Mike Wise: 'Moral victories' aren't worth measuring

Quarterback Jason Campbell walks off the field following another Redskins loss, their ninth straight away from home.
Quarterback Jason Campbell walks off the field following another Redskins loss, their ninth straight away from home. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Monday, November 30, 2009


It's easy to get caught up in lauding the Redskins for not having quit on the season after injuries and near-offensive implosion, for bucking up against the Broncos, for staying with division rivals on the road until the end the past two weeks, for managing to put points on the board, for the character-laden defense flat-out digging in at times.

But to portray what happened in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon as anything more than a 3-8 team finding ways to lose games it should have won is going too far.

Too far toward buying into the dreaded notion of "moral victories," too far, really, toward sappy catchphrases that solid and steady organizations won't tolerate. Because those organizations know that if one of the teams with the largest payrolls in the league has now lost nine straight games on the road, something beyond torn cartilage and bad luck is wrong. Even if the majority of that payroll and some of the team's best players coming into the season -- Clinton Portis, Chris Cooley, Albert Haynesworth, Randy Thomas, Chris Samuels, Ladell Betts and DeAngelo Hall -- never played a snap because they were either out for the game or out for the season.

If the remainder of this lost season is to be judged by heart and effort and the continued development of kids and former practice-squaders getting their chance because of misfortune, then, yes, falling short to an Eagles team that was asleep for much of the first three quarters should be considered salvaging something out of another close loss.

But have standards truly fallen that quickly around Washington, where an NFC East loss in late November is becoming almost as acceptable as it is expected?

The Eagles lost starting linebacker Stewart Bradley to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in August and Brian Dawkins to Denver via free agency. Their longtime defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the spiritual leader of Philly's blitzing unit, died over the summer after battling cancer.

But when that unit had to make a stop with the game on the line, its 2009 roster, including substitutes, found a way to get its hands on Jason Campbell as he was trying to complete a fourth-and-one throw to Santana Moss that fell short and effectively ended the game.

When Donovan McNabb needed to score twice in the final eight minutes and Brian Westbrook, the best all-purpose player in the league the past few years, was nursing a concussion and considering retirement, the Eagles relied on someone else to deliver victory.

McNabb tapped the talent of LeSean McCoy, a young running back his franchise had the foresight to draft, and all McCoy did was rush six times and catch a pass on the final two possessions, taking a shovel pass from McNabb and stumbling into the end zone for a two-point conversion that tied the score at 24.

Redskins wide receivers Devin Thomas and Fred Davis caught eight passes between them. Running back Quinton Ganther put his head down and rumbled.

Great. Beautiful.

Yet before a parade is thrown on their behalf, ask someone upstairs at Redskins Park this question: When is a young player from Washington going to bedazzle like DeSean Jackson, or, heck, seize a moment like McCoy seized a moment Sunday afternoon? When is a genuine playmaker -- a move-the-needle type threat, not a space-holder until the established starter returns -- going to suit up in burgundy and gold and shock the masses, pull off, not put off, victory?

This game was the Redskins' to have as much as the Dallas game last week, maybe more, and they managed to punt.

Eagles Coach Andy Reid called one of the most brain-lock trick plays imaginable -- an onside kick on the opening kickoff! It gift-wrapped confidence and an early touchdown to the Redskins and Campbell, who overcame a hellish first half to salvage the last two quarters.

Partly because he has no time and partly because of conservative play-calling, Campbell is becoming the check-down king, able to find any receiver if he's no more than five yards behind or in front of the line of scrimmage. It's painful to watch, because he doesn't exactly have Donald Driver on the right flank or Michael Turner in the backfield to reel off touchdowns or even first downs with their yards after catches.

But behind that patchwork line, he called an audible and ran 16 yards for a first down at the end of the third quarter -- until Stephon Heyer was called for holding, one of several crucial penalties that snuffed out another drive.

The optimist will see the box score, read one sack and call Sunday afternoon progress. But the people in the locker room who understand how hard the defense has been working to bail the Redskins franchise out from week to week -- irrespective of its penchant for giving up big plays -- know better.

There is no ugly, finger-pointing now because many of the leaders are left over from the Joe Gibbs regime, when high-character people were valued more than almost anything. But Zorn is 5-14 since he started 6-2 in 2008, and things aren't getting any better.

"There [are] not a lot of places to go right now because we are out of the playoffs and it's now where we can't win the division," rookie Brian Orakpo said afterward. "Right now we are just out there fighting for pride and seeing if we can get to 8-8."

Eight and eight is now a goal. Wow.

At 3-8, there is no sugarcoating the truth: This season is veering from what might have been to what never was very quickly.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company