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Forward, and Back

By Mike Wise
Monday, December 1, 2008

Sean Taylor's face appeared on the video scoreboard before the game, an image that invoked cheers, tears and mostly a gripping reminder of what tragically happened to a family and a franchise a year ago.

Across FedEx Field, the New York Giants were coping with a less serious setback to their roster, the accidental shooting of star wide receiver Plaxico Burress in the leg, by himself, in a Manhattan nightclub on Friday night.

This slate-gray, wet afternoon in Landover was not about superiority in the NFC East and perhaps beyond. Most of us already knew how much more efficient and better the Giants are than the Redskins; 23-7 merely confirmed it.

For two franchises dealing with very different losses, yesterday was about moving forward -- about dealing with the realities of a violent profession that seems to grow increasingly dangerous once the players leave the field of play.

On an afternoon when the home team best tried to honor the memory of Taylor a year after he was shot and killed in his own home, yesterday was also about surviving without stars in the only major U.S. professional sports league -- the no-guaranteed-contract NFL -- that does not seem to need them to move product and television ratings.

Where the Giants have become a microcosm of the league, where people will cheer for whoever wears the jersey as long as he performs and the team wins.

Where Tiki Barber can retire in 2007 and three youngsters nicknamed Earth, Wind and Fire now run wild in the rain.

Where the player who made the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, David Tyree, never plays a down this season. Where a petulant, greedy Burress sadly sabotages his own future with the team in a late-night freak accident involving his own handgun, and it still doesn't matter. Some quick wideout named Domenik Hixon steps in, catches five passes from Eli Manning for 71 yards and on the machine rolls.

Where their best defensive lineman, Michael Strahan, retires, and their next best lineman, Osi Umenyiora, goes down to injury, and a defense still manages to stifle the run and occasionally makes quarterbacks run for cover.

The Giants did not lose a teammate to tragedy, but they have lost more than their fair share of talent. Even yesterday, running back Ahmad Bradshaw was banged up and out, and fellow backs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward managed to combine for 176 rushing and receiving yards.

"Mostly, they have a good corps of leaders, starting with Eli, and they don't get fractured," said Barber, who infamously said Manning was not a leader a year ago. (Tiki said he called Manning right after their Super Bowl victory over the Patriots to let him know how much his feelings had changed.)

"They also have all these young players that contribute right away," Barber added. "There's always another young guy that just wants a chance and then he steps in and performs."

A turnaround like the Giants' 2007 run is not impossible for Washington. But it would have to mirror what the Redskins accomplished a year ago, somehow rallying behind the emotion of Taylor's death and running the table after a calamitous loss to Buffalo the week after he died.

Painful as that day was, yesterday partially took you back to that day when Taylor passed away.

George Michael, forever the dean of Washington sportscasters, invoked Taylor's name as if he were at FedEx Field in the pregame enshrinement of Taylor into the team's Ring of Fame. Taylor's father, Pedro, said a few words that charged the crowd in the stadium. But in trying to pay homage to the somber mood of November 2007, the entire ceremony straddled the line of maudlin.

The public-address announcer bellowing, as Clinton Portis carried out a No. 21 flag, "Here comes Number 21, Sean Taylor!" may have elicited tears from Jackie Garcia, the mother of Taylor's daughter. But that well-intentioned gesture and so many more felt more like the Redskins were trying to conduct a séance rather than a fitting ceremony.

Jason Campbell said it was a nice tribute for his family, but even he admitted, "Initially, it's tough to watch." More than an electric, Win-One-For-21 feeling coursing through the stadium, the pregame tribute felt almost deflating, a reminder of how awful and sad his death was a year ago.

Sean Taylor, as we knew him, was not at FedEx Field yesterday. If he were it's possible Eli Manning would not have taken so many gambles across the middle and thrown for more than 300 yards.

The grief process for those closest to Taylor goes on. For the franchise, the reality of not having the game's most feared defensive back stalking the secondary, ready to pop a crossing receiver and make him think about exposing his midsection the next play, is a loss felt weekly.

A montage of Taylor's playing career was shown on the scoreboard, accompanied by music from Taylor's favorite hip-hop artist, T.I. A portion of the lyrics included in "Big Things Poppin'," which was picked by Jackie and the Taylor family:

"I tote a pair of 40s on me so you better tone it down

Or I suggest you just prepare yourself for when it's goin' down."

T.I., it should be mentioned, pleaded guilty earlier this year to weapons charges -- he was arrested for possession of two unregistered machine guns and two silencers in October 2007 -- and began serving a year in jail last March.

This is a very unique and delicate situation, so what's right and wrong is highly subjective and it's nothing if not emotional. Yet on a day when a player is posthumously honored -- a player who died of gun violence -- do we really need that song from that artist, blaring through FedEx Field's speakers?

It's not the family's fault; they were doing right by their lost loved one. But maybe someone with the organization should have made that call.

Look, you can't ever replace a murdered player in his prime at 24 years old. You can only honor his memory the best way you know how, and hope beyond hope your players and coaches cope with that loss in a way that enables them to move forward at some point.

Let's hope after yesterday, after a day of dealing with loss was felt by everyone, they have.

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