Let's Hear It For the Poise

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 5, 2009

On Saturday, coordinator Greg Blache met with his Redskins defense and almost came to tears with an emotional plea to their pride, even to their manhood. The hard-bark Blache, who had taken blame for last week's loss to the Lions, hit every old-school button from his 39 years as a coach. "After he was finished, you were ready to run through a brick wall," one veteran said.

Later, that evening, London Fletcher, the heart and brains of the defense that is at the Redskins' core, gave an eyes-blazing speech at a team meeting to which coaches were invited if they did not speak. He recalled the togetherness and intensity that defined the Redskins less than two years ago when, after the murder of Sean Taylor, they made a long, unlikely run to reach the playoffs.

"London gave a great speech. It brought back that old feeling -- no pointing fingers, everybody coming together," fullback Mike Sellers said. "We've got each other's back. All we've got is each other. The pressure can't get no worse than it was this week."

Then the Redskins went out Sunday in front of 86,412 and, against Tampa Bay, played a first half so putrid they trailed one of the worst teams in the NFL 10-0, and were booed off the field at intermission with a waterfall of jeers almost unequaled in the long annals of Washington's love affair with the Redskins.

At halftime, the Redskins did not talk. "There was no yelling at each other," Sellers said.

"We could have come apart, but we didn't," Fletcher said.

In that bleak moment, even Coach Jim Zorn said he doubted himself. "I thought, 'What else can go wrong with what I'm calling? It's on me. I'm the play-caller,' " Zorn said. "But everybody maintained their poise. No one questioned the game plan. Yet I questioned it."

Then everything changed. Not a lot. Not quickly, but enough.

For how long, who knows? But long enough to come back and beat the Bucs, 16-13, that's for sure. Long enough to fill a locker room with shakes of the head and mutual gratitude. Despite playing four genuinely ugly games, the Redskins had escaped with a 2-2 record and a season that is not yet too badly damaged.

"I was encouraged by our players. There was nothing that resembled giving up. Although I was taking a few deep breaths," said Zorn, who is as refreshingly candid and out of the rigid NFL mold as any Redskins coach since Steve Spurrier. "We had committed men after last week's demoralizing loss."

After losing to the Lions and barely beating two of the NFL's weakest teams at FedEx by a total of five points -- 9-7 and 16-13 -- it is reasonable to wonder if this will be even a winning team. But at least it's a bunch that might have rediscovered its heart.

"We needed this bad," Fletcher said. "We've been maligned. Our defensive coordinator was under fire.

"You notice the booing. You hear it throughout the game. The fans, they love the Redskins. We know we haven't been giving them what they're used to around here, in terms of just good football. That's what we really want to get back to -- that legacy where we talk about the Redskins of old, where it's a great tradition, winning football, tough, physical football. We're trying to get back to where you put that helmet on, it means something."

After too many years of having too high an opinion of their glam potential, the Redskins might now be looking to core team leaders who aren't glitzy, aren't glib, but will bust your lip. Round up the hard losers.

"It's all about grinding it out," said Sellers, who was brought in by Joe Gibbs as a smash-mouth blocking back. "If the game was always 'perfect football,' nobody would want to play."

Put another way: When you play as imperfectly as the Redskins have since the middle of last season, then it is essential to develop a mind-set that embraces ugly wins and takes pride -- rather than a kind of superstar's shame -- at digging deep to beat an unglamorous foe on your home field.

"We need to win games the way we win games, not the way people want us to win," quarterback Jason Campbell said.

It's said that it's better to be lucky than good. The Redskins are a variation on that theme: They're a team that needs to be lucky long enough to find out whether it can become good.

In that modest quest, the NFL schedule-makers have been a huge help to Washington. After their opener against the Giants, the Redskins are in the midst of five straight games against teams that entered Sunday in the bottom six in the NFL in point-differential. There hasn't been an easier stretch in 20 years. The last 10 games of the season? Plenty tough.

Next come the Panthers (0-3) in Carolina, then the Chiefs (0-4) at FedEx. How good are they? About as good as the 0-4 Rams and 0-4 Bucs. Just say, "Thank you." Can the Redskins beat them to get to 4-2? Maybe, if they don't think grinding out wins is beneath them. Too often last year, and in Detroit, they did.

By acting a bit more humble, the Redskins may actually make more plays of which they can be proud. This game turned on a beauty of a play-action-fake, double-move touchdown to Santana Moss. "Santana just had his way with that defensive back," Zorn said of Aqib Talib, who had all three interceptions of Campbell.

"Jason put that ball right on the money," Zorn said of his quarterback who, despite four turnovers, ended up 12 for 22 for 170 yards.

In fact, with his team trailing 10-9 late in the third quarter, Campbell even showed a bit of flash just before that pass to Moss. As soon as he got the play over his headphones from Zorn, he told his offensive linemen in the huddle, "This will be a touchdown if we just have time to get the ball out."

He got the time. And it was.

Did we just see a season change? It's far too early to say. But we didn't see a season die. And it could have -- in hails of boos so grating to the Redskins that, when Moss crossed the goal line, he made a "Shhhhh" sign to the home crowd. Ever see that before?

If the Redskins had plummeted to 1-3, with such a tough late-season schedule, it would have been hard, bordering on hallucinatory, to make a playoff-chase case for the Redskins. Now, if they take care of their next two games, maybe we can talk.

"We're now going into the second quarter of our season. We're 0-0," Zorn said. "It's going to be a long season."

He's right, but just barely. If the Redskins had not summoned themselves -- both before this game with their emotional words, then in the quietest of halftime locker rooms with their wills -- this might have been a very short season indeed.

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