The first utterance from Norv Turner publicly after hanging 50 points on the New York Football Giants ended with, "We had a tough loss last Sunday. . . . It was a long week."
It's not possible to capture the significance of the Redskins' 50-21 victory at Giants Stadium without relating it to the excruciating loss to the Dallas Cowboys one week ago. Joe Gibbs had a wonderful phrase for the days and games that define what a team is made of: "Gut check time." Just two weeks into the season, the Redskins were faced with one.
But instead of cowering from the start as they frequently have these last few years, players including Marco Coleman, Larry Centers and Darrell Green rallied the Redskins from Monday's hangover through Sunday's lopsided mugging of the Giants that in some ways was as shocking as the come-from-ahead defeat last week to the Cowboys. More than any ability related to football, the Washington Redskins had to demonstrate some mental toughness and old-fashioned want-to before more winnable games started to slip away.
"There's a lot of working with the psyche in this business," Green said.
"There was a lot of, 'Man, they said y'all are wimps,' and, 'Man, they said y'all embarrassed yourselves and might not win a game all season.' I don't need any added incentive to get ready for a game, but that's the nature of the business. . . .
"But the weirdest thing is that Norv introduced Coleman and Centers as team captains early on. . . . These guys have been providing new leadership. There's no negative history here with them. Losing to the Cowboys last week didn't mean diddly to them, in terms of what happened here before. They don't carry the baggage. We didn't come into this week as yesterday's Washington Redskins."
Indeed, it took until Week 8 before the team won a game last year. It took until Week 6 for the team to score 86 points; they have 85 after two weeks this season. The Redskins were so dominant Sunday they got all three quarterbacks some work. Brad Johnson was nearly flawless, hard-running Stephen Davis was responsible for more than his share of New York's 19 missed tackles and the offensive line was a perfect 10.
"I was real impressed with the offensive line," safety Leomont Evans said. "All of them played well, but I have to single out the rookie just a little bit. I was really proud of him. It's the second week of his career and he played great."
The "rookie" would be right tackle Jon Jansen, who helped shut out Giants left defensive end Michael Strahan. Two tackles and two assists were all the Giants star got Sunday. Jansen and Tre Johnson on the right side of the line were a brick wall, allowing Johnson time to throw and blasting forward creating holes through which Davis could run.
Centers, the fullback who dissects a game with a coach's precision, said, "If you have to look at one unit on this team and say, 'This is the reason we've been able to play well [for seven of eight quarters], you have to point to the offensive line. Those guys have done a masterful job of protecting Brad, and giving Stephen the holes a runner needs."
I guess this is why you can't put too much stock in preseason. In those four games, the line looked somewhere between ordinary and downright vulnerable. The coaches have to say publicly that they figured the line would play this way. But the fact is, they privately held their breath. The last thing a team can afford when it has an unproven running back and a quarterback with a history of injuries is a leaky line. Through two games, the line has been air-tight. That's where you have to start when you play the Giants, otherwise Strahan and Jessie Armstead will disrupt everything an offense attempts to do.
When asked about the quick evolution of the line, left tackle Andy Heck said, "We know we have a player back there who can take us places."
He was referring, of course, to Brad Johnson. Okay, it's early. If last week's loss didn't break a season, be sure that this week's victory doesn't make one. But Johnson, so far, is Brett Favre/Steve Young/Troy Aikman hot after two games. You know how many times an opposing team had scored 50 points at Giants Stadium against the Giants? None. Never happened before Sunday. And Johnson is the trigger-man of the offense that did it.
"The quarterback brings it together," Turner said. "Everyone is feeding off Brad right now. Everybody knows he can get the ball."
And a series or two into the game, everybody knew there was a guy named Jeremy Lincoln playing left cornerback for the Giants who'd be in for the longest day of his football life. With starter Jason Sehorn still coming back from a preseason injury, Lincoln was thrown in and Johnson was smacking his lips. "That's the first thing everybody does," Turner said by way of admission. "That's where you go."
Johnson's skills and Turner's feel for calling an offensive game seem to be a nice fit. The Redskins have had the Cowboys and Giants terribly off-balance, alternating brilliantly between pass and run, short and deep, power-straight-ahead and misdirection. Turner is in play-calling heaven with a veteran quarterback who can move, has the arm to throw deep, the touch to drop it off deftly underneath, and understands the game so thoroughly he can get out of sticky situations instantly. Turner praised Johnson for turning in great plays, particularly because, "You don't have to be perfect with play selection; everybody doesn't have to be perfect with execution. . . . He makes plays that aren't there."
It was a fascinating locker room in the aftermath of the season's first victory. There was no whooping and hollering, no gloating that was readily evident. It was as if the team had just finished a difficult but productive practice session. That's a tremendously good sign. If last week scared the daylights out of the Redskins, then good. Perhaps the team has found out about itself and will find out more with that Week 1 giveaway hanging there as a reminder, than if it swept through these first two games easily, with little reason for hard self-examination. Sometimes, there's nothing like a little introspection. Even in the afterglow of a thoroughly impressive victory, many players didn't have to be prompted to recall last week.
"I wasn't worried about our guys being flat," Turner said. "I was more concerned about our guys being uptight. . . . You can try too hard."
Heck, an 11-year NFL veteran, said, "I've never experienced a loss like we had last week. As determined as we were to bounce back and as hard as we prepared to play well, only a game would be an indicator of whether we put last week behind us."