Monday, December 27, 2010

Week Sixteen: The Expendables

Washington 20, Jacksonville 17 (OT)

When the Redskins' season gets to this annual point--where the team is far from playoff contention, many of the early-season starters are benched or injured, and it's a holiday weekend--the motivation for players to play and fans to watch can be lessened. This year, despite the change in managerial and on-field leadership, Washington found itself in a similar place to Jim Zorn and Jason Campbell's team from a year ago. In week fifteen of the 2009 season, the Redskins were pummeled on
(surprise!) national television by the New York Giants, 45-12, in front of new GM Bruce Allen.

This season, for reasons to be debated well into April 2011, the Redskins stood their ground and pulled off an underdog win against a playoff aspirations. That was inspiring. What made it even
more poignant (and watchable) was that Mike Shanahan fielded a team missing many of the best players on the roster--LaRon Landry, Brian Orakpo, Clinton "Remember Him?" Portis, and Donovan McNabb.

Like the real-life version of a team-up of Sylvester Stallone, Terry Crews, and Jet Li, it was The Expendables who pulled off what hadn't been done but five times all season: play a full 60 minutes and win.
During the game, the broadcast team joked with the truth that Mike Shanahan and the coaching staff weren't sure of all the names of players they were using. But it was practice squad and castoff guys named Rob Jackson, Macho Harris, and Byron Westbrook who made plays while veterans like Chris Cooley and Rex Grossman had average or sub par games. Jackson, for example, went from not being on the practice squad weeks ago to making three solo tackles and forcing a fumble.

The Jaguars offense, minus Maurice Jones-Drew, had everything to play for but were held to 17
points, 78 rushing yards, and just 336 yards. (Yes, 336 isn't much to be proud of...unless your defense routinely allows 400 yards per game.) Moreover, the Redskins defense provided relentless pressure on quarterback David Garrard, sacking him four times and influencing his worst throw of the game, an interception in overtime.

After Rex Grossman's touchdown-a-thon against Dallas last week, the question in most fan's mind was whether the backup-now-starter was part of the Redskins' future winning equation on just another jersey you'll find on the clearance racks like Donovan McNabb's. The answer, after a medicore,
19-for-39, 182 yards, one touchdown/one interception day, is...don't waste your money. Contrarians might argue that Grossman's numbers are negatively affected by Cooley's four-drop day, which included an easy touchdown.

But when the game was on the line--the dreaded two-minute drill that Shanahan said McNabb hadn't grasped for most of the season--Grossman led the offense to produce one first down, burn a minute and thirty seconds, and produce four net yards before punting. The third down completion
issues from McNabb's leadership continued, as Grossman's team went 0-for-7 before finishing 4-for-15. Hardly an upgrade. How about starting John Beck against the Giants and see what happens?

But this day belonged to the second and third-stringers, who confirmed that this season isn't the total flaming mess of last year. (It's a mess without the flames.) And part of the difference, as shown in the last two weeks is that they players are playing for themselves, their pride, and their fans. Rob Jackson, when asked what this victory meant, put it best: "it means that we've got a lot of potential, a lot of upside."

OFFENSE: C. Why the Redskins ran on 24 of their 64 plays is a mystery for Kyle Shanahan to explain. Torain remains a solid back and should be in the backfield discussion come offseason.
DEFENSE: A. Carlos Rogers nabbed his first interception in forever, the defense got four sacks, and, most importantly, won the game. What more can you ask for?
Sp. TEAMS: B. The punting game was adequate, but isn't much better than when Hunter Smith was playing. Kicker Graham Gano gets his third game-winner and can breathe a little easier.

COACHES: B. Kudos to coach Shanahan for playing his young guys and for Jim Haslett for continually mixing blitzes. The D was energetic, aggressive, and effective.

The Philadelphia area was blanketed by blizzard-like conditions on Sunday, and the NFL postponed the Minnesota Vikings/Eagles game until Tuesday. The NFL's statement cited road safety and stadium clearing as reasons for the postponement, not player safety or impossibility in playing the game. With modern technology, the game could have been played. Instead, the NFL knew they'd lose out on lots of revenue if the seats are partially empty for their nationally-televised game. Even the governor of Philadelphia disagreed with the postponement.

It wasn't that long ago--okay, forty years ago--that the NFL decided to man up and was rewarded with one of its greatest games ever: the Ice Bowl Championship game of 1967. The wind chill was minus-36 degrees, the surface was rock-hard, and the referees' whistles froze right after kickoff. And you know what? They played anyway, because it's football and football is played regardless of the weather. (Um, unless there's lightning.) Who knows how the legends of that game--men like Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Don Meredith, Bart Starr and Ray Nitchske--would have been viewed if they preferred to make sure everyone could see the game instead of just playing it? The NFL should remember its own history...

Redskins photo courtesy, the Ice Bowl courtesy Sports Illustrated.

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