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From High Hopes to Harsh Reality

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 17, 2008

Confidence and doubt are the constant fickle companions of every NFL team. The mounting hopes of September can become the nagging fears of November. Where do you end in December? Will you play in January?

All the questions, and all the emotions, are back on the table for the Redskins after their second straight loss at home -- this time 14-10 on Sunday night to the despised Cowboys -- and their fifth consecutive lackluster game.

A couple of early wins on the road in Dallas and Philadelphia can make a team dream of anything. What gumption, what a knack for pulling out close games. And that rookie coach Jim Zorn, he's got a few new tricks to teach the league, doesn't he?

But a pair of losses to start November, when the mean Steelers and now the previously discombobulated Cowboys come into your own stadium and give you a thumping, storm your quarterback off his feet and twist your offense into knots, that alters the feeling. And the season.

You could see that conflict in the Redskins' faces after they squandered a fourth-quarter lead, were outgained 315 to 228 in total yards and surrendered 153 yards rushing and receiving to Marion Barber in white-towel-waving FedEx Field. In the Redskins' words, the two emotions fought for control. There was pride in their 6-4 record, but plenty of concern and maybe some confusion, too.

"There's a lot to be done at work tomorrow to access the situation. We'll challenge our players," said Zorn, who resorted to a quick short-passing game out of necessity. "It was our best opportunity to keep our quarterback upright. When your primary concern is just keeping your quarterback vertical, winning football games gets hard. If we could just get a little more time, there were some big things open down the field. But we didn't give Jason [Campbell] time to get them there."

A kind of wistfulness, odd in pro football, hung around Zorn and several of his team leaders. Maybe it was the midnight hour or the certainty that, like all their games this season, except their losses to the Giants and Steelers, either team might have won.

"Now is the time we are really playing for our season. It's a battle," said Campbell, who constantly dodged rushers, called audibles or scrambled to complete 22 of 34 passes for only 162 yards, one two-yard touchdown flip to Mike Sellers and one interception. "Tonight would have been a huge win for us. We could have really put Dallas in a hole. Now they're 6-4, too.

"The Giants have nine wins, Carolina eight and we could have had seven along with Tampa Bay. We'd have been one of the top four teams [in the NFC]."

Instead, the Redskins are back in the scrum with almost too many teams to mention. "Now we have to hope things bounce our way," said Campbell. "And we've got to get on a winning streak."

Just as the first five games started to paint a pretty portrait, the last five games have scribbled a mustache on the Mona Lisa. After being beaten by the lousy Rams (2-8) at home, the Redskins barely topped the Browns (3-6) by a field goal at home. After struggling to put away the awful Lions (0-9), the Redskins got crunched by the Steelers, 23-6. And now this -- being beaten in almost the same fashion, with the Cowboys in control of both lines of scrimmage, in which they won in Dallas seven weeks ago.

"We didn't stop the run as well as we usually do," said linebacker London Fletcher. "They didn't wear us down. But the last two times they had the ball, we didn't execute the way the defense was called."

On those two final drives, the Cowboys drove 67 yards in eight plays to score the come-from-behind touchdown on a 25-yard bomb from Tony Romo to tight end Martellus Bennett behind rookie safety Chris Horton, then ran out the clock with 46 yards on 13 plays.

"We know we didn't do enough to win the game," said Fletcher, even though the Redskins came up with two interceptions of Romo and won the turnover battle 2-1. Win on turnovers, but lose at home: not a good combination. "We're not putting together those complete games."

So do the Redskins worry about what might've been? Or just say, we're 6-4, let's go whip up on (2-8) Seattle? Probably both. The Redskins first announced their high promise for this season in Dallas in September. In a game in which they dominated both lines of scrimmage, Washington forced the Cowboys into 47 desperate passes, controlled time of possession and got 121 rushing yards from Clinton Portis.

Now, in mid-November, against the same Cowboys, the Redskins have come face-to-face with their limits. Zorn's offense was stuffed much of the night, especially on a fourth-and-four gamble at the Dallas 37-yard line with 6:46 to play. A pass to Santana Moss failed and the Cowboys, with Barber, relentlessly killed the whole clock. Redskins fans may not have had nightmares after seeing this game. But plenty had trouble getting to sleep.

One fact has become clearer as the season has progressed. The Redskins' defense is consistently first-rate, never blown out of a game. But Zorn's West Coast offense, or a version of it that blends the Joe Gibbs school personnel he inherited with elements of his quick-strike attack, is still only half-formed and inconsistent. Is Zorn learning the league? Or is the league learning Zorn? Or are the Redskins still learning Zorn's offense?

"We're not entirely up to the speed with which we have to play," said Zorn of the progress in teaching his offense. "Seventy percent of our passing game is being done right."

But the rest is just a beat off -- a hair too little pass protection, a pass route that isn't crisp enough, a missed assignment or a Campbell read that isn't quite right.

"It's just missed assignments," said Campbell with a bit of disgust. "One play after another."

After a 4-1 start to their season that looked, on paper, like an invitation to go 7-1, Washington has come back to earth. Perhaps most disturbing, all three defeats since then have come at home. Different results beget different perspectives.

The Redskins' playoff hopes are still very much in their own hands, especially with games against losing teams on the road in Seattle, Cincinnati and San Francisco. But, after 10 games, it's also true the Redskins have been outscored, 182-181.

Throughout the second half last night, the score remained close with the Redskins leading, 10-7. But the competition didn't. You could feel the game slipping away. Except for a missed 46-yard field goal, Washington never threatened to score. The Cowboys' drive to take the lead ended with that sparkling 25-yard bomb from Romo to Bennett, who made a leaping catch just over the head of Horton. He had good position but had not turned his head in time to see the ball arrive.

In that regard, Horton was just like the Redskins over the past five games. After such a start, after such hopes, they never saw this coming. Now they'll have to start again. Confidence or doubt. A season, still very much intact, hangs in the balance.

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