ATLANTA — Derrius Guice took the ball Thursday night, clutching it close, then started to run across the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf. He cut left, turned right and surged forward, and as the Washington Redskins’ decision-makers held their breath, he took his first hits in more than a year.
One to the left. Another to the side. A third from the top. The right shoulder of his jersey popped off the shoulder pad. He rolled. He stood up. And everything was fine.
If there was something the Redskins needed to see more than anything else in the wasted quarters of a preseason they simply want to survive, it was Guice running free on the turf, taking blows and climbing back to his feet. How long had it been since he took that handoff in the first preseason game in New England last year, storming to his left only to have his knee crumble under three Patriots tacklers? A year and two weeks?
Around the Redskins it had been an eternity, and they all said as much as they dressed in their locker room after getting their first win of the preseason in three tries, 19-7 over the Atlanta Falcons. One by one, players talked about the agony they felt for the player who had given so much hope for an offense longing for a spark and how that night in New England had taken a little out of them much the way it had for him. Like many watching at home, they too paused mid-breath when the Falcons’ tacklers piled on and sighed relief when he stood back up.
“You really know how you feel whenever you get hit,” Guice said late Thursday night. When it came, he tumbled to the turf and said, “Next play.”
In those months after the surgeons cut open his knee and mended the ligaments, the Redskins played a solid and predictable offense. Adrian Peterson walked in cold from Houston, dazzled in a workout with a wad of tobacco shoved against his cheek, never spitting once, then ran for 1,042 yards. But his diligent, powerful style made Washington’s offense one-dimensional. With Jordan Reed and Paul Richardson and other playmakers battling injuries, the Redskins became a lot of Peterson and not much else.
Throughout a season that started well and faded fast, Guice was the ghost who lingered over the Redskins, the one who would make their offense erupt if only he were there. They had seen they way he burst through tacklers on video highlights from LSU, then felt it themselves in those few magical weeks in Richmond, where every time he touched the ball the whole training camp seemed to stop. His locker remained when they came back to Ashburn, yet he was largely invisible. The only hints about his recovery came in clips he posted on social media, pulling sleds and leaping pads that had been spread before him on the ground.
His return seemed to take forever, delayed at every step. He wasn’t cleared for offseason workouts, allowed only the fewest of carries in training camp. He raced onto the field before the first preseason game in Cleveland only to be told the doctors were holding him back — just to be sure.
When he stepped on the field for the Redskins’ first possession Thursday, he was still very much a mystery. Would he be the same? What would happen when he was hit?
He took the first blow, the second and the third and hopped back up. Then he took the ball again, and the feeling looked to be back. He started looking for contact, stiff-arming a tackler and absorbing a shot from another during one particularly aggressive sideline run. When Washington found itself on the 1-yard line, Guice lined up in the backfield and ran three times into a wall of Atlanta Falcons, finally scoring on the third — a great leap over the scrum — only to have the play called back on a hold by guard Ereck Flowers.
The touchdown-that-wasn’t didn’t matter. Neither did the 44 yards Guice had on 11 carries or the four other yards he had on a pass reception. The important thing for the Redskins was that Guice was back on a field, he had the ball in his hands again and he didn’t get hurt. The Redskins’ offense got a little more dynamic the moment his cleats hit the turf.
“We tend to take things for granted,” Guice said as he stood behind a lectern in a room behind the locker room. “When football was taken away from me, I was in a place where I was lost. My brothers were out there going to war. I wasn’t with them after putting all the work in training camp with them. It was kind of like a slap in the face that it happened in the first game. . . . It humbled me. I thought it was a sign of God to slow down and take care of my body.”
He won’t solve all of the Redskins’ problems. Their best playmaker, Reed, was being evaluated for a concussion late Thursday night after taking a brutal shot to the head. Quarterback Case Keenum made some regrettable decisions, and rookie Dwayne Haskins didn’t do enough to take the job from him. The left side of the offensive line remains a serious concern, and the holdout of star left tackle Trent Williams lingers with no break in sight.
For now, the Redskins are much what they were last year: a good defense that lacks a potent-enough offense to truly be dominant, only this time the defense is a little better and the offense a little more questionable. The difference maker for this franchise over the past year and a half has always been Guice.
On Thursday night he took his first cuts, then his first hits, and everything seemed right again.