By Mike Wise
Monday, October 13, 2008
On a roll, at home, against a football team in utter disarray. Other than dumb luck, Jim Zorn could not have asked for anything more before kickoff.
The Rams were about as close to a gimme as anyone gets in Week 6, the perfect measuring stick to see whether Zorn's road warriors could be viewed as an elite team or one of any number of good teams that plays to the level of their competition.
After St. Louis 19, Washington 17, it's pretty much back-to-earth week in Ashburn.
Some of the loyalists will call this more predictable than inexplicable, but that's letting Zorn and his team off the hook.
They knew the winless Rams were already playing for their season, that they had a bye week under Jim Haslett, their pin-the-ears back defensive coordinator suddenly auditioning for another head job after his boss was fired two weeks ago.
Some kind of letdown against a two-touchdown underdog would have been natural.
Zorn's players knew all that, and they still gave a game away on their home field. It wasn't as galling or as much of a kick in the gut as their last loss at FedEx Field, that 17-16 defeat that left fans streaming for the exits, chanting "Joe Must Go," after Joe Gibbs's double-timeout brainlock -- days after Sean Taylor's death -- seemed to seal Washington's 2007 fate.
But it was bad in its own right, and, yes, Al Saunders was party again to the communal heartache. (Uncle Al returned to town victorious as the Rams' play-caller after two years of having his playbook edited in Washington.)
They didn't have to emasculate the Rams and win by 20 to satisfy a mostly subdued and passive 90,000 fans at FedEx Field. But they did have to find a way to score late, sprinkle some of Zorn's pixie dust in the fourth quarter, and shut the door on defense.
Everything but the door part happened, leading to the belief that this team still needs to develop more of an ornery streak before anyone gets any more giddy about playing in January.
After the game, Zorn alluded to a Rams junk-talking, take-no-guff guard as "a little extra curricular." But if he watches the tape closely, he'll realize his team needed the same kind of nastiness that had St. Louis's Richie Incognito taking on all comers. The man was ready to scrap. The same can't be said of Zorn's team yesterday.
Clinton Portis, one of the few who performed up to his capabilities, summed up this eyesore when he said his teammates have to "continue to play like we are the underdogs, as opposed to playing like we have arrived."
If Zorn's players showed anything, they haven't arrived -- and they probably should have known that, too.
The Redskins' road wins over Dallas and Philadelphia camouflaged the fact that this team already has had some incredibly fortuitous moments go its way.
Contrary to revisionists, the transformation didn't happen after the opening game loss at Giants Stadium; it happened with less than four minutes left in Week 2. Washington was almost as dreadful against New Orleans as it was against St. Louis -- until quarterback Jason Campbell somehow found Chris Cooley from his 9-yard line for a 23-yard gain to buy breathing room. He followed with a bomb to Santana Moss to win a game the Saints had in their pocket.
Against Arizona a week later, Leigh Torrence tipped a pass in the second half that Carlos Rogers caught and returned, an interception that significantly altered that game.
In Dallas, the Cowboys nearly recovered an onside kick that no one on the receiving team seemed interested in securing for the win.
And, yes, as much as Washington manhandled the Eagles, the Redskins were down 14-0 before they could blink. The game was only iced when Portis pushed his way through mounds of muscle to eke out a three-yard gain on a risky, fourth-down draw call.
If any of those plays goes the other way, Zorn could easily have been looking at 1-4 going into yesterday. Torrence letting Rams' wide receiver Donnie Avery come back on an underthrown Marc Bulger pass and make a 43-yard play to set up the winning field goal was merely the odds evening out.
The good news for the believers, already bidding for tickets to Tampa on eBay?
There is no New England this year, no 18-0-in-training juggernaut, no matter how good the Giants or Titans have looked.
Several seconds after the Rams' Josh Brown connected on a 49-yarder to win the game yesterday, Jason Elam hit from 48 yards against Chicago, giving Atlanta -- the Falcons, of all rebuilding franchises -- the same 4-2 record as Washington.
Pete Kendall, stand-up guy that he is, tried to put the loss on himself for a gaffe that led to a devastating touchdown return of his fumble before halftime.
But his mental error couldn't explain rookie punter Durant Brooks's worst outing, which included an ugly shank -- a wounded duck of a punt that traveled only 26 yards. Sixth-round draft pick or not, the kid can't keep this up or Vinny Cerrato, the guy who gambled on drafting a punter, will bring in competition. Not that Vinny needs help, but Green Bay's struggling Derrick Frost might soon be available.
The same offensive line that pass-protected so well against the Cowboys and Eagles failed to pick up a delayed Rams blitz that put Campbell on the ground four times.
And who knew America's ball-security team for the season's first five weeks had so many butter fingers?
When Kendall was asked whether a late comeback could foster hope in the younger players, the 35-year-old veteran replied: "I'm so through with the moral-victory business. I'd rather have the win and preach to them rather than give them this example."
The best thing Zorn can do is go back to the drawing board against Cleveland next week and not worry about preaching humility this week. The Rams already took care of that for him, taking a lot of Washington's early-season sheen away.
As the Redskin turned analyst Rick "Doc" Walker said in a corridor of the stadium yesterday, "These are kind of losses that bite you . . . late in the season. You don't lose at home."