There's one cool thing about preseason football: discovery.
Remember the preseason game against Atlanta in 1983 when Darrell Green, the very first time he touched the ball as a professional, took a punt return 61 yards? I was there the night in Chapel Hill, N.C. -- again against the Falcons -- when Brian Mitchell, the very first time he touched the ball as a pro, went 92 yards for a touchdown on the opening kickoff.
I mean, sometimes you see something that makes your eyes pop out of your head. Okay, sometimes it's a false read and the player who dazzles you in the middle of August never finds that note again and is gone, cut, before you know it.
But nobody's cutting Champ Bailey. And nobody's cutting Michael Bishop. Goodness, can these guys play. Bailey, the very first time he touched the ball Friday night, intercepted Drew Bledsoe and took the ball 46 yards for a touchdown. Bledsoe lives at the Pro Bowl. He was throwing to Vincent Brisby, one member of what may be the best receiving corps in the NFL. Bailey picked it clean. He didn't dance, didn't spike the ball, didn't pose, didn't flex, didn't produce any drama. He ran the ball in and walked to the bench, like a man who knows he might do this again a few times before his career is over.
We'll come back to Bailey in a second, because I'm going to explode if I don't say something about the Patriots' Bishop, a sublime talent who somehow slipped to 227th in the draft. He runs with the speed and power of Steve Young, throws it as far as a young Terry Bradshaw and he made people here absolutely nuts by leading the Patriots on two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter. The rookie from Kansas State may have plenty of flaws, but his talents are almost mythic. If there's a creative bone in Coach Pete Carroll's body, he'll start cooking up ways to get Bishop into the game -- the same way Bill Cowher got Kordell Stewart in the game when he was a Steelers rookie. You know what Carroll called Bishop after watching him in the fourth quarter? "Thrilling."
You're not going to mess with Bledsoe, not even for a moment. He's the franchise for the next 10 years. But nobody in his right mind would want to line up against Bishop on the goal line or in an option formation, or with him at wide receiver as a threat to throw. "The kid lost one college game," Norv Turner said, shaking his head in wonder at what he had just seen. "He's a talented guy. They made a good decision in drafting him."
And though the debate won't be settled for years, it's easy off the first performance to make the case the Redskins made a good decision to draft Bailey.
Here's the predicament Turner purposely threw him into Friday night: The Patriots had the fifth-ranked passing game in the NFL last season. With Terry Glenn, Shawn Jefferson, Troy Brown, Brisby and Tony Simmons, they've got probably the best quintet in the game. And that's not even counting tight end Ben Coates. Turner decided to see what the rookie has. If he got beat all night, then so be it. Better to find out here and now what the kid's got.
"I never felt really any pressure," Bailey said. "I always expect to do my best. I just go out and visualize making big plays. That's just what happened. I was kind of anticipating something quick, he looked right at me before he checked, and I knew he had to come my way."
Game results may not translate from preseason to regular season. Explosion, instinctive play and guts usually do. "Guys with the great ability," Turner said, "have the confidence to take a chance. Now, sometimes they'll take a chance and get beat. But he's an instinctive player, and guys who can do that . . ."
Turner didn't finish the sentence. He didn't need to. Guys who do that change games, inspire teammates, influence seasons. Kudos to the Redskins coaches for limiting Bailey to playing cornerback, and resisting the temptation to overload him with special teams and wide receiver responsibilities. The way he and Darryl Pounds played, the Redskins have every reason to feel confident about the secondary.
The late-game drama doesn't reflect the fact that the Redskins' starters skunked the Patriots' starters, 20-0. I know, I know, I know. It's only preseason. But the Redskins, all too familiar with losing ways, have to shed this climate of losing. Right now. All you can go on is today, and Friday the Redskins got creative, energetic performances from all the folks one would expect: Brad Johnson, Larry Centers, Mitchell, Dana Stubblefield. Stephen Davis and Skip Hicks ran the ball better than I thought they would.
Then there were guys who played well enough once the starters were done -- defensive end Anthony Cook and tackle Jamie Brown -- to warrant a longer look.
Let's face it, the Redskins are hardly scaring anybody at tackle. The fourth offensive play of the game, starting left tackle Joe Patton blows an assignment and lets New England's Greg Spires get a free shot on Johnson. Turner was ballistic about that, saying, "You can't give up that kind of hit on your quarterback on a mental error."
Now Brown, 6 feet 8 and 320 pounds, didn't go against New England's first team. But last week in the scrimmage and again Friday night, all he did was dominate everybody who lined up against him. "Look, Denver had high hopes for him," Turner said. "But he wasn't focused on football. And San Francisco thought enough of him to trade a second-round pick for him. This is his opportunity. . . . Sometimes it takes being at a couple of places."
Maybe we'll see Brown earlier next week. Cook, we'll definitely see more. He's a 6-3, 295-pound run-stuffer, signed away from Tennessee, who mangled a few Patriots linemen.
Brown and Cook didn't do spectacular work; their job descriptions don't call for that. They're impressing, they're trying to make the team. They turned in the kind of performances that make these preseason games worth watching.