Then, with just 26 seconds to play, the Eagles noticed that injuries had forced Washington to put expensive but benched cornerback Josh Norman on the field. A Carson Wentz lob to the back corner of the end zone where Norman had been left naked in single coverage against wide receiver Greg Ward Jr. produced an easy four-yard, game-winning score. And, with it, the biggest FedEx Field cheer of the year erupted.
For the Eagles.
Almost the entire lower bowl was filled with standing, bellowing, Eagles-gear-garbed fans. Give Philly fans credit; they know how to sneak into the best seats by the end of a close game. Better view.
We’ve seen such scenes here before over a disturbing number of seasons. But this was the topper.
That boom was soon followed by another huge yell as the Eagles’ Nigel Bradham scooped and scored on a 47-yard fumble return with 0:00 on the clock for a 37-27 final score. Suddenly, the Eagles had not only won to get to 7-7 but had covered the 4½ -point spread.
“All that cheering in the end zone when they scored — we wanted to shut them up. And we did until [late],” said Adrian Peterson, whose battering running — 66 yards rushing and 25 receiving, including a 10-yard touchdown run — has set an example of professionalism all year.
“They were fighting for their playoff lives — back and forth, back and forth,” said Peterson, who moved to No. 5 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 14,102 yards. “But that field goal the last time [after a fumble recovery at the Eagles 34-yard line] — we wanted seven [for a 31-24 lead]. . . . We’ll be back ready [for them] next year for sure.”
If former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, sitting in owner Daniel Snyder’s box, wanted to see the main reasons he might — or definitely should not — want to coach in Washington next season, that scene, and this whole game, symbolized both sides of the issue.
Meyer’s former quarterback Dwayne Haskins had his best NFL day, completing 19 of 28 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
“He was here? That’s cool. The [OSU] spirits were in the place,” Haskins said. “No, I didn’t know.”
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin, another Meyer-taught rookie from Ohio State, caught a short pass, then zipped through the middle of the Eagles’ secondary for a 75-yard score, and he finished with five catches for 130 yards. “He was my personal guest,” McLaurin said of Meyer.
The entire Washington rookie crop, the primary reason for any optimism about this 3-11 team, showed to its best advantage. Injuries or incompetence have opened opportunities all over the field for nine rookies — including Wes Martin, who started at right guard.
Linebacker Cole Holcomb had six tackles. Swift wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. had 142 all-purpose yards, including a 41-yard kickoff return. Others twinkled, even if they didn’t shine.
Anderson, a third-year pro playing more because Ryan Kerrigan is out for the rest of the season with a calf injury, had two sacks, two additional quarterback hits and a tackle for loss in addition to the three forced fumbles (one recovered by Washington).
Once again, as has been the pattern under interim coach Bill Callahan, Washington played with professional intensity, bordering at times on appropriate abandon. But once again a bitterly disappointed Callahan, who clearly thinks he has a chance at the head job (it’s a fantasy), had to concede: “We just didn’t make the plays at the end.”
The good news for those who still root for the team is that the players’ morale is excellent now. “I told the team I really appreciate them. I love them all,” Callahan said. “Most teams that are in the situation we’re in, they quit. They just flat quit. I saw a lot of fight . . . a lot of spirit.”
That, in its way, is negative news for any prospective coach, because there’s a limit to how much harder he can get them to play.
Although the players themselves will never agree, this team dodged one piece of bad news Sunday. At least the Redskins lost. Whew, what a relief! That kept them in a three-way tie for the second-worst record in the NFL and a chance for the No. 2, 3 or 4 draft pick behind the runaway booby-prize Bengals (1-13).
If Washington had won, then beaten the lousy New York Giants next Sunday at FedEx, it could have gotten to 5-10 — a draft-slot disaster. In the NFL, a truly bad season is a terrible thing to waste.
By showing improvement but losing, Washington is also undermining the chances of Callahan getting even nominal consideration for the job. He is rumpled, low-glow and definitely not a Snyder type. But a win over the Eagles and another over the Giants would have created the kind of 4-1 run that’s hard to ignore.
Maybe that’s why Callahan, normally slow to the postgame microphone, then talkative once there, raced to the postgame stage and repeatedly said, “Any questions?” as if hoping no reporters would arrive in time for an actual news conference.
“At the end of the day, it just ain’t good enough,” said Callahan, a respected line coach, former NFL and college head coach and football lifer who doesn’t know where he’ll hang his hat next year.
“Real disappointed,” he said.
For all the Washington rookies, the mood was confident, if somber, in defeat.
“[Haskins] is trying to earn the respect of everybody on this team. It’s a process, but he’s getting there,” said McLaurin, already a blooming star. “He’s eluding people in the pocket, commanding the huddle. He’s progressing. The future will be bright for him.”
Except for his final-play fumble, on which he merely appeared to be rolling the ball free as he was being sacked to keep a last flicker of hope alive, Haskins continued to show an ability — improving the more he starts — to minimize turnovers. For one day, Haskins’s quarterback rating (121.3) topped a name quarterback in Wentz (109.3), and his 23-yard run on a third-and-one option in the fourth quarter showed that, while he lumbers, he can rumble straight upfield for quite a ways.
“That should be an average game for me,” Haskins said. “I can get better.”
Haskins, like many on this team in the past 25 years, isn’t shy about predicting a future for himself before it’s close to reality. But in a year this dismal — Washington has been held to three wins in a season twice in the past 55 years — maybe some self-hypnosis is necessary.
At least for one day Washington had an exciting NFL game to watch, with lead changes and a last-minute decisive score. Many thousands stayed to enjoy it, cheering, jumping up and down, and even cashing their bets because a linebacker chugged a couple of feet across the goal line before he was tackled on a touchdown return at 0:00.
Yes, they even spelled out their team’s name in the loudest victory chants at FedEx Field this season.
Except it was “E-A-G-L-E-S.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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