November 26, 2008

"Sean's Gone" - Echo '08

This was written the day Sean Taylor died.

For the past few days I have searched for the
right words to say one year later ... and found none.
The raw immediacy may have passed,
but the emotional echoes remain.

Rather than grasping for new words, then,
removed as they must be from the truth of the moment,
I humbly offer here the words that poured out,
almost unbidden, on that cold, rainy day.

We have not forgotten.


It’s not a long drive to my son’s high school, maybe 15 minutes.

Most mornings, we share sleepy wise cracks—which of us looks worse, whose day projects out the bigger pain, the lameness of a certain radio commercial.

Sometimes we talk daily routine—remembering to turn in an order form, calling if he needs to be picked up, the logistics of an upcoming outing with friends.

Sometimes we talk a little sports—Redskins, mostly.

Once in a while, as events dictate, we talk real life—there will be other girls, they just discovered an Earth-like planet 20 light-years away, it’s junior year partner, these grades count.

Tuesday morning we rode in silence.

He’d had a strange look on his face as he came down the hall from the living room, where the morning news was playing, as we readied to leave the house. His voice had a flatness to it when he spoke.

“Sean’s gone.”

I wasn’t fully awake—I didn’t understand. Then I saw the look in his eyes, the awful news story I had fallen asleep thinking about came flooding back, and I understood only too well. I don’t remember now if it was raining as we headed out into the dark, but it always will be in my memory.

As we were pulling out into the road a minute later, a voice on the car radio confirmed the reality.

“Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died this morning from a gunshot wound suffered in his home …”

We drove in silence, staring straight ahead.

I don’t really know if the time it took to get to the school took forever, or if it flashed by in an instant. Time has a strange quality to it in times of stress. What I do recall is an unsettling jumble of disjointed thoughts, feelings and impressions.

I remember thinking I should “say something.” My boy’s favorite athlete—one of those larger-than-life figures we all hold up to the light that help us form our young selves—had just been senselessly shot down in the prime of his life. I should be a rock. Paternal. Wise.

I thought I shouldn’t let him see me cry. A father teaches his son that men are steady in a storm. And then I thought I absolutely should let him see me cry. A father should teach his son there is not shame, but honor, in sharing his humanity.

I felt the onset of fury, the urge to say something—do something—about this insanity. About yet another needless violent death, about yet another fatherless child.

I felt the wearying, familiar heaviness in my chest, as the latest in an endless parade of man’s-inhumanity-to-man headlines unfolded around me. They say one grows colder, harder inside as one gets older. That has not been my experience.

I thought about the burgundy “21” jersey hanging in my son’s closet … and how when we watch the games together, we always exchange—exchanged—knowing grins when a Redskin flashed into the screen and blew up an opposing runner, or an opposing receiver inexplicably short-armed a promising ball.


I tried to push away thoughts about the on-field impact this would have on my favorite football team, and wished I was the kind of man who didn’t have to remind himself there will be a time for that, and this was not it.

I sensed the displacement one gets when events transpire that shatter the perceived normalcy of modern daily life. How emotions ebb and flow of their own volition. How linear thinking gives way to something less structured, more organic. How one can feel utterly in the moment, yet oddly removed at the same time.

Perhaps that is what life is like for those who have lived, and still live, in circumstances not yet “civilized,” as we like to think ours are. If this is how life feels to those who spend their days scratching out sustenance, standing watch over loved ones through uncertain nights, wondering if the coming day might be the last.

Yes, people die tragically every day. And yes ours would be a better world if we did not largely grow numb to that reality in our daily lives. But the truth is, it’s often only when someone who has touched our own lives is lost that the numbness disappears.

Tuesday was such a day. The reality of it was brought home through my own eyes, and more powerfully, reflected in the eyes of someone I love. Someone to whom personal loss has not yet become a familiar aspect of life. Someone whose shock and pain I could not shield.

My son’s experience that morning was both like and unlike mine. At his tender age, the tears were of shock, outrage, incomprehension—an unfamiliar and frightening ripping at his gut over the loss of a man he looked up to and admired.

At my not-quite-so-tender age, the tears were for all of those things, but also for the flood of unwelcome emotions the event reached into down my soul and dragged to the surface about the dark underbelly of the human condition.

My son never met Sean Taylor. The closest he ever got was standing outside the ropes, watching him practice with the team. Neither did I. The closest I ever got was watching Sean from across a crowded locker room after a game or having him walk by after practice on his way to the showers.

But he was most certainly part of our lives.

We marveled at his once-in-a-generation athletic gift. We thrilled at the highlight-reel plays he made look routine. We took pride in the fearsome on-field reputation he earned as a member of our Redskins.

We watched hopefully, almost gleefully, as the birth of his first child brought a stability and maturity to his life that had sometimes seemed wanting before, which in turn brought with it the prospect of watching this unique and somewhat mysterious young man evolve into an all-time great wearing our colors.

Instead, in an instant, Sean Taylor was gone.

And so we found ourselves under the lights in the high school parking lot, my son and I, having not said a word. I think it was still raining.

It was all I could do to say what I finally managed, and I don’t believe I did well trying to steady my voice. “There are no magic words.”

He looked at me, nodded. “I know.”

We usually fist-bump before he gets out of the car. Tuesday we found ourselves clasping hands, soul-brother style, for a long moment. Then he was opening the door and starting to climb out.

I heard myself say, “Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It’s going to be a depressing day.”

All the things I’ve ever wanted to tell him—and my wife, two daughters, parents, brother and sister, extended family, friends, colleagues and fellow human beings who have lived and died since our species began—all the things that are always there but tend to surface only when events dictate, were on the tip of my tongue ...

Love, loss, beauty, fear, joy, pain, perspective, regret, longing, empathy—hope—and so much more.

It becomes increasingly more difficult, as one gets older and the children grow from kids into young adults, to say the truly important things in a way that conveys meaning without preaching. But you do the best you can, while you can, in a way you hope doesn’t embarrass them, and hope they might carry with them when you are gone.

So as my own flesh and blood made to walk away into what cold reality had once again proven an uncertain, often dark world, I said the only thing I could. I told him I loved him, and didn’t try to hide the tears.

You will be remembered, Sean Taylor.


November 25, 2008

Not Just Another Sunday Drive

The Washington Redskins have faced two “must win” games in 2008.

The first came early, in week two against New Orleans. A loss would have left them 0-2, facing a tough stretch that included back-to-back road division games in the hyper-competitive NFC East. They were peering over the edge of a cliff, one that a team with a rookie head coach and endless list of question marks might never have recovered from.

A late offensive surge, keyed by Jason Campbell’s fourth-quarter touchdown bomb to Santana Moss, averted that potential disaster and propelled the team to a 6-2 first half—a start that caught the football world by surprise and dramatically raised expectations for 2008.

The second must-win game came Sunday in Seattle, appropriately enough the very place Washington’s two most recent playoff teams have seen their January dreams snuffed out.

For the second time this year, the Redskins came through. And for the second time, with everything on the line, it was their much-maligned offense that rose to the occasion.

The early returns certainly didn’t point that direction. Against the NFL’s 29th-ranked defense, the Redskins first four possessions gave little reason to believe they’d snap out of the steady downward slide they had been on for several weeks:

3 plays, 2 yards, Punt
6 plays, 16 yards, Punt
9 plays, 53 yards, Missed FG
9 plays, 31 yards, Punt

Starting at 10:14 of the 2nd quarter, however, Seattle’s defense either found their true level, or the Redskins offense re-established theirs. I suspect, as is usually the case, it was some combination of both. Discounting the last possession before the half, when they got the ball at their own 32 with 29 seconds to play and ended up taking a knee, the rest of the Redskins’ offensive possessions on the day played out like this:

11 plays, 62 yards, TD
11 plays, 49 yards, FG
3 plays, 35 yards, TD
10 plays, 64 yards, FG
11 plays, 74 yards, Fumble

The overall trend is clear; they controlled the ball, avoided mistakes, converted third downs and, most importantly, scored points. The last two possessions in particular are the ones that really stood out.

The Redskins took over on their own 31 with 13:19 remaining in the game. Seattle had just scored to tie it up, 17-17, swinging momentum their way and igniting their famously disruptive “12th man” crowd.

The Redskins answered. A methodical 10-play drive, 64-yard drive, burning 4 minutes, culminated in a chip-shot field goal to reclaim the lead and quiet the crowd.

[They had a golden chance to score seven there, but were unable to convert on 3rd-and-inches at the Seattle 5. Campbell’s short rollout pass to Mike Sellers bounced off the fullback’s hands and fell incomplete. I would have loved to see a simple QB sneak behind Randy Thomas there (less room for error), but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. Bottom line, the Redskins offense rose to the occasion and reestablished control of the game.]

The last drive, though, is the one that had, and has, me smiling.

After the short FG put them up 20-17, the Redskins defense held and forced a Seattle punt. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan executed a perfect lob wedge that was downed at the Redskins 4 yard line, where the offense took over with 7:05 to go.

As I suspect was the case with many of you, at that point I was thinking three line plunges and punting right back. With the Redskins backed up in their own end and the 12th man raining madness around them, I was thinking best case was probably a punt that would set Seattle up at midfield. From there, a tying field goal might have seemed a good outcome ... and a dagger of a touchdown a distinct possibility.

So what happened?

The Redskins answered. Again.

Other than Campbell’s bomb to Santana Moss to save the game—and arguably the young season—against the Saints in week two, what happened next was the most important and potentially resonant contribution the offense has made all year.

Portis for 9
Portis for 11
Portis for 20

First down, WAS 44. Time remaining, 5:15.

Loudest crowd in pro football? Reduced to a dull roar.

Betts for 3
Betts for 1
Campbell to Moss for 13

First down, SEA 39. Time remaining, 3:11.

12th man? Sitting, grumbling.

Me? Standing, clenching fists.

Campbell for 8 (!)
Portis for 1
Portis for 6

First down, SEA 24. Time remaining, 1:46.

Game over.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Betts for 1 … and tell me you’re kidding.

I could write an entire column on that play, but I won’t. Shawn Springs’ interception off a bad decision by Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck on the next play rendered it moot.

Point is, but for a flukey brain-lapse (it was a fluke, right Mr. Betts?) the game would have been over. Two safe line plunges or kneel-downs would have left two solid fourth-down options--a makeable (around 40 yard) FG attempt for a 6-point lead with less than 30 ticks left, or another line plunge to bleed more precious seconds off the clock, leaving Seattle around their own 30 with no time outs, a wing and a prayer.

From their own goal line, facing a defense primed to stop the run and buoyed by an ear-splitting din, the Redskins calmly drove the ball down Seattle's proverbial throat.

The numbers—11 plays, 74 yards, 5:37 time of possession—don’t begin to tell the story. That wasn’t just another Sunday drive. It was clutch. It was big time. And it may prove dividends down the road we cannot begin to quantify today.

No, it doesn’t necessarily mean Washington is ready to run the ball down New York and Baltimore's throats the next two weeks. Even with the madness of their crowd behind them, Seattle’s defense is not in the same class as the Giants and Ravens.

And no, it won’t necessarily propel the Redskins on a second-half playoff run.

But the kind of drive—the kind of drives—the Redskins put together, when they absolutely had to have them, are the building blocks contenders are made of.

Those blocks don’t come easy, and they don’t come often. You earn them, in the toughest circumstances, when things seem to be slipping away. The Redskins aren't done building—perennial contenders are not quick in the making—but Sunday they added one damn fine block of granite to the foundation.

Yes there are still concerns ...

NFL teams pay attention—they’ll be attacking the edges of the Redskins run defense. The defensive line still generates dangerously little pass rush up the middle. Offensively the passing game is still hit-and-miss, with a quarterback learning on the fly and a line better suited to run than pass blocking. And oh yeah, the head coach is still a rookie.

... but those problems also existed when the Redskins were 4-1 and 6-2—they simply overcame them. Sunday on the west coast, they overcame them again, and for the second time this year, it was their work-in-progress offense that stepped up and took over a game the team simply had to have.

Sure, it could be the two seize-the-moment drives were a tease ... as much a function of an opponents’ defensive shortcomings as a re-emergence of the Redskins offense ... but it didn’t feel like on Sunday night. And today, with a few days to digest the whole thing, it still doesn’t.

Pushed to the brink in a fiercely hostile environment, with a game and arguably realistic playoff hopes on the line, the Redskins dug deep and went toe-to-toe with failure.

They’re still standing.

Never underestimate that. The next time this team finds itself staring into the abyss, when they absolutely have to dig in their heels to make a stand, they’ll find the footing that much firmer.


November 21, 2008

DeAngelo Hall - Better Late Than Never

I tried real hard to work up strong feelings, one way or the other, about the DeAngelo Hall signing. I couldn’t—not as far it relates to 2008.

To me the move speaks far more to the Redskins level of concern over Shawn Springs perpetual injury status than it does any immediate expectations for the mercurial Hall.

Unable to count on Springs, with Fred Smoot perpetually nicked, and not enamored of the game-but-limited Leigh Torrence, the team saw Hall as a physical upgrade over Torrence, with far more upside, available on the cheap.

Add to that the fact he’s an option at punt returner—an area that has to be driving the team as crazy as its fans—and it added up to a no-brainer in the short term.

The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced this signing is about the future. I think we’re watching the team put Hall through an extended audition, both on and off the field, for the role of Springs’ replacement in ’09 and beyond.

Can't see any way they bring Springs back—at least not as a top 3 corner under his current contract—so they’re going to have to find his replacement somewhere. And since even a first round rookie draft pick would be just that—a rookie—they'd probably be thinking free agency and hoping to land a proven young veteran. Which raises the inevitable downside of a limited pool and grossly inflated contract numbers.

Way I see it, If Hall can find a niche in Greg Blache's rotation , contribute on the field for the rest of this season and convince teammates and coaches his alleged Knucklehead Factor doesn’t exceed their Tolerance Meter, the Redskins may have pulled off a serious heist.

24-year-old, Pro Bow talent cornerbacks don’t show up at your door making puppy dog eyes at you very often. One does, you let him in. Then you give him a biscuit and the chance to prove he's housebroken.

No one doubts Hall’s physical gifts and big-play potential. He wasn't on the field a dozen plays for the Redskins before the ball found its way into his hands. Around here, that's news. But the character albatross hanging around his neck, fairly or not, makes him a calculated risk.

So for the rest of the season, watch closely how he handles and incorporates himself as a teammate off the field. In my book, that will be far more telling than what he does on it.

We can expect mistakes on the field given he’s learning a new defense on the fly. Be wary, though, of anything that even sniffs of character issue off it. If any D. Hall headlines between now and January are about anything other than his play on the field or props for his emerging work ethic, make a note of the date and time; it will likely be his Redskins epitaph.

DeAngelo Hall has been given a great opportunity. He's come to his home town team, to work for a free-spending owner in a city starved for a winner and willing to lavish instant hero status on anyone who helps build one , and a chance to break in as a complementary player without the immediate pressure of being “the man.”

If he can face down whatever demons have delivered him to this crossroads, and do it quickly enough to convince the Redskins he’s ready to be a professional football player, the sky could be the limit.

And if he can’t, well…having taken him out for an extended test drive won’t have cost the Redskins anything they’ll regret down the road.

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.

November 15, 2008

Crowdgate - Butt Out

Have we really fallen so far, Redskins Nation? There’s one word to describe the now two-week-long hysteria over Crowdgate:


* FedExField is the largest stadium in the NFL. More seats equals more butts. Ours and theirs. Get used to it.

* Washington DC remains a city of transplants. There are always going to be fans of other teams putting their butts in our seats. Get used to it.

* Ever been to a game at FedEx Field? If you have, you know getting your butt in and out of there is a pain. Now put that game on a Monday Night. Figure the game ends around midnight. Know what time your butt is getting home? Neither do I, and that’s the point. But count on being the only car moving in your neighborhood except maybe Johnny Law doing his rounds.

* Checked your 401K lately? If you work for a living you feel like you’ve spent the last couple months retrieving soap in a prison shower. If your alarm is going to go off at oh-dark-thirty Tuesday morning, and some anonymous online schmuck is willing to pay you three times face for your two tickets, there’s a decent chance you’re not going to sweat checking the color of his NFL underoos.

But enough time wasted on peripherals.

Know why Steelers fans on Monday night were a factor? Because the Redskins played butt-awful offensive football. And because the entire team spent the first half looking gift horses in the mouth, extending a gilded invitation to the visitors to take control of the game.

This isn’t complicated.

If Jason Campbell hits a wide open Santana Moss at the goal line on the second offensive possession and the Redskins go up 10-0, know what you would have heard at FedEx?


If Carlos Rogers doesn’t drop the Redskins weekly “thanks, but no thanks” pick-six opportunity and they go up 13-3, playing as well defensively as they have since Richie Petitbone and his various combilations (anyone?) waddled RFK's sidelines, know what you would have heard at FedEx?


And if the Redskins had been the butt-kickers instead of the butt-kickees all night, know what you would have heard and seen from the “loyal opposition?”


Okay, so the Steelers fans were irritating. But please put it in perspective. If the game on the field rated an “8” on the Redskin Fan’s Great Scale of Irritations given enough missed opportunities to choke a horse, a bunch of visiting fans waving cute little canary-yellow towels rated maybe a "3."

The one substantive complaint might be that the Redskins had to use a silent count on offense a few times. Obviously you’d rather not have to do that on your home field. On the other hand …

1) It’s the NFL—you start working on silent counts in May.

2) The Redskins brought the problem on themselves by screwing up several golden opportunities to take a choke hold on the game early and make opposing fans moot. And mute.

Oh and before I forget … now that as a fan base we've spent so much time publicly wringing our hands over crowd noise, be assured the always classy contingent of Dallas fans planning to show up this weekend, as they always do when their team has a winning record, will take it as encouragement and a challenge to try to one-up the Pittsburghers.

As ye reap ... you know?

So, want this all to go away? Me too. More than I can say in polite company. Here’s what has to happen:

First and foremost, the Redskins have to play like they did earlier this season against Dallas—with a nasty disposition and butt-kicking attitude. By playing physical and smart football. And most importantly, by converting on opportunities.

As for the fans, you already know what to do; the only thing fans can do to actually impact a game. I’ll say it anyway just in case anyone’s forgotten. Be loud. Be loud at the right times. And if the Redskins should happen to be losing at some point, or even stumbling around shooting off toes like they did two weeks ago, don’t boo, don’t sit on your hands whining about the other teams’ fans, rally and scream for your team even louder.

You know, help them.

Don’t go thugging on fans wearing the wrong colors, either. We all know NFL cities where they seem to think that’s how one compensates for inadequate manhood—but that’s never been us. I’d like to think that being above that was something Redskins fans were proud of.

Forget the fans in blue Sunday night. If their team is smacking the Redskins around at some point, they’re going to be loud—just like Redskins fans are loud for their team on the road. And if the Redskins are doing the smacking, count on the Cowboy fans in attendance to be inconsequential drops in a 90,000-strong sea of fans wearing the right colors.

The Steelers fans got into the Redskins heads on the field, as evidenced by all the commentary in the days after the game. They got into the Redskins fans heads too, as evidenced by the last two embarrassing weeks of talking about it (which I now find myself grudgingly contributing to).

Kick them the hell out. I’m begging you.

Here’s a guarantee: when the Redskins become consistent winners again—which they appear well on their way to doing—opposing fans at FedEx, even those of good teams with passionate and mobile fan bases, will sit there quietly and take their medicine. The burgundy and gold tidal wave around them will allow zero room for interpretation as to whose house it is.

Forget the other sideshows. Be loud. Be consistent.

Be Redskins fans.

And as for the Redskins themselves … fellas, just win. Do that, and this kind of ridiculous, embarrassing sideshow will up and vanish like the proverbial fart in the wind.


November 13, 2008

Redskins vs Cowboys II - WWJD


The old NFL saw that says every NFL game counts the same in the standings is true, but it’s also true that not every game counts the same in determining the arc of a season.

One could make the case, for instance, that the only measurable impact of the Washington Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night will be determining whether they head into the 2008 season's stretch run at 6-4 or 7-3. But that would be tunnel vision.

The Redskins aren’t going to play just another game this weekend. They aren’t going to play just another division game. They’re not even going to play just another division game against their fiercest rival. Way I see it, they’re going to play the 2008 season’s defining game.

Overstating the case? You decide.

The Redskins recovered quickly from their season-opening clunker against the NY Giants, sprinting to a 4-1 start. They earned solid consecutive road wins over two favored division opponents along the wa, and in doing so, reset the expectations bar for head coach Jim Zorn’s debut season.

Back in August, the idea of a start like that would have slapped a goofy grin on even the dourest Redskins fan's mug. After Washington dispatched Philadelphia on the road to go 4-1, with three “beatable opponents” in a row upcoming on their schedule, any lid there might have been on 2008 expectations blew off.

With the winless St. Louis Rams coming to town, all was right in the Redskins universe, and while fans didn’t do it openly (much), I suspect more than a few found themselves entertaining January dreams.


A slow return to earth began that next week, with the self-immolation home loss to the Rams in which the Redskins quite literally let a game they dominated slip through their fingers. Then came two, shall we say, less-than-artful wins over Cleveland and Detroit. The Redskins won behind solid defense and just enough offense, but neither was the kind of game likely to end up in your permanent DVD library.

And then, at 6-2 and facing their first Big Stage game since the opener, they slipped on a black and yellow banana peel on Monday Night Football. The thud you heard was Redskins Nation’s 2008 expectation level ... readjusting. Remember the feeling right after the Philadelphia game, as surprise turned to elation turned to brimming, exuberant confidence? I won’t say it’s gone … but it can see gone from here.

The Redskins had an opportunity on the national stage last Monday Night to announce their arrival to themselves and to the world. To prove they were a contender this season, despite all the odds arrayed against it. Instead, agonizingly, they wilted under the bright lights and pressure of the big stage. They could not summon that one last ounce of energy, or that one last bit of focus, that inevitably spell the difference in big games.

Defensively they were stellar … until they weren’t, when it mattered most. They dropped another potential game-changing interception; one that had touchdown and a 13-3 second quarter lead written all over it. And in an ironic twist of fate, they knocked Steelers starting QB Ben Roethlisberger out of the game, only to see his backup, DC’s own Byron Leftwich, come out firing with a “nothing to lose, let it fly” mentality ... and couldn’t stop him.

Offensively, the Redskins were bested mentally and physically all night. We’ll never know how much of that was attributable to their own poor play, or how much was Pittsburgh simply playing lights out, but the result were the same. Washington was unable to sustain drives, nor make the “big play”—the kind of play that instantly changes the complexion of a game.

And so they lost. Convincingly. And suddenly the 6-3 record, given the heightened expectations just a month ago, looks a whole lot better in print than it feels in the gut.

Which brings us to Dallas. At home. Once again under the bright national lights.

My instinct is telling me that how they come out of this one will set the tone for the rest of the season.

If the Redskins lose, it will confirm what I’m sure many, like me, are quietly fearing; that the 6-2 start was misleading. That while it showed team it has the personnel to be a contender, the early success gave a false impression they could sustain that level in 2008. And I think it would portend a weekly scratch and claw battle just to qualify for the playoffs as low-seed wildcard.

Not bad considering preseason expectations, but a definite letdown given the early power play.

If the Redskins play well and beat the Cowboys, however, and show signs of coming out of the offensive shell (funk?) they have settled into the last few weeks, at 7-3 and having finally cleared the “big game” hurdle, they’re right smack dab back in the middle of things. Re-energized. Walking tall. Looking good. And, barring a total collapse, right on the Giants’ heels, fighting for the NFC East title until the snow flies.

Okay, so maybe I've convinced you it's a big game. Duh, right? What matters now is how are they are going to win it.


I wrote last week that for the Redskins to beat Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell was going to have to raise his game. He did not. Surprisingly, he regressed, playing his worst football since opening night.

And it wasn’t just about the pass rush, either. Sure Pittsburgh pressed him—it’s what they do, and they’re good at it. Thing is, Dallas tried that back in week four, too. Only in that game Campbell made the Cowboys pay for it, stepping up, avoiding pressure and hitting passes downfield until he forced them to back off.

Against the Steelers, Jason had opportunities to beat the pressure as well, he just didn’t make the plays. Most glaringly, he badly under threw an open Santana Moss at the goal line on the Redskins second possession, after Cornelius Griffin’s interception set them up at the Cowboys 30 yard line, already holding 3-0 lead.

Had he been on target, the Redskins would have been up 10-0, with all the confidence and momentum in the world, and we might be talking about a very different game this week. And it wasn’t just that play, either. Jason simply had a bad night, mentally and physically.

Well, he has a chance Sunday night to show it was an anomaly. Because like he was against Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell is again the Redskins key to winning.

Particularly so given that Clinton Portis, if he plays at all, will be at less than full speed.

Particularly so because the same seeds of doubt about how good this 2008 really is that many fans are feeling right now are probably finding purchase in the locker room as well.

This is what big time quarterbacks do—they’re at the best in the biggest games, when their team needs them most.

So what will Jason do? The answer to that question will determine what we're talking about Monday morning.

I don’t think the Redskins can go into this game planning to pound Dallas with the run—not with a gimpy Portis, Ladell Betts seeing his first action in a month and an off-the-street Shawn Alexander being, well … not a hammer.

Much of the Redskins early success this year, including their two “quality wins” over Dallas and Philadelphia, came because the defense was stingy and the offense was unpredictable and aggressive. The last few weeks, however, offensively they have started to look like a unit that believes it can simply line up, run the ball, drive methodically down the field and score touchdowns. They aren’t. Not yet.

Nine games have not been enough to ramp up Zorn’s modified “west coast” passing game. And that’s not an indictment—it was unrealistic to expect it before the season started, and it’s unrealistic to expect it today. What would be an indictment is if they were unwilling to adjust to changed circumstances at midstream.

To beat Dallas, and be a factor in late December, the Redskins will need Jason Campbell to play like the loose, confident player we saw earlier this year, not the overthinking, tight player we saw against Pittsburgh. They’re going to have to force the Dallas defense to react to them, as opposed to the other way around as we saw last Monday night.

We don’t know what caused the change. One the one hand, it could have been Campbell simply having a bad night, tightening up under the bright lights and in the face of a superior Pittsburgh defensive effort. On the other hand, it could have been he was trying too hard to do what he thought Coach Zorn wanted, and as a result too careful with the ball, unable to pull the trigger. You might get away with that against average defenses—not against the best.

Maybe Zorn has seen something different on film, but from where I sit, it’s a no-brainer how the Redskins should approach Sunday night offensively. Forget “balance” early—I’d come out firing.

I’d put Campbell in the shotgun right from the start, with an unequivocal green light to attack downfield.

I’d make damn sure Dallas is aware of Santana Moss.

I’d target Chris Cooley early.

I’d even send the rookies, Devin Thomas and the Malcolm “Rumor” Kelly, up the sidelines deep a couple of times. I don’t even really care if they’re open. If they get single coverage, throw it up and let them try to make a play. If not, throw it five yards over their heads. I’d just like to see, and more importantly have the opposition see, that the Redskins are willing to test them.

I don’t expect Dallas to come out playing the Redskins honest Sunday night. I expect them to drop one or both safeties, crowd the line of scrimmage with everyone else and (can’t believe we’re here again) force Washington to show they can stretch the field vertically. Or are at least willing to try.

If the redskins can’t, or won’t, and instead continue to compress their offense into a 15-yard window beyond the line of scrimmage, I fully expect to see more and more blitzes coming after Campbell as the game progresses, looking to force him into the same kind of mistakes he made against the Steelers.

The defense has given no reason to doubt they’ll play well and, at worst, keep Washington in the game. Until they show me otherwise, they've earned the benefit of the doubt. And the odds are increasingly in their favor as the weeks go by that at some point they’ll hold on to a ball and if not score themselves, at least give Campbell and the offense a short field to work with.

It’s up to Jim Zorn to put Campbell in the right situations and allow or encourage him—depending on which is necessary—to trust his reads and his arm. But ultimately, inasmuch as any can come down to the performance of any one player … as goes Jason Campbell Sunday night, so will go the Redskins.

Come Monday morning, we’ll know a lot more about the 2008 version of Jason Campbell. And unless my crystal ball is totally messing with me, we'll have a much clearer sense of how the rest of the 2008 season will play out for the burgundy and gold.

Hey, it’s Redskins-Cowboys.

It’s supposed to be big.

November 5, 2008

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time


On their way to a convincing win over the Redskins on Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated defensively and did just enough offensively to close the deal. The 23-6 final was just, and left no doubt as to which was the better team midway through the 2008 season.

It also provided emphatic answers to some key midseason questions about the upstarts from the nation’s capital.

Half way through his debut season, rookie Head Coach Jim Zorn has already exceeded all reasonable expectations. Given how quickly he has settled into the role, and delivered a team few figured to be a factor in 2008 into position for a playoff run, it is fair and reasonable to begin to speculate about his becoming a successful, if not elite, NFL head coach.

But the Steelers made it clear he’s not there yet.

Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, with his 35 years of NFL coaching experience, Super Bowl credentials (SB XL) and architect of one of the perennially elite defenses in the league, drove that message home. LeBeau schooled Zorn on Monday night; out-scheming, out-playcalling and outmaneuvering him from start to finish.

I never once got the sense the Redskins offense was dictating the flow of play. Quite the opposite. When Clinton Portis ran—left, right or center—the Steelers were waiting for him, often en masse.

And when Jason Campbell dropped to pass, the Steelers rush was on him too quickly to allow him to set and throw on rhythm, or, on the rare occasions he did find time, it was clear he could find no options downfield.

The Steelers definitely have good players on defense—but this wasn’t about that. The Redskins offense has some pretty good players of its own. Without putting too fine a point on it, what happened Monday night was as thorough a job of schematic and play-calling domination as you’re likely to see in today’s NFL.

LeBeau sent the rookie coach a clear message Monday night:

"Not yet."

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that in his short time as an NFL head coach, Jim Zorn has shown himself to be a quick study, capable of honest self-analysis and effective adjustment. There’s no shame in getting schooled by Dick LeBeau—he’s been doing it to the best of the best for a long time.

What would be a shame if is Jim Zorn doesn’t take the hard lessons learned Monday night and come out the other side a better coach.

Based on what we've seen so far, my strong sense is that won’t happen.

Jason Campbell has far exceeded expectations in 2008 as well. He’s been steady, at times brilliant, and showed promising signs of developing into an elite NFL quarterback.

But he came up short on Monday night.

One play in particular stands out. Early in the first quarter, already leading 3-0 after Pittsburgh’s unsuccessful onsides attempt on the opening kickoff led to a 44-yard Shaun Suisham field goal, the Redskins defense came up with the big turnover they’ve thirsted for the last several weeks. Cornelius Griffin swallowed up a deflected Ben Roethlisberger pass and the Redskins were in business at the Steelers’ 30.

On the next play, Campbell rolled right and had Santana Moss open behind the defense near the goal line. His pass was badly underthrown, however, and the Steelers knocked it away. Two plays and only five yards later, and Washington again had to settle for three.

What could and should have been huge early momentum, growing confidence and a 10-0 lead, instead turned into 6-0 lead and the feeling the Redskins were letting things slip away.

Yes, it was “just one play.” But it was the kind of play big time quarterbacks, in big time games where such opportunities are precious few, simply have to make. And it set the tone for a game in which Campbell would throw 43 passes, completing just 24 for 206 mostly cosmetic yards, get sacked seven times and never really appear in command; never dictate the flow of play but spend a long night reacting unsuccessfully to it.

Jason Campbell might make that one key play a hundred times over the next ten years. And he may yet grow into the kind of quarterback and leader that can carry his team on days it is otherwise overmatched.

I've written since since his first preseason game in 2004 I believed he has the tools, and as of today I’m still bullish on his putting it all together before he’s done.

But the Steelers made it clear he’s not there yet.

Defensively, as brilliantly as Washington defensive coordinator Greg Blache schemed the Steelers, and as brilliantly as his unit played through most the game, when the need was greatest and the opportunity clearest, they were unable to rise to the moment either.

There is no way to overstate the impact of the one play they did not make had on Monday night. In the second quarter, with the Redskins up 6-3 and doing a pretty good impression of a dominant defensive team themselves, Roethlisberger threw toward WR Santonio Holmes the right sideline.

Redskins CB Carlos Rogers, already having a stellar night, read the play perfectly and jumped in front of Holmes. With nothing standing between him, a game-changing play and a 13-3 Redskins lead but 40 yards of green, Rogers had the ball hit him square the hands … and slip through.

Intellect tells you one play doesn’t make the difference in a game. Your heart, and your gut, know one play often says it all.

Carlos Rogers is having a brilliant comeback year. But when the moment came to break through under the bright lights, he was not quite up to the task. Before the Redskins can take the next big step, that’s a play he, and his teammates, simply has to make.

So it was no one thing that did in the Redskins on Monday night, it was an accumulation.

Jim Zorn was officially welcomed to the NFL by an old master.

Jason Campbell was served a cold reminder that the line between solid game manager and franchise quarterback is a bright one.

The Redskins defense saw first hand the difference between a good defense and a great one.

The Steelers came to the Monday Night stage game-tested, composed, and showed they belonged from start to finish. When the plays were there to be made, they made them. The Redskins, for all their promise, showed their inexperience and allowed the bright lights to get in their eyes.

At 6-3, they are ahead of schedule by any reasonable measure. Having been humbled at home, however, mentally and physically, they have also been served notice that the road ahead remains a long, challenging climb.

What they learn from the experience, or don’t, will dictate how the rest of 2008 plays out and, should they qualify, whether or not they'll be ready for the far bigger stage of the NFL playoffs.

November 3, 2008

Three Keys to MNF vs Steelers


Had a longer list working, but in the end I distilled it down to three keys. Well ... four actually. Couldn't help myself.

See if you don't agree.

1. Jason Campbell

Campbell will need to take another step up. His overall play this year has been above reproach—witness zero interceptions reflecting excellent decision-making with the ball. But that care does has not come without a cost.

The kind of quick-strike touchdowns that can break close, defensive games open rarely come from conservative decisions, they more often than not come from bold downfield forays to receivers that are, by conservative standards, “covered.”

I’ve been watching Campbell closely for signs of finding enough of a comfort level in the new passing scheme, and in Jim Zorn’s trust factor, to start taking some chances downfield … and my instinct is telling me the Redskins will need him to take the risk tonight. Ball control and field goals won’t be enough.

2. Avoid the Slow Start

The Redskins have developed a troubling habit of winning the yardage and time of possession battles early, but failing to turn them into points. That won’t cut it tonight either. Falling behind by more than a score against a pass-rush-happy team like Pittsburgh, particularly with a slowed or absent Chris Samuels on Jason Campbell’s blind side, could be too much to overcome.

Here’s hoping the Redskins come out swinging from the opening gun and be the ones to set the early tone—not the other way around, as has been the case since the Philadelphia game in week four.

3. Catch the Damn Ball

There will be opportunities for Redskins defenders to pick off Ben Roethlisberger tonight—off deflections at the line of scrimmage, and on the kind of attacking passes mentioned above. Roethlisberger, in a word, is not shy about taking risks with the ball or forcing it into coverage.

In what shapes up as a classic defensive slugfest (now watch this one end 38-35), turnovers and field position will almost certainly be the difference. Washington simply cannot continue to let those opportunities slip through their fingers—not tonight.

And one to grow on:

4. Smack ‘em in the Mouth

Pittsburgh is one of the few teams in the league that comes into a game with a reputation that can have a tangible impact on the result. Baltimore and Philadelphia have earned it with their defense over the past decade. The Raiders used to have it before a decade of Al Davis’ ridiculous excesses frittered it away.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers most definitely have it, having managed to keep it alive 30 years since crafting it during their magical run in the 70’s.

Tonight, on their home field, under the bright lights of Monday Night Football’s national stage, the Redskins must match the intensity and physicality you can be sure Pittsburgh will bring to the table. And they need to do it right from the start.

What holds true for the schoolyard bully holds true at the highest level of sport—the way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him and make it clear you’re not backing down. And if that’s not enough, you smack him in the mouth and let him know you’re going to be there all day.


Tonight’s game is a great opportunity for the Redskins to take “the next step” ... to go from “surprising first half story” to “team to be reckoned with" down the stretch.

Losing to the Steelers wouldn’t be a disaster—at 6-3, Washington would still be in prime position to make a playoff run. But it would be a huge missed opportunity to announce to the league—and more importantly, themselves—that they are now one of those teams you’d better have your chinstrap locked down tight against from the opening gun.

Nike had it right, Redskins.

Just do it.