The non-stars come out to play

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 14, 2009

OAKLAND, CALIF. The Redskins should be awful. But they aren't. They should have quit by now, but, for the fifth straight week, they haven't. The more players they lose, including five who have been all-pros, the better rookies like Brian Orakpo (four sacks) and second-year players like Fred Davis (two touchdowns) seem to perform. As for the few veterans left standing, like Andre Carter (two sacks) and London Fletcher (nine tackles), they simply refuse to stop performing like determined professionals.

The more journeymen the Redskins are forced to put on the field, on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield, the better the final results seem to be. On Sunday, the Redskins were without Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall, guaranteed $64 million last offseason, and fullback Mike Sellers; yet they beat down the not entirely awful Oakland Raiders, 34-13.

The Redskins, Team Enigma for much of the last 15 years, continue to invert sane expectations. When they are vastly paid and touted as a playoff team, they fall flat.

Now this, an eight-sack clubbing of a Raider team that thought it had stabilized itself. Even the Redskins themselves shake their heads, hardly sure what to make of it. Yet after three straight brutal fourth-quarter loses, at least they can smile as they ponder.

"If we are able to finish out the season the way we have played the last five weeks and [team owner Daniel] Snyder looks at how we've done it, with a lot of encouraging things, he may ask himself, 'Do you want to break up the momentum?' " said Fletcher, the core of the defense. "Do you want to put in a new system -- again. We haven't given up on Coach [Jim] Zorn at all. You know, a lot of head coaches struggle a little bit the first time."

The Redskins' season could hardly be more drenched in irony. The more the front office seems to disregard quarterback Jason Campbell in favor of hot scouting reports on college quarterbacks in the draft, the more he learns the NFL game and steadily improves. Campbell was 16 for 28 for 222 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers.

"Jason's tough," Zorn said. "He had a couple of key audibles. He's seeing -- he's managing the line of scrimmage very well. And when he's gotten hit, and he's been hit hard, he's not turning it over. Those plays are just as important."

As for Zorn himself, the closer he comes to what the entire NFL assumes will be his last game as Redskins coach, the more he looks like he can, well, do whatever it is that he's still allowed to do.

"I'm a better coach than I was a year ago," Zorn said, leaning against a wall, finally able to smile after a game. "I'm making more out of situations the more I see them and I understand the risks better. We've suffered because of some decisions I've made. I believed in them" at the time.

But now he may finally be getting some seasoning after almost two years of on-the-job training. "I've learned that a team doesn't have to be at full strength to have a chance to win. That's what's great about the NFL," he said. "If they shut me off, there is no chance. But they haven't. They've bought into what all our coaches are doing."

In a normal December when two no-playoff-hope teams meet on a dismal, drizzly stage in a half-full stadium like the Redskins and Raiders did on Sunday, you'd expect a halfhearted performance, barely a hint of inspiration or highlight plays. This was a day when neither team should have cared. But one did.

Out of the dysfunction of September and October, the depleted Redskins have banded together to devote the last half of the season to compiling a gigantic audition tape -- either for a larger role in Washington next year or for a job in some other town.

This highlight of this contest was Orakpo's breakout game. With 11 sacks in 13 games this season, real stardom beckons. Never, not even in high school, had Orakpo, the No. 13 overall draft pick last April, amassed four sacks. "I had three in a game in high school, but never more than two in college," Orakpo said after the game as his cellphone rang every few seconds. "The first one was just being relentless. A tight end blocked me, then a running back but I kept going and got there.

"The second one I can't even remember. Man, they're kind of a blur. The next one was power. The last one was speed off the edge."

On that final sack, Orakpo smashed the ball out of Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell's hands and provided Carter with a child-simple scoop-and-score recovery for a touchdown. But Carter botched it.

"Andre's hands were all covered with goop and dirt and he had tape on them. They were like salad tongs," said Zorn. "There was no way he was going to pick it up [cleanly]. He probably could have caressed the ball and rolled over [and over] and he would have had a touchdown."

If Zorn isn't back next year, it's going to be tough to relinquish a coach that compares his players' hands to salad tongs. But the next three weeks are so stern a test and the Redskins so depleted, with Clinton Portis, Chris Cooley, Ledell Betts, Chris Samuels, Randy Thomas and others already out for the season, that it will be a feat to remain competitive.

Can they win two out of three against the Giants, Cowboys and Chargers and make offseason decisions tough?

"Two of three?" defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "No, all three."

All teams in all pro sports tend to play better once expectations have been removed by an awful first half of a season. So, to a degree, the Redskins' resurgent dignity should be discounted. But not entirely.

The tone of this season has changed. At one point, after losses to the Lions (now 2-11) and the Chiefs (3-10), as well as a narrow win over the Rams (1-12), this season bordered on disgrace.

Now, the Redskins, as has been their wont for many years, have managed to sow almost complete confusion. Are they a team to dismantle, or one to embrace after some fine tuning?

The Redskins, luckless in their previous three games, have one piece of good fortune. The Giants, Cowboys and Chargers will constitute a grueling final exam. The Redskins, including some of their most central characters, still have a chance to pass. Or fail.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company