By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 8, 2008
In the NFL, it's one thing to lose. It is another entirely to be exposed. You can recover from the first type of disappointment with a night's sleep and renewed resolve. But the second kind of frustration eats at a team's confidence, lingers into future games and ultimately can contaminate an entire season.
That's where the Washington Redskins' offense is now, ranked 29th in the NFL in points and, once again Sunday night, exposed for a national TV audience to see in a 24-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Since the beginning of November, the Redskins have played four first-rate defenses -- the Steelers, Cowboys, Giants and Ravens -- and scored only 33 points in four losses that have dropped Washington's record to 7-6 and left its playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
Until the fourth quarter, the Washington attack was held scoreless. Then, as if to underline their futility issues, they managed 10 points -- too little too late -- after the stellar Redskins defense came up with two turnovers and presented the ball to the offense deep in Ravens territory.
As a final irony, the defense that has played so well so often finally came unglued as the Ravens mounted a 12-play, 83-yard scoring drive to ice the game on a 28-yard touchdown bomb from rookie Joe Flacco to wide receiver Derrick Mason. The final image of this game will be of the Redskins' defense failing. But that will invert the truth of this team's problems and the reason that it will, almost certainly, have to win its final three games and then, most likely, have to get help from others to make the playoffs as a wild card.
The Redskins' attack, conceptualized by Coach Jim Zorn and executed by Jason Campbell, has become so inept against elite defenses that it is almost as apt to allow a score to its foes (one in this game) as to produce a touchdown for itself.
Asked if he ever felt bad to see his defense play well, allowing only 281 yards in this game, yet not get support from his offense, Zorn said: "Ever? Always. I cringe every time I think about us scoring only seven or 10 points."
Just as bad, the Redskins have fallen into a pattern of falling behind, both fast and far, against quality opponents. A week ago, it took the Giants only five minutes to score a touchdown and less than 18 minutes to lead 13-0, putting that game to sleep. Zorn fumed that his team wasn't ready to play from the opening kickoff.
This time, the Redskins showed what true lack of readiness looks like, throwing an interception, having a punt blocked and allowing a touchdown on a fumble return for a 14-0 Baltimore lead in just 5:30.
Often, such lapses soon after leaving the locker room are laid at a coach's feet. Certainly, Joe Gibbs placed the blame there. A long season requires Rah-Rah 101, too.
Since the start of November, as the weather has worsened, the Redskins' offense has been clubbed by the Steelers, beaten by the Cowboys and steamrolled by the Giants, all on their own FedEx Field. On this bitter windy night in the land of amazing Ed Reed (two interceptions and that fumble touchdown return), Ray Lewis and purple pain, the Redskins' offensive exposure in the early crucial phase of this game was instantaneous and ugly.
"Can we ever just put it together?" said guard Randy Thomas who, like most of the veteran offense is mystified by its failure. "It's hard to swallow. The defense gives us chances.
"And now both our [starting] tackles are hurt," added Thomas, referring to Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen. "Chris has the same [triceps] injury I had last year. But his arm's bigger than mine. He might be back next week. But Jansen [sprained medial collateral ligament], he's a tough guy. When he's out, he's really hurt. Not good."
The offense has reached such depths of frustration that Clinton Portis (32 yards on 11 carries) stayed on the sideline much of the second half. Since he practices little, was he missing pass protection assignments against the Ravens' "circus" blitz looks? Zorn danced around the subject, but Ladell Betts averaged only half a yard on six carries.
"We had problems on our slide [pass] protection early in the game -- communication, who's helping [whom]. That hurt us," Zorn said. That's also pregame preparation.
The defense? Oh, it's still one of the 10 best in the league. Those players are utterly "not guilty." Maybe they can be adopted and taken to the playoffs by some other city, like fantasy league football. As for special teams, kicker Shaun Suisham stayed in his slump, missing a 48-yard field goal. And a punt was partially blocked.
Zorn's biggest problem may be the need for more production from his offensive coordinator. The one he's got now is having a brutal season. (Oh, sorry.)
A few details are enough to suffice. On the Redskins' third play from scrimmage, Reed intercepted a batted pass by Campbell, setting up a quick 55-yard Ravens touchdown drive. On the Redskins' second possession, the Ravens blocked the punt. The third time Washington got its hands on the ball, Portis fumbled and that bad man Reed returned the bobble for a touchdown. Time required: 5:30.
On their fourth possession, the Redskins were penalized for taking too much time, then wasted a timeout when they got confused, were penalized for a formation violation and finally saw Campbell sacked by Lewis before punting.
What if the Redskins hadn't had the wind at their back?
As was the case against the Giants, the defense gradually, almost excruciatingly, played the team back into the game. The violence of the defense paid second-half dividends with a LaRon Landry interception and a DeAngelo Hall fumble recovery (after a bone-loosening tackle by Landry on Willis McGahee), which gave Washington the ball at the Baltimore 30- and 26-yard lines. But 10 points, not 14, were the result.
"It's all or nothing now -- 3-0 or it's nothing," Campbell said. "We were 6-2. Now we're 7-6. You find that hard to believe. You'd think 9-3, 10-2. It's crazy. Some teams started 2-4, now they're 8-5.
"It's not how you start, it's how you finish. We lost [four] games at home. If you control your home field, we'd have nine wins. We hit the wall. We have to stick it out."
Without Jansen and perhaps Samuels, with Portis battered from months of pounding, the offense can only hope that playing the lowly Bengals in Cincinnati next Sunday will compensate for their own limits.
"Sometimes we don't even understand ourselves," Thomas said, "but we fight it out to the end."
Nonetheless, a season of hopes has turned darkly into a December of doubts. "So, what do you think of this team?" asked one veteran, who was serious.
If the Redskins had even a mediocre NFL offense, not just the parts that ought to amount to an offense, they'd be a playoff team. But they don't. So, for now, they aren't.