By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 11:56 PM
Danny Smith, the Redskins' special teams coach, came back from the parking lot to explain. Left his car running, probably. He'd heard that his rookie, nice kid named Perry Riley, had bolted the locker room when he saw the waves of media at his locker.
We wanted to ask him about his block-in-the-back penalty that cost the Redskins a fourth-quarter touchdown for sure, a win most likely and virtually ended the team's hopes for a December playoff run. Little stuff like that. No pressure, just a few questions.
"It's a tough play. We'll have to look at the film," said Smith, who knows full well what he'll see. But that's what a craggy, hoarse 35-year coach says when it hurts too much to tell the truth. That's how you hide, just a little bit, when one flag costs Brandon Banks a 77-yard punt-return touchdown and what looked like a 20-17 Washington lead with seven minutes to play suddenly degenerates into a 17-13 win for Minnesota and cheers for star jerk Brett Favre.
"Inexperience shows. It's his first game playing full time in his career. He's hardly been active at all since St. Louis in September. This was his first full week of practice" as a starter, Smith said. "I'm not dissatisfied with him. He responded pretty good."
Actually, Riley responded better than that, phoning back to FedEx Field later to do some answering.
"Banks did a good job of setting the dude up. I thought I hit him on his shoulder rather than his back. Apparently, I hit him in the back and the call was made," said Riley, who also drew an illegal block penalty on a Banks return in the third period. "Of course I feel bad about it . . . I feel terrible.
"I'm going to go home and try to find [the replay]. I'm sure it's going to be on 'SportsCenter' or something."
This, presumably, concludes the Redskins' annual pursuit of a nonexistent visit to the Super Bowl. If they'd won to reach 6-5, their visit to the Meadowlands next Sunday to play the Giants would have been trumpeted as a chance for Mike Shanahan's team to join the December hijinks much sooner than expected.
At 5-6, a much more difficult, and perhaps more realistic, future comes into focus. The Redskins may well be underdogs in all five of their remaining games. And, given their waves of injuries, they'll have to stay fiercely committed to remain competitive.
This is a team that started the year with an offense that had been in shambles for a decade and has now been reduced to rubble. Injuries have promoted utterly unknown running backs to workhorse duty: Keiland Williams, who didn't start in college, and James Davis, activated Sunday. The offensive line is a desperate patchwork with a rookie, Trent Williams, as its strongest link.
Real pros hate excuses. But Smith, eventually, told the bare facts about why rookie Riley was playing full time on special teams: There's nobody else. "We had a lot of guys missing. We had to mix and match," he said. "There are a lot of guys laboring. On a lot of teams by this time [in the season], you come in Monday and say, 'How are we going to field a team?' "
You better believe the Redskins are one of those teams.
Yet, when you take a longer view, you see a Redskins team that has made the kind of progress that was hoped for when Shanahan arrived. Except for one nightmare against the Eagles, this season has, so far, been a good-case scenario.
The Redskins are closer than it looks. No, they are not remotely close to a championship team. This year they haven't even avoided a 10-loss season yet. But they're nearer to being a credible NFL team once again than seemed likely a year ago when the franchise had devolved into a league-wide farce.
The progress starts with Donovan McNabb, who completed 21 of 35 passes for 211 yards, despite having a "leading rusher" with only 11 yards. Although he was sacked four times, his only interception was on a pass that deflected off Santana Moss's mask.
Get used to McNabb and appreciate him. The Redskins do. They know what they have. "Donovan and Favre are alike," said defensive tackle Phillip Daniels, who's chased them both for years. "They're just smart quarterbacks who are students of the game. They're both good on the deep ball. Sometimes they take chances and they'll make some mistakes. But, no matter what defense they face or what pieces they have to work with, they know how to get their teams down the field."
Favre kept the Vikes chugging in interim coach Leslie Frazier's first game after star runner Adrian Peterson limped off the field after only six carries. McNabb managed with no running game at all. But the parallels run far deeper. McNabb and Favre are as close to statistically identical as any two players you can find. The match is missed because Favre, 41, has started twice as many games.
Favre's career quarterback rating (86.1), winning percentage as a starter (.623), playoff record (13-11) and total net yardage per game (234) are almost identical to McNabb's 85.8, .638, 9-7 and 231. McNabb, who runs better, generates almost as many touchdowns per game, passing and running, as Favre (1.6 to 1.7) but does it while throwing a third fewer interceptions.
Soap Opera Brett, with his good-old-boy gunslinger style, is probably somewhat overrated while the boringly classy McNabb, in Washington as in Philadelphia, continues to be undervalued.
Don't minimize the importance of the Redskins' leverage in their new contract with McNabb. At the game's most important position, McNabb, who turned 34 last week, may have several more years as a central figure. Oh, Favre's better. But not by as much as most think. Put an offense around McNabb, then judge.
This game also underlined the area where the Redskins have made the most significant improvement: in the game-breaking speed of Banks, who had a 65-yard kickoff return, and Anthony Armstrong, who caught a 45-yard bomb and now has 545 yards receiving.
"Speed kills. And those guys can fly," linebacker London Fletcher said. "When they touch the ball, we're more dangerous."
"I just want the ball in my hands," said Banks, who is believed to be the first Redskins player ever used at tailback in the Wildcat offense. "I've known I could return kicks since I was nine and our Pop Warner team went to Disney World and I won it with a kick return."
"Banks . . . is . . . good," Smith said, slowly. "He loves it. He has a lot of tools."
Banks is flat-out electric right now. On his 77-yarder, five Vikings were about to squash his 149 pounds. Then, he did a shake and a fake, took a side step and exploded through a crack. And, in less than two seconds, he went from dead meat to running free up the left sideline. Riley never even needed to try a block.
"Returning kicks - you're born with it," Fletcher said.
"Banks is fast," said Armstrong, who as a deep threat has opened up shorter passes for Moss and Chris Cooley, who are on pace for 1,958 yards of receptions. "But I'm 4.24 (in the 40-yard dash). He's 4.25. See, I'm faster."
This game presumably marked the end of Redskins' hopes for a fantasy first season under Shanahan. They'll have the blues now, plus a nasty schedule ahead. But the day's key play - a penalty on a block that didn't even need to be attempted - showed the other side of the '10 coin. The Redskins are getting closer.