With the Washington Redskins facing back-to-back road games the next two weeks, against arguably the two hottest teams in football, it would be easy to shuffle past their last two games without pausing to smell the roses.
The way I see it, football season—not to mention life—is too short for that. Those who forget to enjoy the journey ignore one key fact—none of us are getting out of here alive.
So…a midweek gift from life to you:
(Stop it. “Real men” eat quiche, smell flowers, and do whatever the hell else they want.)
There is an aphorism—“a rising tide lifts all boats”—that I have always associated with professional football. Specifically, I have argued (‘til my fingertips bled) that what ultimately separates elite teams from the pack is the man they put behind center; that those teams able to land a true "Franchise QB"—you know one when you see one—quickly break from the pack. And those teams smart and/or lucky enough to then build a solid machine around that guy contend for championships.
By the way, it’s come to my attention that there are those out there who still dispute this fundamental NFL truth (shocking, I know), but we’ll let them slide this week. At 2-1, we can be magnanimous.
So for purposes of this discussion…while it’s far too early to say Redskins QB Jason Campbell has officially become That Guy, it is not too early to see the uplifting impact his play has had on the 2008 Redskins.
Let’s face it, the opener in New York was a Campbellian catastrophe. And the first three quarters against the Saints weren’t much better. I’ll admit to entertaining some pretty dark thoughts about his ability to run the West Coast Offense as game two, and an 0-2 start, stared the Redskins in the face in the fourth quarter last Sunday.
But late in that game, literally just as it seemed a lost cause, something changed. And since then, Jason Campbell has been money. It started with 10 minutes to go against the Saints. You remember...Skins trailing by nine. After a 12-yard sack backed them up to their own six-yard line, it was 2nd-and-22.
And then something happened:
Campbell found Chris Cooley for 23 yards and a huge first down, then led the team on an eight-play, 82-yard touchdown drive (94, counting the sack), going 5-for-5 for 82 yards.
A suddenly energized defense got the ball back, and his next play—a 67-yard highlight reel bomb to Santana Moss—lit up FedEx and gave Washington the lead. After the D held again (more thoughts on that below), Campbell did the ice-water-in-the-veins thing, killing the clock and sealing the win with an assassin's 4th-and-2 slant to Moss.
And just like that, what 10 minutes earlier felt like an 0-2 funeral march was a 1-1 last-minute stay of execution (with a "sorry" note and half-a-mil in nuisance money).
Against the Cardinals the following week, Campbell picked up where he left off. On the game's opening possession he led an 11-play, 60-yard touchdown drive, going 6-for-6 for 37 yards and scrambling 16 more to convert a key third down.
Before you knew it, the Skins were up 10-0 and looking confident. Later in the game, with Arizona having battled back and tied the game at 10, with momentum suddenly on their side, Campbell responded, leading the Skins on an 11-play, 80 yard touchdown drive that used up 9:20 of the clock, going 6-for-6 for 30 yards and the score.
After a turnover by the defense (Carlos!) in the fourth quarter, he and Moss teamed up for the go-ahead score just two plays later. And with the game on the line and the Redskins needing just one more first down to run out the clock a short while later, he coolly executed a high-degree-of-difficulty, rolling-to-his-left jump pass—off a naked bootleg no less (strange language football has developed)—to Chris "Finger Eleven" Cooley to seal the game.
Was Jason Campbell great throughout the game? Or on every series since the light appeared to suddenly blink on for him late in the game against New Orleans?
No. He’s just been great when he had to be. And that has made all the difference.
The effects have filtered down, too…though in the case of the defense, it’s not always been as easy to recognize.
It’s not always been easy watching Blache’s defense this year, particularly given the “oh my God” reaction every Redskins fan had to the first half of the opener in New York.
Truth is, even about half the time since then I’ve found myself conjuring colorful metaphors in their honor because, dammit, they seem to be doing the exact same things that have driven us crazy for the last X number of years:
They can’t hold the point of attack against the run.
They can’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
They can't cover.
And worst of all, they can’t get off the field on third down.
So when Kurt Warner stood in the pocket picking daisies late in the third quarter against the 'Skins, waiting for Larry Fitzgerald to skip merrily through the secondary, and hit him in stride for a playground touchdown to tie the game…well, I was convinced the defense—and the Redskins—were done. 1-2. Opportunity lost. Season on the brink.
But of course, the Redskins weren’t done. Not even close. In large part a credit to their own tenacity (and Leigh Torrence using his head), and on the rising tide of an offense capitalizing by scoring a quick touchdown after the Carlos Rogers turnover…they dug in and found a way to get Warner and Co. off the field on their each of their three final drives in deadly efficient fashion.
Arizona’s final possessions:
Two-and-out, -3 yards; ending with Rogers’s interception.
Four-and-out, 15 yards; one first down, ending with a sack on 3rd-and-ll.
Three-and-out, 6 yards; ending with a punt at 2:46 to go.
If you’re like me, that’s probably better than in-the-moment memory credits them for. In fact, I was surprised enough that I dug a little further into the defensive numbers for the season…and something became evident. These guys aren’t physically whipping people, a la ’85 Bears or ’00 Ravens, but they’ve been pretty damn effective.
Week One, at Giants
After three weeks, including the 'Skins game, the Giants' offense is currently ranked third in the NFL. In their two other games, they scored 41 (STL) and 26 (CIN) points.
The Redskins, in a game in which their own offense provided no support at all, held them to 16. The Giants went for 441 yards against the Rams, and 406 against the Bengals. The Redskins allowed 354.
Week Two, Saints
New Orleans’ offense is currently ranked fourth. In their other two games, they scored 24 (TB) and 32 (DEN). The Redskins allowed 17 (Reggie Bush’s punt return accounted for the other seven). The Saints went for 438 yards against the Bucs, and racked up 502 against the Broncos in Denver. The Redskins held them to 250.
Week Three, Cardinals
Arizona’s offense is currently ranked 10th. In their other two games, they scored 23 (SF) and 31 (MIA). The Redskins held them to 17. The Cards went for 285 yards against the 49ers and 445 against Miami. The Redskins allowed 313.
Point being…they aren’t overpowering anybody and don’t always look like they’re doing the job in that often maddening bend-but-don’t-break style of theirs, but when the final gun sounds and you look at the numbers…it ain’t all bad. Certainly not deserving of the nasty looks I suspect your humble scribe was not alone in casting their way from the comfort of his living room.
What’s the QB connection? Easy.
Campbell has kept drives alive, turning time of possession in Washington’s favor (34:14 vs. NO; 33:05 vs. AZ).
He’s put touchdowns on the board instead of field goals (6-for-10 in the red zone, all six scores TDs).
He’s helped control field position. I haven’t run the field-position numbers, but I have an overwhelming sense of improvement in that area since last season (someone feel free to prove me wrong on that one). The Redskins' D the past few years have always seemed to be starting in their own end, defending a short field. This year, not so.
Even when Campbell and the offense don’t score, they’re generating a couple of first downs and giving the special teams good enough field position to punt deep into the other team’s end. If my feeling on that isn’t supported by the numbers, I’ll gladly take it back. But for two weeks now I’ve found myself commenting several times that they’d “flipped the field,” how key that was, and what a welcome change.
There are no stats to measure the frustration level of a defense whose counterparts on offense continuously go three-and-out and cannot score…but you can definitely see it in the body language on the field and sidelines. The rising tide of the Redskins' offense has allowed the defense to stay fresh, play with confidence and, despite appearances sometimes, do far more than carry their weight.
The Zornian Cojones
It’s official. The man has them.
True, sometimes it’s hard to tell—like in the Giants game, and again at the end of the first half against Arizona (up 10-7 with 2:43 to go, three straight Portis runs net nine yards, one short of stifling colorful metaphors). But, for two weeks in a row, with tight games on the line and needing one monster first down to put them away, he's made the kind of hero-if-it-works, goat-if-it-doesn’t call to put the game on ice.
The kind we haven’t seen around here lately.
Redskins fans for years have watched games slip away in similar circumstances. Faced with a chance to try the high-risk, high-reward play to seal the win, the Redskins have opted for the safe route. No one’s a bigger Joe Gibbs fan than I, but I know full well he would have punted on 4th-and-2 against New Orleans, and we’d have watched between our fingers as the defense tried to keep Drew Brees from breaking our hearts.
And against Arizona, Gibbs would have run on 2nd-and-7, and almost certainly 3rd-and 7, played the percentages, and punted with less than a minute to go. And again we’d have been holding our breaths as the D tried to hold on.
Instead, Zorn elected to take the risk, and twice reaped the reward. Partly because as a rookie head coach he’s playing with house money (it's a lot easier to make those calls as a young coach trying to make your way, than as an entrenched one trying not to lose it), but also because he had enough confidence in his young quarterback to deliver in crunch time. He doesn’t call the fourth down game-clinching slant to Moss, or the 2nd-and-7 naked boot to Cooley, if he doesn’t believe in his QB. No coach does.
You simply cannot overestimate that as a factor in team’s 2-1 record.
No, the Redskins have not been dominant, but they have answered the call at crucial times, and overcame enough bad breaks to make the plays when the game was on the line. For those of us who have lived and died with this team for the last 15 years in the desert, the significance of that has not been lost.
Regardless of what happens the next two weeks, what we're seeing is the foundation being laid for a new Redskins team. And the single biggest factor, by far, has been the timely, effective play of the most important man on any football field—the quarterback.
Oh, I know what some of you are saying. “Let’s see Campbell keep bringing in the tide against Dallas and Philly.” That’s fair—he could have two awful games and the team could get mauled. But it would be just as unfair to fail to acknowledge the fundamental change in the way the Redskins have won their last two games, or acknowledge the impact of the play of Jason Campbell in achieving them.
If he keeps playing at this level—and as of today there is no sound reason to suggest that more often than not he won't—the Redskins' ship is headed to smoother waters than it has sailed in a very long time.