By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008
BALTIMORE, Dec. 7 -- When November began, there was reason for optimism among Washington's football players and their fans. The first half of the Redskins' season brought a glimpse of a first-year coach, Jim Zorn, who seemed to have a knack for calling the right play at the right time. The defense appeared stout enough to hold up as the weather turned frigid.
Sunday night, though, brought events that made those joyous times seem even more remote. The Baltimore Ravens all but bullied the Redskins in a 24-10 victory, Washington's fourth loss in five games. In each of those defeats, Zorn's offense has seemed to step back instead of move forward, and Sunday's effort yielded only one touchdown, a fourth-quarter score set up by a Baltimore turnover that was just about the Redskins' only true threat on a frigid night.
Thus, with each of these losses, the playoffs -- which at midseason seemed all but certain for the Redskins, who started 6-2 -- appear less and less likely. At 7-6, they are in last place in the National Football Conference East division, and while winning their remaining three games would bring an improvement over last year's record, it would ensure nothing regarding the postseason.
"You look at it: We were 6-2," said quarterback Jason Campbell, who threw two interceptions Sunday night. "And now we're 7-6. You find that hard to believe."
A year ago, the Redskins, under Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, endured the slaying of star safety Sean Taylor and ran off four straight December wins to reach the playoffs. But these Redskins -- who are having trouble sustaining and finishing drives -- failed to draw even with Dallas and Atlanta, who after losing Sunday are both 8-5, and also fell behind Philadelphia (7-5-1) in the race for the postseason.
With either Tampa Bay or Carolina likely to gain one of two wild-card playoff berths in the NFC -- the NFC South rivals stand at 9-3 and face each other Monday night -- the Redskins are essentially facing a three-week finish in which they must sweep Cincinnati, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Even with such a run, they need help from other teams if they are to reach the playoffs again.
"Our backs are up against the wall," offensive lineman Pete Kendall said. "I think we're in a position where we have to win out, and we may need some help. It's less than ideal, the way things are trending at this point."
The trend now includes injuries, and the Redskins will await word Monday on such key players as tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen and safety Chris Horton, all of whom were forced to leave Sunday's game. They will also have to deal with running back Clinton Portis, who was held to 32 yards on 11 carries -- only one after halftime -- and fumbled on what turned out to be the key play of the game. Baltimore safety Ed Reed scooped up the ball and ran for a 22-yard touchdown that gave the Ravens a 14-0 lead less than six minutes into the game. Portis appeared frustrated as he came off the field following the game, mentioning being "benched" in favor of backup Ladell Betts.
"We just felt like we wanted to give Clinton a bit of a rest, and then get him back in," Zorn said. "I let our running back coach kind of regulate who was getting reps there."
The Redskins, though, have larger issues than who is carrying the ball.
"It's tough, man," offensive lineman Randy Thomas said. "You got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Are you doing enough to get the job done?' Personally, I don't think I am. I hope other guys feel the same way."
It is now left to Zorn, the 55-year-old Californian who is in his first year as a head coach at any level, to deliver the message to each of his players, to hold this group together. He found the first step in that process -- his postgame speech -- jarring.
"This was really hard," he said. "I've taken each game as they've gone, and this was very difficult for me after the game to talk about why and what and how and who's at fault."
The thrust: The offense, Zorn's baby, sputtered so much in the first half that it felt almost as if the Ravens' ferocious defense, led by Reed and linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, was the aggressor when Washington had the ball. And when the Redskins overcame a 17-0 deficit to pull to 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Washington's defense simply could not stop Baltimore on an excruciating 12-play, 83-yard drive that took up nearly eight minutes and ended with a clinching touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to receiver Derrick Mason.
"I think that was the game," Zorn said. "We made it hard on offense in the first half, and then we had one drive [on defense] in the second half that made it hard."
Though their stadiums sit fewer than 40 miles from each other, the Redskins and Ravens have played only four times in the regular season, none since 2004, never in Baltimore. Pockets of burgundy and gold dotted the stands packed with 71,438 fans, the largest home crowd in Ravens history. But M&T Bank Stadium was otherwise occupied by Baltimore fans, who zipped up their purple, puffy jackets and yanked down their purple, woolen caps to guard against temperatures that dropped into the 20s. The wind howled from one end of the stadium to the other, affecting both passes and kicks -- precisely the kind of game Baltimore's fearsome defense, ranked second in the National Football League entering the game, enjoys.
"They make it hard on you," Kendall said.
The Redskins make it hard on themselves. Sunday's performance lowered their scoring average to 16.8 points per game, among the worst in the league. In the current five-game swoon, they have failed to score more than one touchdown four times, and are averaging 10.6 points in that span.
Zorn took over last winter and planned to install a West Coast offensive system that featured quick, short, passes, but he admitted last week that perhaps his unit had been inundated with too much information too quickly. Receivers, some of them unsure of how to break on a certain play, moved more slowly than the coach wanted. Thus, Zorn said he planned to strip back some of the choices his players had to make on the fly.
Even that, now, has failed to yield a win. Thus, as the Redskins walked into their locker room afterward -- barely a word exchanged among them -- they ripped tape from their limbs, hoods from their heads, the frustration obvious. With so much negative to dwell on, Zorn -- finding his way through his first season -- tried to finish with whatever modicum of optimism he could muster.
"We have three games now," he said. "It is sudden death. Unfortunately, losing four out of our last five games does not help confidence. We got to dig down deep."