Dallas 14, Washington 10
I wasn't much fun to be around Sunday night.
I went into the Dallas rematch with the mindset that 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 third-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 one. 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.”
• 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, of course, 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 play calling 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 a 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.”
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 fourth-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 Six, 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.