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Goodbye Honeymoon, Hello Reality

By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 24, 2008

CHARLOTTE

After a summer of idealism -- outright dreaming, really, over how good Jim Zorn and his new team might be -- the Armageddon Express is now boarding passengers.

Delayed for more than a month by the boundless optimism engendered by Jason Taylor's arrival, a first-year NFL coach's uncharacteristic openness and three aesthetically appeasing (yet ultimately hollow) preseason victories, Washington's pro football franchise jumped the tracks Saturday night and churned hard toward oblivion.

In the 30 minutes Jason Campbell and the starters on offense were supposed to show their grasp of new schemes and the defense was supposed to, well, resemble a defense -- in the lone preseason game in which this team needed to show real progress -- they put forth an abysmal effort while suffering what could be two key injuries.

Between their poor effort and misfortune, this was a night of a thousand disasters for a new coach and a veteran team.

Whatever honeymoon they enjoyed together ended the moment Taylor writhed in pain in the first half, falling back from a pileup, clutching his right knee. Jon Jansen later was diagnosed with a sprained right foot. He was part of an offensive line that could not prevent Jason Campbell from hitting the ground like a rag doll four times.

It was so bad that Sam Huff remarked at halftime to Sonny Jurgensen, his radio broadcast partner: "Did these guys practice this week?" The embarrassing loss so concerned Zorn that he said he might have to reevaluate whether he plays some of his starters in the last preseason game Thursday against Jacksonville. Traditionally, the last game of the preseason is one in which starters rarely play.

Campbell didn't sound receptive to any such notion afterward. "All of us are professionals," he said. "When you take a whuppin' like we did today, you know what you have to do to turn it around."

They now have 11 days to heal their bodies and egos after a thorough whuppin' in Carolina, less than two weeks before the games count and the season opens against the Giants on the emotional night the Super Bowl champions are awarded their rings.

Scenes from a dress rehearsal gone horribly awry: Taylor shaking his head in anger over his knee injury, which was said to be a sprain but will be reevaluated today. Chris Samuels, all 314 Pro Bowl pounds of him, shoved into his own quarterback by a marauding Julius Peppers. Greg Blache's defenseless line and secondary, run past and thrown over, as the Panthers piled up yards like hotcakes at a Rotary Club breakfast.

Joe Bugel hurt more than anyone. His heart heavy after his daughter Holly died after a two-year battle with bone cancer on Thursday morning, the offensive line coach flew back from Houston to meet the team and use the game and his job as a way to mask the grief for one evening.

What he and the coaching staff saw was an offense that fumbled twice in the first half and lost yards or had no gain on almost half the plays called in the first two quarters.

The remaining pass rusher the team hoped to count upon, Erasmus James, playing his first series with his new team, jumped off sides.

There were small signs of hope. Clinton Portis rumbled as much as he ran, earning a paycheck in the preseason. And Derrick Frost, punting out of his own end zone, unearthed a rocket off his right foot that traveled 64 yards. Sprinting downfield, he helped make the hit and skipped off the field like a special-teams kamikaze, slapping helmets and hands, trying to win a job that has been his for three years.

Mostly, though, as owner Daniel Snyder combed the locker room to offer encouragement afterward, this was a reality check. Before this eyesore of an exhibition, they were still in Costa Rica together, on an extended honeymoon.

Last night they came back to their one-room dump with the leaky ceiling. Now the real part of the relationship begins.

What do we really know about Zorn and this team with 11 days left before the regular season opener? We know they need work, they need to get healthy, their offensive line needs to sustain a block and their defense needs to tackle with more malice than malaise.

We know they probably need more than 11 days.

Funny, no, how much all the doubters kept taunting the believers with one phrase after each win in games that didn't count? The phrase usually began, "That's great, but it's preseason."

Now, after how bad they looked last night, the idealists and dreamers need to incorporate those words into their own comeback. "It's only preseason."

And believe it until Sept. 4. The alternative is to hop aboard a train that now comes equipped with air bags.

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