By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 24, 2008
SEATTLE All the Redskins veterans know the feeling, right down to their NFL-battered bones, as they remember the games over the last decade against foes they should have beaten but didn't, as a season that might have been memorable, maybe even truly excellent, turned into one more variation on mediocrity.
That nightmare game arrived again Sunday, leering at the Redskins, asking them if they could pass a test they've often failed. Could they beat a bad team like the Seahawks in a raucous stadium on the road? Could they mount a long fourth-quarter drive from the shadow of their own goal posts to preserve a win? Could they finish the kill, stomp on the clock without messing up royally?
This time, they could, barely winning 20-17 -- squeaking by, scaring themselves silly. This time, and we'll soon know if it's an omen or an illusion, the Redskins grabbed a game they couldn't afford to squander and dragged it home.
Now, the Redskins are 7-4, have broken a two-game losing streak and celebrated rookie coach Jim Zorn's return to the town where he played and coached. "To get a win over [Seahawks Coach] Mike Holmgren, that's something," said Zorn. "That's not split-pea soup."
This time, the Redskins rode 143 yards from Clinton Portis, who, despite his gold shoes and cute quips, may be the toughest running back the franchise has ever had. "I almost got knocked out. I got blood running down both legs, both my arms," said Portis, who has a league-best 1,206 yards with five games left to make a run at MVP. "A rough game, a rough season."
And this time, the Redskins got the interception from former Seahawk Shawn Springs with less than 1 minute 30 seconds to play that crushed quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's chance to ruin the day, and perhaps the whole season, of the coach to whom he owes the most -- Zorn.
So, the flight home was sweet and the anticipation of the arrival of the New York Giants at FedEx Field next Sunday will be sharp as dog's teeth.
But the questions about the Redskins, the questions that have hung over this team for the last dozen seasons, are still there. When do they turn the corner, or do they ever make the jump to being one of the NFL's half-dozen superior teams, one of the squads that goes deep into January rather than just showing flashes, raising hopes and then playing down to the level of teams like the Seahawks? In the past 10 years, since Daniel Snyder bought the team, they're 75-80 with three playoff trips, but only two first-round wins. Does that change? Or is Zorn's first year asking too much?
"Are we that really good team? I don't know yet. I'm not going to come out and say it," ninth-year veteran Chris Samuels said. "But we're heading in the right direction. It's too early to tell. But winning games like this one, learning how to finish -- that's part of becoming a real good team.
"We've got tough guys, good coaches. But today, that was scary. We just got to let it play out and find out."
The Seahawks are bad -- 28th in the NFL on defense and 31st in offense entering the game. And that's just how they played, even with Hasselbeck back. They made crucial mistakes, committed three turnovers, looked lost and often were overwhelmed by the Redskins' genuinely fine defense, which covers tight on the corners, hits viciously in the middle and helps its beaten-up defensive line with blitzes.
Yet the Redskins found themselves leading by just three points, 20-17, backed up to their 4-yard line with 7:05 to play. Would they be forced to punt, lose field position and, eventually, the game on the same cacophonous field where they were knocked out of the playoffs in January? Would this be another unaccountable defeat, like a loss at home last month to the 2-9 Rams?
"Over the years, we've shown signs a lot of times," veteran guard Randy Thomas said. "Then something happens. We've let those games get away that we should have won. We've had a couple of those this year, too.
"But that drive out from the 4 might have saved our season. If we give the ball back to them there, it could be one of those games. They knew we were going to run. And we ran it at them anyway."
Football, especially in the fourth quarter on the road, is territorial, military, personal and mean. That's why, since the day he arrived, Portis has been the best weapon the Redskins have. From the 4, it was Portis for nine, Portis for 11 and Portis for 20. Finally, on third and one with two minutes to play, it was Portis for six more yards and a first down that would almost certainly seal the win.
That's when the moment arrived to remind you that the Redskins are still a slightly haunted team, a franchise that has another hill or two to climb before it faces tight games or truly big ones with a champion's equanimity. After a one-yard carry, the exhausted Portis took a rest to let Ladell Betts burn the clock. And, in a spot where you sacrifice fingers but not the football, Betts was spun backward and stripped of the ball.
"I couldn't believe we gave them the ball back," Zorn said.
If you commit such sins with 1:28 to play against Eli Manning or Tony Romo, they probably take you to overtime, if you're lucky, or just send you home if you're not. But Hasselbeck committed the unpardonable sin -- an interception on first down. Long ago, ex-Redskins coach Norv Turner said: "There's no excuse for a first-down interception. Ever. Think about it. Three more downs."
But Hasselbeck threw it straight to Springs. "I should not have thrown it the way I did. Probably shouldn't have thrown it at all," said Hasselbeck, who was transformed on Zorn's watch here. "I threw it to the second [option]. I should have gone to Number 5 if I had to." Then he said slowly, "Just don't do that."
Have the Redskins, who've outscored the league by only two points this year, been a little bit lucky to get to 7-4? Absolutely. But is good luck what tends to fall around the shoulders of teams that almost never turn the ball over? That's every bit as true.
"If you want to explain our record, we've made some key plays at the right times. We haven't turned the ball over much. We haven't scored enough points either, but we haven't turned it over," Zorn said. "And, if you want to look at statistics, we have a pretty stellar defense."
Were the Redskins a pretty good team turning into a very good one, a bunch with .500-ish statistics but a 7-4 knack for victory? Or, as has been the case often, were they teasing?
"When we run the ball 30 times or more, we can beat a lot of people," Thomas said.
Can they beat the Giants?
"You never know what can happen in the NFL East," Portis said. "We still got a chance."
They have that chance because they beat the Seahawks in the kind of unnecessarily frightening game that has often gotten away from the Redskins, unraveling a season in the process.
Not this time. Turning point? Or tease?