They Can't Finish What They Started

By Mike Wise
Monday, November 17, 2008

It's one thing for the Washington Redskins not to register a sack, much less lay a finger on Tony Romo. Or to let their quarterback, Jason Campbell, go down 10 times in the past two home games. Zero pass rush plus lousy protection, after all, usually equals a loss.

But to give a tin-man franchise like the Dallas Cowboys its heart back, to not keep down their rivals right when they appeared ready to fold early on national television? That borders on inexcusable.

The Redskins didn't merely lose a pivotal NFC East game on a chilly Sunday night -- they lost the cocksureness of knowing people were wrong about them when this season began.

Remember all the questions posed about Washington in August?

How successful can Jim Zorn, a quarterbacks coach who never held an NFL coordinator position, be in his maiden season following Joe Gibbs?

Will Jason Campbell have ample time and protection to not just develop into an elite passer, but also be the first guy under center in Washington since Brad Johnson in 1999 to last a full season as a starting quarterback?

And, are Greg Blache's defensive schemes going to have the same kind of hell-raising, bring-the-house effect that panicked quarterbacks who faced Gregg Williams's defenses?

After Sunday night, after Dallas seized momentum from Washington like it seized this game, the debate on each of those questions lives anew.

The Redskins took a set-the-table game against the Cowboys -- a victory would have kept them within striking distance of the Giants and dumped Dallas to a depressing 5-5 -- and left knowing they had not engineered any real change in the NFC East.

Contrary to all the incredible optimism over Zorn's 6-2 start, Dallas is still Dallas when Romo is healthy, has plenty of protection and establishes his rhythm, and the Redskins are going to have to scrap and claw to win their second straight playoff berth.

The harsh truth is that with less than two months left, the Redskins have to prove themselves all over again.

Now that Zorn is no longer the newbie who shows up at the World Series of Poker without any history of his tells, now that he's been dissected in at least a dozen NFL film rooms, he's got to come up with the same ingenuity that got his team six wins in its first eight games. And what better time to start than Sunday in Seattle against his struggling mentor, Mike Holmgren?

Now that Campbell is running into familiar territory from last season -- producing long drives and lots of yards, but few touchdowns -- he has to find a way to win a game at the end to remind people of his growth. Certainly, his line needs to find a way to help him do that.

"Number one, we gotta protect the quarterback better," Randy Thomas said, beating himself up for allowing one of the three sacks. "The guy is taking too many hits."

Chris Samuels, asked if his team had lost its swagger, replied: "I don't know. The momentum is gone now, that's for sure. We just have to get it back at practice this week."

It's interesting that everyone was questioning Wade Phillips's job coming into this game, his ability to push his team's buttons. His father, former Oilers coach Bum Phillips, once said, "There's two kinds of coaches, them that's fired and them that's gonna be fired."

Being that he's playing for Jerry Jones, Bum's son ought to soon know that "gonna be" feeling.

Less than two months ago, Wade Phillips was the odds-on favorite coach to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of this season. After New England's Tom Brady went down, his Cowboys won stylishly and big, so much so they were on the cusp of becoming the NFL next uber-team.

But about the same time the stock market crashed, Dallas also went belly-up. They were America's Team all right -- reeling and scared like the rest of us. Uncertain of their future, they couldn't afford to lose and fall to .500.

Dallas's demise in October didn't seem to be about Romo's pinkie; it was about the Cowboys' fragile psyche. For all of Romo and T.O.'s Fantasy League potential, the Cowboys entered this season as the Dallas Mavericks of the NFL: Heavenly regular season team, hellish playoff team.

The prevailing thought was that whenever a team gets into them physically -- when they get popped in the mouth like they did against the Giants last January -- they revert to being who they are: front-runners.

But the Cowboys came into FedEx Field last night, weathered a rocky start against an emotionally charged team that had its crowd and Clinton Portis, bum knee and all, lowering his shoulder, and displayed the kind of grit and tenacity that defined the Redskins, oh, about 10 minutes ago.

"I don't know how much confidence carries over and builds during the week; I think it's more of an in-game thing," Redskins guard Pete Kendall said, lamenting how Dallas turned a slow start into a kill-the-clock victory.

"You don't often see the climax in Act One, huh?" Kendall added.

Nope, you don't. After an implausible start, Zorn has to be thinking the same thing today.

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