November 19, 2008

A Dream Deferred

Dallas 14, Washington 10

I wasn't much fun to be around Sunday night.

I went into the Dallas rematch with the mindset this game, bottom line, would finally tell me what kind of team we have in the 2008 Redskins. Were they closer to the team we saw watched thump the Cowboys and Eagles early in the year, or the team we’ve since watched slowly grind to an offensive halt?

The answer was both clear and gut-wrenching.

Oh, I know the Redskins could still bounce back and make a late playoff run. The early success certainly showed they’re capable of excellent football. But having had some fundamental shortcomings exposed the past few weeks, I’d not put money on it.

Doesn’t mean I’m not bullish on Jim Zorn and the future—I am. But, with apologies to George Allen, it doesn’t look like that future is now.

The game itself was death by paper cut. No single error or mistake defined it, it was an accumulation of mistakes and missed opportunities that, taken together, were enough to do the Redskins in.

I won’t rub too much salt into the wound, but for illustration …
• After scoring on their first drive to grab a 7-0 lead, the Redskins get a turnover on DeAngelo Hall’s interception. Huge play—golden chance to capitalize and take control. Crowd going nuts. Three plays later, Antwaan Randle El can’t handle a short 3rd-down conversion pass, and the Redskins go three and out.

• Two possessions later, still up 7-0, after another interception the Redskins put together a nice drive, moving from their own 20 to the Dallas 36. It’s 3rd-and-6. They’re on a roll. Five yards puts them in good field range range for 10-0; a first down puts them in good position to look for more. Instead, they get flagged for an illegal substitution. Then burn a timeout trying to sort it out. On 3rd-and-11, Dallas looses the hounds and Campbell gets sacked back to the 49.

• On the subsequent punt, Rock Cartwright almost pulls off a huge special teams play downing the ball at the Dallas 1. Rather than leave it be (it appeared to have stopped on its own) or just tap the ball back toward the field of play with a hand, he dives on it, with 50 yards of full-tilt momentum behind him. Not surprisingly, the play doesn’t get made. Touchback. Ball comes out to the 20.
How many of you turned to whoever you were watching the game with at that moment and said, “Watch—now Dallas drives 80 yards for seven.”

I did.

• Cartwright almost pulls off a monster play on the ensuing kickoff, breaking it up the right sideline, but gets run out of bounds at the Dallas 37. Big, but not monster. Monster would have been seven points on the scoreboard, a total momentum swing and FedEx Field lifting off its moorings. The Skins get one first down, bog down and settle for three.

• Washington opens the second half with a crisp drive, going from their own 13 to the Dallas 35, where they face 3rd-and-2. From the shotgun, Campbell throws low and hot to a blanketed Santana Moss at the sideline—a tough chance even if he's uncovered. He's not. Somehow, Dallas CB Terence Newman picks it off. It's the kind of play that makes toes curl and bowels tighten. Another scoring opportunity gone.

Another paper cut.

I could go on, but by now you’re as bummed as I am. The short version is that the entire second half was a continuing accumulation of “almost,” “what the--" and “oh shit” moments. Missed blocks. Missed passes. Blue tidal waves rolling over Campbell. Offensive playcalling that surprised no one. Defensive blitzes that were telegraphed, didn’t get there anyway and left people uncovered downfield.

By the end of the third quarter, I knew. There would be no fourth-quarter heroics. No surge. No finish, as I wrote so proudly about this team just five weeks ago. And I hate to admit it, but right about then is when, with a deep sigh, I toggled the switch in my mind from “2008 Contender” to “Just Another Team.”

A two-play sequence in the fourth quarter defined the game, and the current state of the team, in microcosm.

Washington leads 10-7, with 11:29 to go. Dallas has a 3rd-and-7 at the Redskins 33. With a defensive stop, Dallas is looking at a 50-yarder to tie. Tony Romo drops to pass. The Redskins apply pressure from edges, but nothing up the middle. Romo steps up into the gap, and at the last possible instant, flips a Favresque little shovel pass toward Miles Austin, who gathers it in and falls forward for the first down at the 25.

How many of you turned to whoever you were watching the game with at that moment and said, “Watch—now they’ll go end zone.”

I did.

And they did.

On the next play, Romo stands comfortably in the pocket, and throws a seam pass to someone named Martellus Bennett, at the goal line, over rookie safety Chris Horton, who is all but wearing Bennett's jersey (Miles Austin? Martellus Bennett? I remember when we used to lose to guys named Staubach, Pearson, Aikman and Irvin). Touchdown.


Why were those two plays a microcosm? Because today's Redskins wouldn't have made either play.

For one, Jason Campbell doesn’t have the ball-handling skills to pull off the kind of helter-skelter, ad-lib third-down play Romo (even with a pinky cast) did. We saw the shovel pass from Campbell once earlier this year, I believe against Philly, and it wasn’t pretty.

Faced with the collapsing pocket on third down, today’s Campbell would have either faded back from the pressure, tried to run up the middle or forced a last-second overhand pass. And none of those would have resulted in a first down—not the way things have been going.

And on the touchdown play … the Redskins passing game is so out of whack, and its trigger man clearly thinking too hard instead of just playing, that that pass would never have been thrown. Because the receiver wasn’t open. He was blanketed, not just by Horton, but by a rapidly closing Laron Landry.

There was every bit as much chance that ball gets batted around and even picked off than there was some rookie backup making a great catch in traffic. That play was high-risk, high-reward defined, and the Redskins simply aren’t in that market right now.

Zorn and Campbell, for all the promise and synergy they showed early, over the past few weeks have produced a passing game so conservative Governor Palin wouldn’t vote for it.


You’ll notice I’ve said little about the defense. I could pick nits with the 4th-quarter collapse against the run, but I won’t. They were never going to be the ’85 Bears or ‘00 Ravens—units you could count on to hold teams to 10 or less every week. They’re just not built that way. They're not big or young enough up front.

As it was, they surrendered 14 points, despite almost no support from their own offense. Ten NFL teams gave up more than 14 points this week, and won. No team won scoring 10 or less.

I will note that the defense—while coming up with two turnovers—recorded its 21st consecutive game without a touchdown (London Fletcher INT vs AZ, Week 6, 2007). Not sure how that stacks up against other teams, but I suspects it’s at or near the bottom of the league.

So where does all this leave us? Depends how you look at it.

At 6-4, the Redskins are smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt. Having dropped two in a row and three out of four at home, however, and having stagnated offensively, any last remnants of the early-season momentum and confidence are gone.

And some of the problems—an utterly ineffective offensive line, gritty but not difference-making quarterback, and pass rush challenged defense—don’t appear likely to quickly resolve themselves in 2008.

Who knows, maybe they’ll right the ship, beat Seattle in their house and come home frisky and ready for another shot at the defending champions. As cold a dose of reality as the two consecutive losses have been, two consecutive wins now would certainly re-light the fires. But the benefit of the doubt has definitely shifted.

As I said before, I’m still bullish on the long-term future of the Jim Zorn, Jason Campbell Redskins. And depending on what happens over the next two weeks maybe I’ll feel differently again.

But for now, in the cold light of day, they’ve become a dream deferred.


Anonymous said...

I'm right there with you. This is the team I was afraid they were when everyone was predicting the march to 7-1. They just have too many flaws to do great things (I think).

I too feel OK about Zorn, but I'm starting to doubt Campbell. The line is having issues but a good QB has got to be able to make something happen when things are going bad. And he has to make defenses pay when things are going well. He's not doing either right now.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

I'll admit to wavering a little on Campbell the last 2 weeks. Still don't doubt the man's talent and heart, but his performances have reminded me why I never thought he was a good WCO fit in the first place.

He's always struck me as the prototype Gibbs QB: big, strong armed, play-action pocket passer. To me, the prototype WCO QB types are the quick-release, nimble footed, "throw from any platform guys." Brees, young Favre, Romo, Garcia, etc.

At this point my hope is that, over time, Zorn can mold his system to Campbell, and vice versa, like he was able to with Hasselbeck in Seattle. The fast start had me almost believing we could skip the learning curve we all knew was coming ... but the last couple of weeks have brought me back down to earth.

I hate being patient. It makes me impatient.

Anonymous said...

Oh, don't be so full of doom and gloom. Down here in Texas everybody is saying that the sky is falling because "if it hadn't been for that lucky shovel pass" or "if it hadn't been for that lucky reception at the goal line" the Cowboys would have lost. There's more doom and gloom because this was the year that the 'Boys were supposed to have waltzed into the Super Bowl, and that appears highly unlikely now.

So cheer up. Remember that the NFL is in the entertainment business, and you were obviously entertained on Sunday. "On any given Sunday", hu'on!

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Make you a deal. I'll dial back the gloom, you dial back the anonymity.

Of course now that I think about it ... you're the one stuck in Dallas, not me. I feel better already. :)

Anonymous said...

Om, it's kind of funny that Jason Campbell can go from looking so good (against the Lions, for instance) to looking, well, inconsistent (see Steelers, Cowboys).

A lot of blame has been put onto the offensive line's performance lately, and that its proformance hasn't allowed Campbell to make plays.

I understand that argument, but I just can't help but look at other quarterbacks around the NFL and see that, despite the pressure, they're taking a look at the defense and making split-second decisions and getting the ball in the right place.

I don't like the think that Campbell isn't the right guy. The Redskins (and us fans) have been looking for "the right guy" since ... well, yeah.

It's all great when there is no pressure, but his poise under pressure (mostly making split-second decisions) has me looking elsewhere.

That brings on the next obvious question:

What do you think about Colt?

Mark "Om" Steven said...


Like I said, for me the jury's still out on whether or not Jason can adapt his more classic drop-back QB body and skill set to the modified WCO Zorn was able to get Hasselbeck proficient in.

He looked like he was on track early in the year, but as the OL has been exposed and become a sieve, Jason's not been able to compensate by speeding things up.

No one wants to hear it right now, but the only way we're going to find out if he can "get there" is to give him time.

Zorn and Hasseslbeck both said it took Hass 2-3 years to get comfortable in this offense. I wonder if Skins fans are prepared to be that patient.

As to Colt ... all I know right now is what I saw in limited action in preseason, against scrubs, with scrubs. He certainly looks to have the body, quick release and "feel" for the WCO, but until I see him under live fire against a real defense, I'm going to keep my powder dry.

Lizkauai said...

OM...dangit...I have been trying very hard to stifle myself but watching that game was even more painful than normal because I've seen the rookie 'Skins QB become the catalyst that could fire up a team over and over again.
Fogeddabout college, and feel what Madden and Jergensen felt about him in the preseason. It's not just one guy... it's what he does to a whole team by being willing to throw himself completely into the moment and go after that W.
That's what's missing right now.
Our QB needs to be a spiritual Braveheart and lead the charge with intensity and determination. A guy the O-Line will sacrifice home and hearth to protect because they LOVE -him because of what he is willing to risk to bring in the win.
That attitude will galvanize a whole team on both sides of the ball and the defense and special teams will get even better because they know their turnovers and field positions will be cashed in with the "sudden" offense of the Washington Redskins.

That is my vision.
Not really a vision, because I've seen it in green... and long to see it again in burgundy and gold!

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Liz, you're looking at a guy who believes QB is the single most important position in sports. I'm all about the things you describe--the right QB in the right situation can lift an entire organization. And Colt may well be that guy.

But Jason might be that guy too if and when he his situation finally sync up. I don't think we can possibly overstate the impact the constant starting over in new systems, and for new coaches, has had on his development.

The team has invested too much time and money in the man to not see it through now. To me that means this season and probably next before we can fairly assess whether Campbell can make it work here.

If by the end of next season, or maybe even midseason if the light really hasn't come on by then, he's still where he is now ... then I'll probably agree it's time for to see what they have in your boy. But not yet.

I'm as intrigued with Colt as with any QB we've had around here in a while. He does seem to have that spark. But I'm not prepared to turn the page on Jason Campbell yet. We've come too far too close that book before finding out how it ends.

William Warshauer said...

Regarding how long it'll take Jason to finally get ready, I just wonder why it seems to happen so much faster for other teams. Romo stepped in and was great right away. Flacco in Baltimore and another rookie QB whose name I'm forgetting are having good years this year as Rookie's. Jason's been her what 4-5 years and now we say he needs another 2 to get ready?? I don't know.....

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Well, in the two cases you mention, Romo sat on the bench four years watching, learning and practicing every day before he ever took a snap. All four were in the same system.

Flacco has been a surprise, but he's also playing on a team with one of the perennial best defenses in the league, and hasn't had to carry much of the load there. He's done well so far, and may turn into a stud over time, but I think we should wait a year or two as the league gets a book on him to see if he's the real deal or not.

Every QB has a different circumstance to deal with that impact his development. Few have had them as uneven as Campbell. 4 1/2 years into his career, we still haven't seen him run the same system under the same coaching for more than one consecutive season.

I'm just saying he should get at least two years under Zorn to show he can handle the role. As I've said, I'm a bit let down by what I've seen the past two weeks as the OL has broken down in front of him, but I've seen enough flashes over the past 4 years to still give the man the benefit of the doubt.

I know I'm among a thinning crowd, however.