By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 12:29 AM
Six days ago the Redskins sat in their locker room in mute disbelief at the historic disgrace they had inflicted on themselves on "Monday Night Football" with the NFL world watching, as they fell behind further and faster than any home team in history.
On Sunday here in Music City, in a football script so melodramatic, so over-the-top and so downright wonderfully corny that it deserved its own country music song, the Redskins erased the memory of a night of collective embarrassment and replaced it with an afternoon of team redemption.
After a victory during which they were sometimes without as many as a dozen injured players, the Redskins were nearly as speechless from the shock of a 19-16 win over the Titans as they had been by their 59-28 loss to the Eagles.
The Redskins (5-5) managed to restrain their grins and back slaps long enough to bask in a moment that none of them had experienced. They had, thanks to 376 passing yards from Donovan McNabb and remarkable emergency play from at least 10 reserves, beaten an NFL contender despite being so decimated that, at times, they did not know if they could field a team with complete units.
Do we have an entire offensive line left? What about defensive backs? Got that covered? Okay, if we get another linebacker hurt, can we still play the 3-4 defense?
Of all the overstressed units, the offensive line, considered the team's weakest point all season, was the most remarkable. A guard (Will Montgomery) switched to center. A tackle (Stephon Heyer) who had never played guard in his life, made the switch to an unknown position in mid-game and helped the Redskins rush for 107 yards and protect McNabb as well or better than they have all season.
"Wow, man, did you see Big Mike [Shanahan] come over and shake Stephon Heyer's hand," cackled McNabb.
"I think he shook all the offensive linemen's hands," said the modest Heyer. The Redskins' new coach, who's been through so much controversy in the last three weeks, probably would have shaken every hand if he'd had time. A season that was quickly getting away from his team has now been stabilized, though the list of players who will miss the Viking game next Sunday at home may be an arm's length.
"I have never seen that many guys go down, but still stay together, keep on fighting and find a way to win," said Shanahan.
According to my best arithmetic, and the M.A.S.H calculations will probably go on for years among Redskins fans, the team overcame injuries to 14 players - four before the game, one in pregame warmups and 10 during the game. Of those 10 in-game injury victims, eight did not come back in the game.
"I've never been more proud of anybody for how they handled themselves," said Shanahan, who lost count of the injuries and even of which units were down to their last spare part. But what good would it have done to know?
In addition to three different offensive line combinations before halftime, the Redskins also depended on a running back (Keiland Williams) who, in Shanahan's words "didn't even start in college." Williams had to carry the ball 23 times and catch six passes.
Santana Moss and DeAngelo Hall were both knocked out of the game for a series but returned, Moss to catch 106 yards of passes, including a touchdown, while Hall was primarily responsible for shutting out Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. Randy's total contribution was to draw two penalties.
Some events in sports are so preposterous that only the details show how unique the day truly was. The Redskins were down four players before the game, including defensive backs LaRon Landry and Carlos Rogers. A reserve running back was hurt in warmups. "That's happened to us two weeks in a row in pregame - lost a running back. That never happens," said Shanahan.
Then, in a swirl that was hard to believe, Clinton Portis, Casey Rabach, Lorenzo Alexander, Derrick Dockery, starting safety Anderson Russell, Rocky McIntosh and eventually Kedric Golston were lost. "I can't remember them all," said Shanahan, who conceded that at least a half-dozen of the injuries made those players a "long shot" to play next week, while Landry and Rogers also seem unlikely.
After their humiliation against the Eagles, almost every Redskin used the same word to describe their mortification, especially at falling behind 35-0 in just 15 minutes 9 seconds: "Embarrassed." Perhaps, in football, the exact opposite of embarrassed is "redeemed" or even something more flowery like "ennobled."
To compensate for this across-the-board misery, the Redskins needed one crucial Titan to play as abysmally as possible. They got their gift in erratic Tennessee quarterback Vince Young, who was playing in his second game back from injury. His timing, his judgment and his composure were in a three-way tie to see which could undermine him and the Titans first.
On the Titans' second offensive play of the game, from the Washington 20-yard line, Young fumbled on a scramble when he was stripped from behind by Alexander. The mistake alone probably cost Tennessee three points. And those points seemed to hang over a game whose score progression, from the Redskins perspective, was 0-7, 7-7, 10-7, 10-10, 13-10, 13-13 and 13-16, before a 42-yard field goal by Graham Gano tied the game at 16-16 with 5:24 to play.
However, Young, who has suffered from emotional problems in the past, helped start the Titans downfall in the final minute of the first half when he reacted to the crowd's boos by gesturing with both arms for them to bring it on and boo him even more. One team was poised when it had every reason to crumble. The home team's quarterback, even when he was having a fine statistical day (107.6 quarterback rating) was showing his frustration.
What happened next will start a long debate in Nashville. On the Titans' second possession of the second half, Young hurt his throwing hand and was taken out of the game. Thereafter, he threw more than two dozen passes on the sideline and acted as if he wanted to return to the game. But he never did.
Instead, Titans Coach Jeff Fisher stuck with his obscure overmatched third-string quarterback, Rusty Smith, a sixth-round draft pick from Florida Atlantic. Smith completed only three passes and, except for one 52-yarder, contributed almost nothing during almost an entire half of football. Tennessee was reduced to handing the ball to splendid back Chris Johnson, who gained 130 yards in 21 carries.
"Vince tore a flexor tendon in his thumb and I was not satisfied with his ability to control the ball so I stayed with Rusty. He never came to me and said he was okay and wanted to go back in," Fisher said.
McNabb led the 25th game-winning drive of his career and commanded an offense that amassed 465 yards and a huge 40:09-to-26:34 edge in time of possession. So, with the mother of all make-shift lines and a third-string running back as well as periods when Moss was sidelined, too, McNabb managed to pull out the kind of wins that define veteran franchise quarterbacks.
You might even want to sign such a fellow to a long-term deal. Or let him run the two-minute offense. Oh, the Redskins did both those things? Well, good. After watching McNabb lead a drive to set up a potential game-winning kick from 47 yards at the end of regulation, Shanahan even managed a quip.
"Yeah, so I guess that means I won't have to talk about [the two-minute drill] anymore," he said, smiling.
"We really needed this game - must win for us," said McNabb. "I'm in the right place [in Washington]. It is a growing process and we are starting to grow. . . . Once it starts, it's going to happen quickly."
This is exactly the type of victory that helps teams bond, that convinces them that, despite their controversies and even their 59-point flops, that perhaps they have the coach, the quarterback and the chemistry to grow. Eventually.
Like for instance, after about a dozen Redskins stop grinning and start healing.