So close, and yet so far away

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 23, 2009

ARLINGTON, TEX. A Redskins season that tried to crawl out of its grave got smashed on the head by a Dallas shovel and sent back into its pit Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.

With five minutes left, the Redskins were on the verge of their first shutout of Dallas in their 50-year rivalry. Then, as a 60-yard Tony Romo-led drive swept downfield, an inspirational-yet-futile effort was erased in a 7-6 loss that left the Redskins at their proudest, yet most despondent moment of the year.

One moment, Redskins fans were about to gloat: The Cowboys can buy a billion-dollar stadium, but they can't buy a point. The next, they were looking at a 3-7 record, the loss of Ladell Betts and Chad Rinehart for the season, the loss of Clinton Portis for at least one more week and games with the tough Eagles and Saints on tap. Toss in Shaun Suisham's two missed field goals, including a 50-yarder with 7 minutes 12 seconds left that would have provided a 9-0 lead, and the mess is complete.

"It's just a heart-yank for our players. We felt like, 'Here we go, we're climbing ourselves out of it.' I just told them I was proud of all of them," said Jim Zorn who, as his time as Redskins coach presumably dwindles toward zero, begins to look like he might actually be a qualified NFL leader someday, somewhere else. "To lose it that way at the end in a hostile situation is just so hard."

Never say pro sports aren't cruel. Your sins always come back to haunt you. This loss illustrates perfectly why a high-expectation bunch like the healthy Redskins of September absolutely have to beat the lousy Lions in their half-empty stadium in Detroit when they've lost 19 games in a row and have no clue how to win. This is why you must put away the crummy Chiefs when they've won two games in their previous 30 and visit hostile FedEx Field.

Then, when the real NFL heartbreaks come, and they always do, you can still recover to fight through the rest of the schedule and maybe even make it deep into January. But the Redskins didn't. They squandered and bumbled away the easiest part of their schedule.

Now, as the foes get tougher and the Redskins' roster grows more battered, they've played better. That's why this loss in a classic woulda-coulda-shoulda game was even more bitterly unacceptable.

"It feels like you're getting stabbed," said Zorn, making a knifing gesture toward his chest. "Yet we hung in there. I really believe this is a special team of players who will not just check [out] being 3-7. It is bleak. Being 3-7 is bleak. But we're going to patch it up and go again."

Quarterback Jason Campbell completed 24 of 37 passes for 256 yards and one interception on a tipped ball. Around him: no Portis or Betts or Chris Cooley. In front of him: no Chris Samuels, Randy Thomas or even Rinehart. Yet the Redskins outgained Dallas 324 yards to 305 and, but for Suisham, who had been 12 for 12 on field goal attempts, would have mustered enough to win.

Campbell's big threat? Rock Cartwright. Seven times, as the Dallas rush was about to pound him, Campbell found Cartwright for 73 yards in receptions. "Sometimes you have to stand in there and take one in the mouth," Campbell said.

Yet early-season memories made him wince. "You wish we won 'em," he said of games against the Lions, Chiefs and perhaps Panthers, too. "You have to win the games you are supposed to win. We didn't do it and they are coming back to bite us."

Ever since a halftime tirade by offensive line coach Joe Bugel in Atlanta when the team seemed to have quit, the Redskins have actually begun to play something like a team -- with more intensity, fewer mental mistakes and, as big names keep dropping, with basic team spirit.

And the more obvious it has become that Zorn, minus play-calling duties, is probably a figurehead, the more he acts like a forceful, accountable NFL coach. In this game, the Redskins squandered two timeouts unnecessarily. One of them, Zorn might have blamed on the Redskins' bizarre Sherm-to-Sherm-to-Jason play-calling method.

Instead, he said: "I absolutely have no idea how it happened. On the second timeout, that was so frustrating to me. . . . We got caught on time again. I had to call timeout. It's totally mine, on me, [I] screwed us out of a timeout. I did everything I could to maintain my composure. It absolutely [was] an issue at the end of this football game."

Maybe Zorn is covering, a bit, for others. Or not. What's different is not his words, but his manner and bearing. Now that he's essentially out of a job, he feels like a real NFL coach. And his players seem to respond. This column will never refer to him again as the spacy coach from Pluto. He's getting a team that could quit to beat Denver and play the Pokes to a standstill.

The measure of how close this game actually was can be summed in one play -- Romo's 10-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton when he scrambled left, then threw back to his right. Romo, with a grandiosity that may be mandatory in a Jerry Jones quarterback, attributed the final drive to -- who else? -- his sometime golfing buddy, the World's Most Famous Athlete.

"I've talked to Tiger Woods about it," said Romo, his picture appearing on the enormous stadium scoreboards for the seven or eight fans still in the Mother Ship. "Tiger says, 'It all doesn't matter on the 18th hole. It doesn't matter if you've had six bogies. It's about executing right now. Deal with the rest of it later.'

"So I thought, 'It's just about this one drive. None of it matters. This is all that counts.' "

Actually, maybe what really counted was that Romo spun out of a potential sack by rookie Brian Orakpo on that touchdown pass, otherwise the Cowboys might have been looking at third and infinity. "I was very close. I had him," Orakpo said. "He used my momentum against me and spun out of the tackle."

The Redskins are playing without half of their opening day offense and minus some of their defense. Yet they sometimes seem close to being a competitive team.

Yes, it's bleak at 3-7. But, for a team that seemed utterly lost a few weeks ago, the Redskins are, once again, a team that has kept -- or perhaps discovered -- some of its dignity.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company