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In the end, they were still game

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, November 9, 2009

ATLANTA

The Redskins gave us a glimpse of just how ugly this season could get if the coaches and players want to go there. With anarchy just around the corner, it would have been so easy for a quitter's mentality to set in, for the Redskins to retreat into self-pity and personal self-preservation.

Instead, the Redskins signaled they still intend to play a respectable brand of football this season. It was something, even sort of heartening. Given every reason to roll all the way to the bottom of the hill, they didn't. They rallied, out of sheer professionalism.

"Man up," Joe Bugel screamed at halftime, with a few other hard phrases thrown in. "Go to work."

Professionalism is an underestimated, underappreciated quality. "A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it," Alistair Cooke said. The Redskins were trailing the Atlanta Falcons 24-3 at halftime, and they had as many yards in penalties as they did in total offense with 69, surely the most embarrassing statistic yet for Coach Jim Zorn. Their defense was failing them, too, and a late hit by LaRon Landry and the ensuing flailing of DeAngelo Hall had threatened to start a rumble with the entire Falcons sideline. No one would have blamed quarterback Jason Campbell if he wanted to sue his own line for reckless endangerment, as he was sacked five times, buried under huge mounds of opposing players.

"It was demoralizing," center Casey Rabach said.

Yet in the second half, the Redskins returned to the field to perform with method and conviction, before falling to the Falcons, 31-17. They did so even though everyone knows this team isn't going to the playoffs without celestial intervention. They did so knowing they lack some essential pieces to be truly competitive. And they did so knowing that their coaching staff and presumably several players won't be around next season. Oddly, and maybe significantly, credit for that resolve has to go to Zorn and Campbell, the two biggest lame ducks on the team, who have been blamed and scapegoated for much of what's gone wrong.

With all the chaos going on around them, Campbell and Zorn have somehow kept their minds right, and their focus steady. They arguably have more at stake than anyone. Yet they have confined their public statements to football and talked about making steady improvement, even when critics jeered at them as Pollyannas. They haven't called news conferences to condemn or defend the owner. They haven't instituted media boycotts. They've just stood up and accepted the scrutiny and criticism for someone else's decisions. They'll both be somewhere else next season. But there are plenty of people who will be back who could learn something from them.

It's an interesting fact of Zorn's brief, mixed career as head coach that his team has yet to experience a blowout. The Redskins certainly looked headed for one against the Falcons, as they struggled from the opening possession. The Falcons scored on a rhythmic 10-play drive -- helped by two offsides penalties on Albert Haynesworth -- that was a perfect mix of run and pass, of grinding gains and quick strikes. It was the sort of drive the Redskins could only envy, and it surely wasn't lost on them that what made it possible was an operative offensive line that gave the Falcons' play-callers options. They had muscle when they needed short yardage and time when they needed long.

Contrast that to the way the Redskins opened the game offensively. Clinton Portis for one yard. Portis for no gain. Campbell sacked. Punt. That was their rhythm, as it has been all season.

It only got worse. With 3 minutes 20 seconds left in the first quarter Portis carried over left tackle and was buried in the turf face down, his elbows akimbo, his legs still. Coaches raced onto the field and bent over him like a human tent, and one of them rolled his helmet off. After a long couple of minutes he got to his feet, but he spent the rest of the day with a towel draped over his head. On the very next play Falcons cornerback Tye Hill intercepted Campbell's short pass intended for Fred Davis and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown.

Campbell could barely complete his three- and five-step drops without getting chased. He took his fifth sack with 2:54 left in half, and this one left him crawling on his hands and knees with a chest contusion, unable to rise, like a punch-drunk fighter.

At halftime, the coaching staff erupted in a cacophony of screaming. Zorn's halftime theme was simple: "Do your job," he said.

Among the loudest was Bugel, the offensive line coach, whose theme to his unit was, do what you're paid for. "In the Bugel way of getting a point across," Rabach said, "with a lot of cussing, and not in a soft voice."

The message worked. Zorn told the chest-sore Campbell: "So what? You got to get up; a tough guy's got to be out there." Campbell responded by leading the Redskins on their two longest touchdown drives of the season. He got some help when the line began giving him adequate protection.

"We just said enough is enough and did what we needed to do," Rabach said.

Campbell, beating the rush and getting rid of the ball quicker, opened the second half by driving them 80 yards on 13 plays, Ladell Betts surging over on fourth and goal at the 1. A possession later, they went 81 yards on 13 plays, this time Campbell rolling desperately to his right and finding Todd Yoder floating across the back of the end zone for the scoring pass.

"A lot of things were said from coaches and players," Campbell said. "A lot of it was about fighting and not giving up and giving each other a chance to make plays. At halftime, whatever it was, we played like a totally different offense."

As Joe Paterno once said, "Professionalism has nothing to do with getting paid for your services." Professionalism will only be a bigger issue from now for the Redskins, as they move into the toughest part of their schedule. Apart from Dec. 13 at Oakland, there are no foreseeable wins left. They will be playing purely for their reputations. The postgame issues won't be, what play did the game swing on? It will be, did you quit or didn't you? Everyone will have to answer for himself -- or in the cases of those taking media vows of silence, not answering for himself. They know they have at least two people who will step up, and answer.

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