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Passing the Chemistry Test

By Mike Wise
Monday, October 27, 2008

DETROIT Before another tight victory over an inferior team is parsed and dissected beyond recognition, let's be clear:

The 6-2 Washington Redskins have won three of their first four road games under a very passionate rookie head coach, Jim Zorn, who proved he's unafraid to air out the team's biggest star on camera.

That player just happens to be the league's leading rusher, who on Sunday tied O.J. Simpson as the only players to twice gain more than 120 yards in five straight games. You've got to love the candor of Clinton Portis, who after the feat acknowledged: "It's great company. It's one of the few times you can say O.J. is great company."

Did we mention they beat a dreadful Detroit Lions team without their best offensive lineman, Chris Samuels, who smartly didn't dress because his inflamed knee blew up like a grapefruit in warmups?

Or that it's Week 8 and Jason Campbell still hasn't thrown an interception?

Or that Shaun Suisham scored more than half of his team's points, booting four field goals -- including three money kicks from 42 to 47 yards -- in front of three busloads of Canadians who came to see Ontario's own play closer to home than he's ever been?

Sideline dust-up aside, whether they drilled Detroit or not, this team, which barely anyone outside of Ashburn believed would be 6-2 at this point, set itself up for a monster "Monday Night Football" encounter with the Steelers at FedEx Field on election eve.

Outside of that blip against the Rams two weeks ago, it's pretty much nitpicking with this crew.

"We'd love to be 7-1, don't get me wrong," said London Fletcher, the veteran linebacker who essentially ended this game when he popped Calvin Johnson on fourth down, sending the Lions' wide receiver sprawling backward, yards short of the first-down marker. "But let's not lose sight of the fact that we've gone on the road and won three games already.

"Are we satisfied? No. There is still a lot of work to do at the halfway point. But we've put ourselves in a very good position at this moment."

The greedy legions probably wanted to see 42-0 or at least 35-14 Sunday. But this was the perfect argument that weekly pro football rankings truly mean nothing.

If you want to rate the best team in the NFL, let's talk in February. The Patriots understand this. They were favored to annihilate everyone last year. It got so ridiculous that had they played in a different era, New England would have been favored against Sparta and the Persian army, provided Tom Brady had a bye week in between.

But then the Giants got better and better and better -- until they implausibly ended up No. 1.

The lesson for this 6-2 team should be that everything between now and 2009 is a learning experience, a growth process for a prospective playoff team. It's not whether you blow out the lousy Lions and look like a locomotive doing it; it's that you beat the bad teams and preserve health and chemistry while doing it.

That chemistry was tested Sunday by Zorn and Portis, who engaged in a pride war at the outset of the second quarter.

As NFL flare-ups go, there was nothing incredibly extraordinary about the entire few minutes.

Play-making veteran has trouble with his helmet, misses a few plays.

Intense rookie coach calls plays for his replacement -- until he realizes the player checked himself back into the game.

Angry about the communication gap, intense rookie coach decides, enough already, player is going to hear about it.

The incident would be wholly unremarkable -- if it hadn't been Zorn's first public confrontation with one of his star players. He thought enough about the incident to mention it to his team when they walked to the locker room trailing at halftime.

"I basically said, 'Hey, even Clinton and I had to have a conversation on the sideline,' " Zorn said. "It was part of the whole theme of, 'We have to regroup.' "

That included Zorn, who blew a gasket in front of a microphone for the first time after the game. In an incident that might have said a little more about his competitiveness and temper than the Portis undressing, Zorn lost his patience when a reporter kept rephrasing a question Zorn hadn't quite answered to the reporter's liking.

Out of nowhere, Zorn slammed his fist on the lectern during his news conference, chastising the reporter for rolling his eyes at him. Zorn asked him pointedly, "Have I answered your question?"

It was an uncomfortable moment for everyone in the room, and the two worked out the matter privately. But it was also revealing: Whether you play for the man or deal with him in a business situation, those who tick him off are going to feel his frustration and, perhaps, his wrath.

Before that, all Zorn did was call another brilliant game when it mattered most. There was a third-and-six play from the Washington 9-yard line on a drive that had begun at the 5 in the middle of the third quarter when the Redskins were trailing 10-9.

Portis went in motion to the right, all the way to the sideline, emptying the backfield. Campbell merely stepped up and found Chris Cooley, who was dependable and bruising as ever, slam-dancing through five Lions for a 17-yard gain.

Five plays later, Campbell evaded a Lions defender, letting him go by. He then stepped up and fired a rocket to Santana Moss for the second-prettiest score of the quarterback's career (almost as eye-catching as their fourth-quarter connection against New Orleans in the second game of the season).

After Moss's scintillating 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, they had all but put a bad team away and held on for the second straight week.

And anyone who wanted to make a huge issue out of Portis's pouty side should also talk about how the NFL's leading ground-gainer also nearly iced this game with a 31-yard run, a breakaway that ended with Portis nursing a sprained ankle after the way he went down.

He got up the way his team got up after halftime Sunday. He rose the way the Redskins rose after the opening loss to the defending Super Bowl champions. Now, the Redskins are halfway home to proving they can finish what they started.

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