Joe Gibbs's victorious return to the NFL on Monday night was counterbalanced by veteran Jon Jansen's sad exit and rookie Sean Taylor's grand entrance.
On this night near the Pro Football Hall of Fame was supposed to be suffused with hope at the comeback of the greatest coach in Redskins history. In part, it was, as the Redskins won, 20-17, on a last-second field goal. Even though the game had long since been handed over to reserves and rookies, Gibbs said: "I really appreciated it. . . . It means a lot to me."
Nonetheless, in the longer view, Gibbs and his sputtering offense were overshadowed by the loss of the team's best offensive player over the previous five seasons in Jansen, who suffered a ruptured left Achilles' tendon and is lost for the season.
"I got to tell you we had a big downer out there. It took a lot out of us for a while," said Gibbs. Jansen "means a lot to the team as a leader and everything. Now we're really going to have to have some guys step up and play great."
It seems like Gibbs said those words, or ones much like them, for 12 years and, usually, somebody actually did step up.
Balancing the gruesome Jansen news, which may crimp Gibbs's power-running style all season, was the arrival of the spectacularly gifted Taylor. Seldom, if ever, has a high Redskins draft pick -- No. 5 overall, in this case -- announced his appearance so emphatically. Taylor can fire all the agents he wants if this night was an indication of his ability. He intercepted two passes, one for a three-yard touchdown, the other to prevent a score.
Just as important, he made those plays with the athletic arrogance of a player moving down from a higher league, not a fellow trying to move up from a lower one. That's often the mark of a future star. In fact, Taylor came within a couple of steps of intercepting a pass in both end zones in the same game. Has that ever been done?
"That dude is phenomenal," said linebacker LaVar Arrington. "Those plays were gorgeous, like looking at my girlfriend. It should be illegal for him to play on the second team. But he has to move through the ranks."
Not for long. "He had a real good week in practice, too," said Gibbs.
"I've been saying, 'Get me that monster behind me' " at safety, said Arrington. "He's still a rookie. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But some people just have a knack for making plays."
The Redskins, a team with an eggshell-fragile psyche in recent years, desperately needed the inspiration -- and points -- provided by Taylor, because Jansen's injury crushed their spirits. The key to Gibbs's legendary offense is not primarily its shifts and men in motion. The heart of the matter is simple, old-fashioned power running behind large and athletic linemen. This season, Jansen was supposed to be Clinton Portis's human plow, just as massive Joe Jacoby cleared the way for John Riggins and many others.
Now, in a blink in the first quarter of the first exhibition, the potential of the Redskins' offensive line -- already nicknamed the "Dirtbags" by assistant coach Joe Bugel -- has probably declined a full level, if not more. Jansen, along with cornerback Fred Smoot, led the Redskins in their ritual pregame, on-field, helmet-raising pep talk. Then, less than an hour later, Jansen was leaving on a cart.
After he was helped off the field, hobbling, Jansen sat on the bench, downcast, thumbs stuck in his eyes. One sympathetic teammate after another walked past to rub his head or say something into his ear. Finally, an assistant coach simply put a towel over his head so that Jansen's pain -- and a far deeper look of disappointment -- would not be on public display.
Since Jansen is gone, the Redskins have no choice but to focus on what they still have. And on what they can improve. Gibbs's offense falls squarely in the later category. In the first half, before scrubs and rookies got almost all the playing time for both teams, the Redskins managed only two first downs and one of those was on a penalty. This is the Joe Gibbs attack?
Part of the reason was Jansen's injury. Also, Gibbs kept his schemes almost painfully elementary compared with the flashy sets and shifts he would unveil for playoff games in his glory years. Nonetheless, his first-team players executed indecisively. In particular, the famous deep fade route failed twice for what would have been long gains. However, Denver's defense seldom seemed even slightly out of position to stop almost every play in its tracks.
Has the NFL caught up with his cutting-edge concepts, at least to some degree? Or, as the exhibition season and early season arrive, will Gibbs unveil new ideas or simply cook them up as he goes?
"We had a hard first half and that's my fault. I'm the guy who has to make it go. I took that to heart," he said. "They came after us with some stuff. There are lessons to learn there."
Still, in trademark style, the Redskins' offense functioned better in the second half after Gibbs ran to the locker room at halftime pushing through his own jogging players to get there as fast as possible -- to make halftime adjustments.
"Fun?" said Gibbs, when asked if he enjoyed his first game back. "It's pressure-packed, that's for sure. Only 12 minutes at halftime now!"
Many Redskins said before the game that they wanted to make a strong showing to keep Gibbs from feeling embarrassed in the town where his bust sits in the Hall of Fame. "You can't go out there and let him down," said Smoot last week at practice. "I don't care if it's a preseason game or not. It's kind of like playing for my granddad. He doesn't have to cuss you. He doesn't have to do anything. He can look at you and just smile, but you know he means business."
However, it was the rookie Taylor, who has boycotted the media after various misadventures in recent months, who turned the game with one play. He read a flat pass perfectly and arrived so quickly that he was able to come cleanly over the top of shocked Broncos tight end Jeb Putzier and steal the pass. In his scant three-yard trip to the end zone, Taylor even had the presence of mind, and the style, to extend the ball out one-handed for a scoring strut for perhaps the last few inches of his touchdown return.
That Taylor play turned a 9-3 deficit into a 10-9 Redskins advantage that defensive coach Gregg Williams's unit protected with great energy. Then, in the fourth quarter, Tim Hasselbeck, the scrappy journeyman who always seems to find a way to keep himself in the picture for playing time, completed a 33-yard touchdown pass to Gari Scott for a 17-9 lead, then led the final drive to snap a 17-17 tie with a 39-yard field goal at the gun.
"I've been bragging on [Tim] all the way," said Gibbs. "Something good happens at practice and I look up and it's Tim."
Except for Jansen's injury, this night would have been more than acceptable for anybody, including Gibbs. But, with the loss of such a valuable player and leader, the long-term impact of this night was equal parts ominous and promising. But what would you expect? Joe Gibbs's return will be a saga, not a short story. This wasn't even the introduction, just a rich preface.