The Washington Redskins hoped that all the good things they were seeing on the practice field weren't an illusion, and they got some validation tonight. Just about everything went smoothly until the late stages, and they got their preseason off to a feel-good beginning with a 20-14 triumph over the New England Patriots at Foxboro Stadium.
The result won't matter much to the Redskins a month from now. But they want to put together a string of positives heading into the regular season, and tonight was a fine first step in that direction. New owner Daniel M. Snyder watched his team give a crisp performance until mistakes by third-stringers created some anxious moments.
"Our viewpoint is, if you don't want to win, don't be with us," Snyder said outside the Redskins' locker room after the game. "If you want to win, let's go do it. We're going to show you we can do it."
Rookie cornerback Champ Bailey got his professional career off to an eye-catching start when he intercepted Drew Bledsoe's pass and went 46 yards for a touchdown on the Redskins' second defensive series. Quarterback Brad Johnson hit fullback Larry Centers for a four-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, and place kicker Brett Conway added a pair of field goals as the Redskins raced to a 20-0 halftime lead.
"We have some playmakers," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said. "That's what happened in the first half. We created some turnovers. Champ Bailey makes a great play and comes up with an interception. We put together one good drive, and played awfully well in the first half. The second half, we've got some young guys that are going to learn you have to have a killer instinct in this league."
Johnson completed 6 of 11 passes for 53 yards in 1 1/2 quarters in his Redskins unveiling. He was under pressure at times and wasn't able to look downfield often, but dumped off the ball effectively and kept the Redskins moving.
"This is going to be a potent team," running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell said. "The ultimate thing is the trigger man. We have a guy who knows how to read defenses and get the ball to the right man."
Running back Skip Hicks, working with the second team, rushed for 71 yards after taking over for starter Stephen Davis in the second quarter. The Redskins' starting defense was without tackle Dan Wilkinson and cornerback Darrell Green, but had an encouraging performance to begin a year in which defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has pledged to use a more aggressive approach.
The Patriots didn't score until running back Harold Shaw's three-yard touchdown burst with 5 minutes 47 seconds to play. Rookie quarterback Michael Bishop found running back Kevin Faulk for an eight-yard touchdown pass with 1:56 left, and New England had one last chance after recovering an onside kick.
But the Patriots' last-gasp drive ended at the Redskins 20 when Bishop's pass fell incomplete in the end zone. The players who will determine the course of these teams' seasons had long since exited.
Turner had said he would go with his starters for as long as a half tonight, rather than his customary quarter for a preseason opener. Turner basically stuck to that, although he sent in Rodney Peete to replace Johnson and lifted Davis in favor of Hicks midway through the second quarter.
Things didn't start all that well for the Redskins. The Patriots moved down the field on their opening possession. But the drive stalled at the Washington 12, and Adam Vinatieri pushed a 29-yard field goal try wide left.
Johnson connected with tight end Stephen Alexander for a 13-yard completion on the Redskins' second offensive play. Two plays later, though, the Redskins had their first pass-protection breakdown. Defensive end Greg Spires broke free, went untouched past the left side of the offensive line and sacked Johnson. The Redskins' first drive fizzled before it really got started.
Enter Bailey. The first-round draft pick was starting only because Green missed the game with a dislocated finger on his left hand. The Redskins expected Bailey to be tested early and often, and he was ready.
"I knew going in I had to play my best -- a rookie in my first game," Bailey said. "I'm going to make sure I go out every week and know I can do something good."
On first down from the New England 44, Bledsoe changed the play at the line of scrimmage and looked for wide receiver Vincent Brisby on a short sideline route. But Bailey recognized the audible and made it look easy, cutting in front of Brisby for the interception and racing down the sideline for the touchdown.
"He took a chance, and he won that time," Turner said. "He's everything we hoped and more."
The play brought a double dose of bad news for the Patriots. Bledsoe was hit on the play as he released the ball, and limped off the field with a twisted right ankle.
Defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield's sack stopped New England's next drive, and Johnson took the Redskins 79 yards for a 14-0 advantage. Davis ran for 15 yards up the middle to get the ball to the Patriots 24, and Mitchell got 12 yards with an inside handoff from the shotgun formation on third and five from the 19. On second and goal, Johnson found Centers, and the fullback dived into the end zone.
Johnson had only one completion to a wide receiver, but Peete teamed with Albert Connell for a big play almost immediately, a 67-yard gain. However, Connell landed head first on the tackle and didn't return after straining his neck.
Peete couldn't get the Redskins into the end zone. A penalty negated Conway's 29-yard field goal, but he connected from 39 yards to make it 17-0.
Cornerback Darryl Pounds's interception of John Friesz's pass that was tipped by tight end Rod Rutledge put the Redskins back in business at the New England 25. Conway's 24-yard field goal increased the lead to 20-0.