“It was not the way we wanted it, but, damn it, we needed it,” linebacker Ryan Anderson said as he collapsed into his locker, towels wrapped around his body and his legs sore.
The scoreboard in the stadium outside already had been turned off, and there was no need to commemorate a 17-16 win by a 1-5 Washington team over the 0-5 Miami Dolphins. The only salvation this afternoon brought to the 59,808 who bought tickets for an event some called “The Ineptitude Bowl” is that Miami Coach Brian Flores decided to go for a two-point conversion after the Dolphins scored a touchdown with six seconds left, refusing to let the day extend into overtime.
Inside their locker room, the Redskins, playing their first game since coach Jay Gruden was fired early Monday and replaced on an interim basis by Bill Callahan, weren’t surprised Flores decided to go for two. And though they had allowed a team that had scored just two touchdowns all year to score two in the fourth quarter, turning a 17-3 lead into a 17-16 heart attack, they felt calm in the chaos. They knew Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to throw to either wide receiver DeVante Parker or running back Kenyan Drake and were ready for both possibilities.
The throw was a screen to Drake, who dropped the ball. Not that he would have gone anywhere. Washington’s defensive players knew they had the play stopped.
“He was going to be stuffed,” safety Landon Collins said.
But as happy as they were, uneasiness filled the room as well. The Redskins have never felt like an 0-5 team this season, preferring to see themselves as a group that was a few breaks from a more respectable record. Yet they found themselves in a death fight at the end against the Dolphins, who were stripped of many of their best players in a rebuild that many have called “tanking” and had lost their first four games by a combined 163-26.
Not only had the Redskins blown a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, but they had failed to convert on nine of 11 third-down attempts, were saved from the humiliation of fumbling an onside kick by an offside penalty and let Miami go 75 yards in 1:56 at the game’s end to score the touchdown that set up the botched two-point conversion. They permitted Fitzpatrick, a journeyman backup in relief of starter Josh Rosen, to throw for 132 yards in the fourth quarter. Despite Callahan’s insistence they commit to fundamentals and details, they had coverage breakdowns and critical penalties.
They knew that even though they had stuffed the two-point conversion, they also were very, very lucky Fitzpatrick threw the screen to Drake that they had been expecting.
“We can’t let them back in the game like that,” left tackle Donald Penn said, shaking his head. “We had opportunities in the fourth quarter to put the game away. and we didn’t.”
That worry, though, would have to wait. The Redskins hadn’t won a game since Dec. 16, and the taste of victory was good, no matter how unorthodox it was. Callahan said he believed the emphasis he had put on fitness and discipline during the week had helped his players in the game. He used the word “resilient” to describe the way the defense had handled the final minutes, saying the players “answered when they had to.”
Mostly, though, Callahan was thrilled with running back Adrian Peterson. From his first news conference after Gruden’s firing, the new coach said he intended to have Peterson run and run and run until the Redskins had reestablished themselves as a powerful rushing team. Then on Sunday he did that, sending the 34-year-old Peterson into the line over and over until finally he broke through. In the end, Peterson had 23 carries for 118 yards.
More importantly, Peterson’s success set up quarterback Case Keenum to hit rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin with 25- and 33-yard touchdown passes that helped build the 17-3 fourth-quarter lead.
“That really complemented what we did in the run game,” Callahan said.
Still, the statistics all seemed hollow. Miami came into the game with the league’s worst rushing offense and defense. It was next-to-last in passing yards allowed and touchdown passes allowed. Compared to what other teams have done against the Dolphins this year, the Redskins’ 311 yards of total offense weren’t all that spectacular.
They had won, yes, but it came in a game that should raise questions about how many more times they can win this season. Their defense swarmed Rosen, sacking him five times and forcing him to throw two interceptions, but they had little answer for his replacement, Fitzpatrick, in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins had given the Redskins a chance to dominate, and in the end they barely survived.
A win, though, is a win. And in a near-empty locker room Sunday, Penn sighed heavily.
“I’ve been in this league 13 years, and wins come hard,” he said. “If this was easy, everyone would be 10-0.”