By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 28, 2009
DETROIT The NFL has seen many more important defeats than the one that befell the professional football franchise from Washington on Sunday at Ford Field. However, in the league's history, there have been few more embarrassing defeats than the Lions' 19-14 win over Washington, breaking a 19-game losing streak.
For the Redskins, it's not as bad as losing a title game 73-0. Nowhere close. Then they were playing for honor. But in the long annals of the whole league, not just the Redskins, this one is hard to top for gall.
When you're one of the most valuable franchises in American sports, when you have a 70-year tradition of great teams and Hall of Famers, when the Lions are -- among all NFL teams -- the one that you always beat up, you're not supposed to get whipped, especially when everyone spends an entire week screaming, "The Lions will beat 'em."
After this game, the Washington locker room truly was a sorry sight. The Redskins had spent three hours making the most eloquent possible case -- against themselves.
After all the strident warnings that they might be upset and the questions of whether they were ready to play, they fell behind 13-0 and were outgained on the ground in the first half 116-0. And the Lions won despite having their best running back, Kevin Smith (101 yards on 16 carries), knocked out of the game early in the third quarter.
Would the Redskins play nervously, as though all the criticism of the team and its ownership had distracted them? Would they act like a team that was booed after it won an ugly 9-7 home opener the previous Sunday? Would they perform like a team that has endured the joke over and over all month: The fans should sue the team, not the other way around?
"I just don't really know what happened today," said stunned quarterback Jason Campbell, acknowledging a "weird" atmosphere, where it seemed that a Redskins team on an awful run of luck -- much of it self-inflicted -- was destined to trump the Lions' bleak recent history.
Twice, the ball simply slipped out of Campbell's hands for fumbles as he stood in the pocket, untouched. He recovered both. And had a 27-of-41 passing day for 340 yards and two touchdowns. Yet a dark cloud -- some particularly Redskins blend of outward overconfidence and inward self-doubt -- hung over the game.
"Everybody said we were going to lose this game. Some guys maybe started to believe it," defensive tackle Phillip Daniels said.
Perhaps only one thing is almost certain after a defeat this shocking: The Redskins will get better or they will get worse. After a defeat this defining, this painful, things never stay the same, especially when this loss feels like the culmination of a slide that began at 6-2 last season.
"You never know what's going to be our changing point," Campbell said.
"Are we going to bond like brothers or fall apart?" defensive back Fred Smoot said. "I'm going to take it hard, but it's not the end of the world. We can right the ship. The Lions did it.
"Football is a long story. We are on chapter three. There are 16 chapters. Lets see how this book ends."
That's the right attitude, without a doubt. Will the Redskins adopt it? To do so, they may have to fight through an incredible amount of self-delusion about the talent level on their team. This week, Clinton Portis said he thought the Redskins had the most talent in the NFL. Comments like that have been common in the Redskins' locker room for the past 10 years -- regardless of all available evidence. Not only is the view tolerated at Redskins Park, it is encouraged and marketed. Where does this fallacy arise? In the owner's suite, where the price of players is equated with their performance?
They refuse to define themselves by the final scoreboard but, instead, cling to their own private view of themselves and their far higher value -- sometimes based on their performances in other years or even on other teams.
After a wonderful 10-catch, 178-yard game, wide receiver Santana Moss fell into the deepest and worst snare -- and one that constantly catches the Redskins. Moss said many reasonable things after this defeat. But he also said the magic words that always make my skin crawl in a locker room. "We are the better team," he said.
Anyone who has ever seen "The Hustler," perhaps the best of all sports movies, remembers Paul Newman's character saying to Minnesota Fats, "Even if you beat me, I'm still the best." George C. Scott's character says to Fats: "Stay with this kid. He's a loser."
The Redskins aren't losers. But they will never be elite winners, especially in a team sport, until they defeat the idea that their potential, their fame or their wealth matters at all. Only their performance -- which is kept on the scoreboard for a reason -- counts. That's why teams beat individuals. And that's how the Lions, who have also had seasons of 2-14, 3-13, 5-11, 5-11 and 3-13 since '01, can beat Washington despite that $100 million free agent defensive tackle.
When the Redskins stop treating outcomes like this, or their losses last year to the Rams and Bengals, as flukes, they will have taken the first step toward minimizing them.
Perhaps most perplexed of all at day's end was Coach Jim Zorn, who didn't seem to grasp, entirely, that his two dubious burn-the-book decisions in the first quarter had cost the Redskins at least seven points -- more than the ultimate margin of defeat.
Zorn decided against a short field goal, then was stopped on fourth and one at the Lions goal line. Then, just minutes later, he accepted a penalty, allowing the Lions to replay third down -- a classic tempt-fate tactic. Detroit, instead of being forced to try a 50-yard field goal, converted the third and 13 and eventually completed a 99-yard touchdown drive.
Instead of a 3-3 score, at worst, the Lions led 7-0. A coach could hardly do a better job of handing away momentum. All else being equal -- a big supposition, but far from huge -- the Redskins would have led this game 17-16 in the closing minutes if Zorn had simply made the two conventional calls.
"I didn't think we'd be denied" at the 1, Zorn said. "I thought, 'No way they can drive 99 yards on us.' I didn't believe that would happen."
In the first quarter, most coaches go by percentages, not prophecy.
"On the field goal, [Detroit place kicker] Jason Hanson was in his range. I just had to pull him back out of it," Zorn said.
Why? Is three points so bad? Doesn't seven feel a lot worse?
All those years when Zorn was being a successful NFL quarterback, then being a quarterbacks coach, was he so focused on play-design detail and passer techniques that he didn't pay much attention to all the big-picture decisions that head coaches (as well as fans and media) spend their lives obsessing over?
Zorn's little finger can tell you more about football than everybody watching his team play. But it's possible -- just possible -- that plenty of those fans, who wouldn't know from a mesh-snag-triangle pass route, actually have a better sense of what most great NFL coaches have done over the years in classic NFL game-decision situations.
How will the Redskins cope with the national distinction of being the Team the Lions Beat? Will the Lions, perhaps, improve so much this season that, by December, losing to them won't seem nearly as much of a stigma? Can the team rally around this dubious distinction and bond together, perhaps even find the reckless-abandon they sometimes lack?
"It's about us taking care of details," Zorn said. "We'll find the solution to this is small issues that we cannot overlook."
Doesn't it seem more likely that there are some elephant-size issues, hardly details that are now standing in the middle of the Redskins' room? Zorn knows football. But although Zorn had never been a head coach at any level, he was picked by owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the executive vice president of football operations, after a dysfunctional coaching search in which the Redskins' job was widely snubbed.
Is a loss to the Lions the ultimate Snyder-Cerrato comeuppance for matching on-the-job coach training with a win-now roster?
"It's not the coach's fault. It's on us players," tackle Chris Samuels said. So, in slightly different words, did Cornelius Griffin. Twenty more Redskins would have added to this chorus. They're right -- it's not about the coach. Well, not only about the coach.
This loss, and the embarrassment that attended it, were not the culmination of any short-term trend or strategy mistake. For this Lions win to come to pass, many tumblers had to click into place over many years.
This dignity-robbing defeat, one that the Redskins will remember and hopefully reflect upon, took only three hours.
But it was years in the making.