With their sole legitimate star, seven-time Pro Bowler Darrell Green, sitting on the bench, the Washington Redskins glimpsed their future Friday night.
It was a vision at once instinctive and effortless. It was rookie cornerback Champ Bailey reading the mind of one of the NFL's most accomplished quarterbacks. And in the blink of an eye, Bailey made the correct analysis, slid his 6-foot-1 frame between Drew Bledsoe and his intended receiver, plucked the football out of the air, tucked it under his right arm and ran 46 yards for a touchdown.
Bailey's interception turned the momentum of Washington's preseason opener against the New England Patriots Friday night, which the Redskins won, 20-14, after their starters played the first half and took a 20-0 lead into the intermission.
"Champ is really progressing as a football player," said Coach Norv Turner, satisfied with his starters' performance, though troubled by the lack of intensity displayed by his second- and third-teamers. "The play he made tonight -- that's instinct. That's a guy that has played that position a long time. He's got confidence in his ability, and he's going to take a chance. He took a chance, and he won that time."
Until Bailey's play midway through the first quarter, the Redskins were getting worked over by the Patriots. New England's offense moved the ball 77 yards on its opening drive, though it failed to score when a 29-yard field goal missed, wide left.
The Patriots' defense sacked quarterback Brad Johnson for a seven-yard loss on Washington's fourth offensive play.
But in Bailey, the Redskins got the big play and that magic spark they seemed to be missing during last year's 6-10 season.
Until Bailey's interception, Bledsoe had completed seven of his first nine passes, including a seven-yard throw to Shawn Jefferson and a nine-yard completion to 6-5 tight end Rod Rutledge -- both against the rookie Bailey.
The Redskins showed a blitz on the next play.
Bailey looked Bledsoe square in the eyes. He knew the ball would come out quickly, so he inched forward. He was in motion as Bledsoe cocked his arm, lofting a spiral to 6-3 wide receiver Vincent Brisby.
"I anticipated him throwing a quick pass," Bailey said. "He wouldn't have much time to pass because our D-line was there and our safeties were there putting pressure on him. I just was right there at the right time."
It was Bledsoe's last throw of the night. He was hit by a defensive lineman, replays indicated, as he released the ball, and twisted his ankle.
Bailey was swarmed by teammates as he trotted off the field, disappearing in the thick embrace of giant offensive linemen.
With less than two minutes remaining in the first half and the Redskins up 17-0, cornerback Darryl Pounds picked off a John Friesz pass intended for Rutledge and returned it 20 yards to set up a field goal to make it 20-0. Half of those points, then, came from the work (directly or indirectly) of Redskins cornerbacks.
"We have a pretty young defense, and we want to go out and make plays, go out and fly around," Pounds said. "That's one of my favorite quotes: `Flying around making plays.' That's what we're going to do this year."
The Redskins took Bailey in the first round of the draft because they deemed him to be the best athlete in the bunch and one that filled an inevitable need, with Green having turned 39.
The selection prompted a good bit of second-guessing about the Redskins' decision to pass on Texas running back Ricky Williams, who was still available when General Manager Charley Casserly traded the team's fifth pick down to 12th, and then back up to seventh, to take Bailey.
Cast aside by new Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, Casserly watched Bailey's glittering debut from the Foxboro Stadium press box Friday night, down the row from player personnel director Vinny Cerrato. Cerrato, no older than Green, supplanted Casserly as the chief architect of the Redskins' roster.
Snyder lost his voice during the game, he was so excited by his first team's display.
"The most impressive play, obviously, was Champ," Snyder said, after visiting the locker room after the game.
It was a night everyone wanted to take credit for bringing Bailey on board.
Casserly, now a consultant to Snyder, declined to comment.
Cerrato called Bailey's read on the play phenomenal. "He made a great break and caught the ball," Cerrato said. "He knows what to do once he catches it."
Added Turner: "He's everything we hoped and more."