By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008
Once again they watched helplessly as another game had come to this: another opponent's kicker sending a field goal attempt wobbling toward the goal posts, a victory hanging in the air. And like so many times before, dread filled the Washington Redskins' sideline early yesterday evening.
Clinton Portis, the star running back who had torn through the Cleveland Browns for 175 yards, stood alone on the 26-yard line, his stomach in knots after a late-game fumble gave the Browns life in a game they had once been certain to lose.
Jim Zorn, the Washington coach, was devising in his mind the plays he was going to run when overtime started a few minutes later.
Danny Smith, the Redskins' special teams coach, saw the ball rise in the air and knew Cleveland place kicker Phil Dawson had kicked it long enough to spoil the Redskins' afternoon.
And then the ball started to sway in the chilly evening air, veering to the right, away from the goal posts, until the officials waved their arms. No good. The Redskins' 14-11 win over Cleveland was safe. The Redskins threw their hands in the air, shouted to the skies and danced on the sideline. Portis clenched his fist and slowly pumped his arm in joy.
"I don't know what the best relief is in your life but it was close," he said.
Which could pretty much describe most of the Redskins' games this year, even as they have marched to a 5-2 start and second place in the National Football Conference's East Division. Every victory has been decided by a touchdown or less, thus bringing its own special last-minute drama. When someone pointed this out to Zorn at his postgame news conference, the coach chuckled and with a wild-eyed look said: "How do you feel about that, man? They're unbelievable."
Zorn undoubtedly feels pretty good about such endings, given he is 5-2 in his first season as a head coach and his team has four teams with two or fewer wins lingering on the schedule. Figuring 10 wins is enough to make the playoffs (and it almost always is in the NFL) this means Washington has half the number of victories to make the postseason -- and the year isn't even halfway through.
Still, every game has felt like a drag, a drawn-out contest of attrition where victory has come late, only after a series of ordeals. None has been easy. And rarely has that happened for a team that is 5-2 by this point. Eventually by now a blowout should have come along. A week ago yesterday, a victory over the St. Louis Rams disappeared when a field goal whistled over the crossbar as the game ended. This time the field goal that would have brought overtime sailed just inches to the right of the goal post.
Both were games the Redskins probably should have won easily. That they didn't was hardly a concern in the Washington locker room afterward.
"We're playing great team ball right now and that's what is going to take us down the stretch," Portis said.
Some Redskins pointed to the way quarterback Jason Campbell has managed to go seven games without one interception -- a remarkable stretch for any player, including one who had 11 in 13 games last year.
"The thing I'm most excited about is that he's making good decisions," said Zorn, who added jokingly, "We never go into the game saying 'we're going to preserve that zero, we got to protect that zero.' "
Others said that the defense, largely intact from last year, has seemed to strengthen as the season has worn on. This was a fact that was noted by the team's newest player, running back Shaun Alexander, the league's most valuable player three years ago, who stood on the sideline yesterday after Washington pushed across its second touchdown late in the game.
"I knew we were going to win after that," Alexander said.
"I'm really impressed with our defense," he added. "I've come to realize defense wins games in this league."
Nonetheless the game, so sluggish early that the score was 0-0 at the half for the first time in a Redskins game since 1981, came down to a few final desperate moments.
The Redskins stopped the Browns on four plays from just outside the goal line to seemingly preserve the victory with just 5 minutes 47 seconds left and Washington leading 14-3. But on the Redskins' next play, Portis cut into the open and began running toward what he envisioned to be a 97-yard touchdown, only to feel the ball being pulled from behind by Cleveland's Eric Wright. Portis watched in horror as the ball rolled into the arms of another Brown, Brodney Pool. Five plays later, Cleveland scored to pull within three points with 2:44 to play.
Zorn paced nervously. Several Redskins grimaced, their mouths clutched tight. Zorn was trying to decide just what to do with the ensuing kickoff when suddenly the crowd roared. Two fans had jumped over the railing and were running onto the field. One came toward the bench and the coach, so annoyed at the distraction at such an important juncture, started to run after the fan. "I was going to tackle him," he said.
But at the last moment, a Redskins public relations official jumped out instead, pulling the fan to the grass.
Then after the kickoff, three Washington plays, a punt and a last, frantic march by the Browns, time had run down and Cleveland lined up for the field goal that could ruin the Redskins' day. Zorn held his laminated play sheet against his mouth and talked animatedly to his assistants. Smith watched Dawson warily, knowing just how far he could kick.
And Portis stood on the 26-yard line and watched, waiting for that moment when they could all feel the relief that has come five times now this season.