campbell is ready to ascend to the next level of starting NFL quarterbacks won't be answered until September or October. It's probably unfair given the musical-chair changes in playbooks and coaches Campbell has had to deal with since being drafted, but this is undeniably a prove-it-or-lose-it year for the young quarterback. He must find a way to engineer scoring drives and victories in the final minutes of taut games or else suffer some of the same indignities of another kid whose head was constantly on a swivel, Patrick Ramsey.
It won't be known until the fall whether Greg Blache can make this defense as aggressive and respected as the man whose job he took, Gregg Williams, or whether Taylor can be the playmaker on the other side of the ball that he was in Miami.
Zorn will show many of his offensive wild cards before too long, and whether the creativity and improvisation he showed as a gun-slinging quarterback in Seattle translates to a franchise that got used to a lot of jumbo packages will be up for instant debate.
But like Matterral Richardson stepping in front of a pass Sunday night, streaking 38 yards, returning an interception for a touchdown to clinch a win in the first preseason game of the year -- the first game under the West Coast coach with the West Coast offense and the backup quarterback from Hawaii -- only open field lies ahead.
Everything behind them can stay there for now.
Hall of Fame officials mounted the bronze likenesses of Green and Monk in Canton's bust room Sunday, a few yards down from the likenesses of Riggins and Gibbs. Coach Joe left the weekend festivities here after paying respects to his former players, before the first Redskins season in four years without him began.
The slate is clean, the last vestiges of those halcyon Redskins days committed to memory, upstairs from the life-size statue of Jim Thorpe, stiff-arming museum visitors for eternity.
If Zorn can be glad about anything when he leaves Canton this weekend, he can be glad about this: It is time for this franchise and its legions to move forward after 20-odd years of memorably looking back.