Redskins take two for the road
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt MosleyPHILADELPHIA -- It's hard to believe there was a time when we thought the Washington Redskins were the cellar dwellers in the NFC East. It has only been a month since they opened the Jim Zorn era with a stumbling 16-7 loss, but this isn't the same team.
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Clinton Portis rushed 29 times for 145 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles.|
The Redskins completed a remarkable two-week swing with a 23-17 comeback victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field to improve to 4-1. This is no longer an upset-minded team. Quite simply, this has all the makings of a playoff team.
Washington withstood a furious start by the Eagles, and then spent the final three quarters dominating every aspect of the game. Eagles coach Andy Reid was left mumbling something about putting his team in the right position, which for now is dead last in the NFC East.
A week after gashing the Cowboys for 144 rushing yards, the Redskins picked up 203 against the Eagles. Philadelphia came into the game giving up 53.8 yards per game, but Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts combined for 70 in the first half alone. Portis finished with 29 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown.
With the Redskins facing fourth-and-1 at the Eagles' 38-yard line with 2:48 left, Zorn never hesitated to call Portis' number. The running back plowed forward for three yards to seal another huge division win. And when Zorn emerged from the visiting locker room later, Portis' family members were waiting on him.
"I hope you don't think I abused your son today," Zorn said to Portis' mother. Some of you might recall that Portis was critical of Zorn's play-calling after the loss to the New York Giants, but that game's now a distant memory.
On Sunday, the Redskins couldn't have asked for a worse start. The Eagles scored on their first possession, and following a Redskins three-and-out, rookie DeSean Jackson returned a punt 68 yards to give the Eagles a 14-0 lead.
That's when Zorn made an important decision. He stuck with a game plan that included a steady dose of running plays to the left side and passes to Chris Cooley. With the Eagles taking Santana Moss out of the game, quarterback Jason Campbell stayed calm and relied on other players.
"It would've been easy to get away from the game plan and get pass happy," Campbell told me after the game. "But it was too early for that. We had a good game plan, so we just decided to stick with it."
Campbell didn't put up great numbers (16-of-29 for 176 yards), but he made two clutch plays on the Redskins' final drive. As the official driver of the Campbell bandwagon (seats no longer available), I thought his pass to Antwaan Randle El with 5:50 left was one of the best of his career. Campbell stepped away from pressure while still looking downfield and then calmly delivered the ball to Randle El for a key third-down conversion. Three plays later, he raced for 15 yards on third-and-9 to extend the drive.
In the countless hours they've spent together, Zorn has tried to impress upon Campbell how important it is to concentrate when the game's on the line. And during this four-game winning streak, Campbell has been at his best when the stakes are high. You can see it with his body language. On that final drive, he never appeared rushed at all. About five minutes before kickoff Sunday, Campbell looked over at Zorn and he was doing "knee touches."
"Coach, you about to go play?" Campbell asked. "Just let me know if you want to swap shoulder pads or thigh pads."
Last week, Zorn took a page out of George Allen's postgame playbook and led the team in a rousing "Hip hip hooray!" On Sunday, it was Randle El who led the chant.
Wearing a flannel jacket that pointed to his Pacific Northwest roots, Zorn seemed amused by all the commotion outside the locker room. A month ago, he appeared to be in over his head. Now, he's trying to land a coach of the year nomination.
"He loves football and he feels like he's in the game," Campbell said of Zorn. "And I think that's how the players respond to him."
Now, let's take a closer look at how the Redskins won this game.
Eagles should've stuck to the script: I was intrigued by something Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers told me immediately after the game. He said he marveled at the Eagles' first 15 plays of the game, but noticed that things grew stale after that. It's not as if he was trying to badmouth the Eagles, but I think it speaks to how Philadelphia's first drive looked dramatically different from the way it played the rest of the day.
"We'd never seen those plays they came out with," Rogers said. "I'm serious. Those were great plays. But after that, I guess our coaching took over."
I'm not sure those are the comforting words Eagles fans were looking for.
Why are the Eagles so bad near the goal line? A week after the Eagles couldn't punch it in from the 1-yard line against the Bears, they found themselves with a second-and-1 at the Redskins' 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. On the first play, Brian Westbrook was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh. On third-and-1, Donovan McNabb appeared to check out of a play, and Westbrook was stopped by Redskins defensive end Andre Carter for a 3-yard loss.
The Eagles weren't saying what the original play was, but several Redskins said they thought it was a pass play. When McNabb gave the ball to Westbrook, he never had a chance. The Eagles were forced to settle for a field goal, making it 23-17.
"It was just bearing down right there," Carter said. "We said to ourselves that they just couldn't get in. They wanted to attack the edge, and we just shut it down."
Reserve linebacker Khary Campbell told me it was his only defensive play of the game. He said that defensive coordinator Greg Blache has a great deal of pride in his goal-line defense and it's something the team works on every day in practice.
"We never want to concede anything," Campbell said. "When they're close to the goal line, that's when we have to be at our best."
Here's Westbrook's take on what happened: "We didn't execute," he said. "I think when the play came in, it was a little miscommunication."
You've got the ball third-and-1 at the opposing team's 2-yard line. Does there need to be a ton of communication? I think Reid's refusal to risk injury to McNabb is hurting the team around the goal line.
McNabb may have the strongest lower body of any quarterback in the league. Yes, I know he has a chest contusion, but at some point, you have to let him get you a yard. Reid refuses to use this as an excuse, but I'll let you know that the Eagles are missing right guard Shawn Andrews in a big way. I'm not saying that's what lost this game, but after that first drive, there wasn't anything in the run game.
I'm not ruling out the Eagles completely, but if they don't fix some things quickly, they're staring at another 8-8 season.
What game was McNabb watching? In training camp, I listened to McNabb review last season's 8-8 record and talk about the NFC East games the Eagles should've won. He boldly stated that the Eagles were the best team in the NFC. But at some point, even McNabb's bravado can't cover up the fact that the Eagles are a mediocre team right now. And after observing Sunday's loss, maybe I'm being generous.
"I was embarrassed these last two weeks," he said. "I mean [to lose] to two teams we shouldn't have lost to. There is no way that you can look at this game and say that, and not taking anything away from them, but there is no way that this team is better than us."
Where did the Randle El pass come from? Randle El's 18-yard touchdown pass to Cooley in the third quarter gave the Redskins their first lead of the game. Randle El, a former college quarterback at Indiana, took the ball around the right side on an end-around and then fired back across the middle to a wide-open Cooley. Randle El is now 19-of-23 for 264 yards and four touchdowns during his pro career, which gives him a 154.1 passer rating -- if my math's correct.
Cooley said he almost tried to sell the run fake a little too hard. He got caught up with a linebacker at the line of scrimmage before breaking free. Zorn said the red-zone play wasn't something the Redskins had spent a lot of time on.
"You know how many times we practiced that play?" he asked. "Once. That's why with red zone packages it's hard because you can't script those things and work on them all week like with first and second down stuff. You get to see it once, but you have to be a veteran player to be able to execute it and that's what the difference was on those kind of plays."
After a horrendous early schedule -- including all three of their NFC East road games in the first five weeks -- the Redskins now face the Rams, Browns and Lions over the next three weeks. The Steelers will be a tough test, but there's a decent chance this team is 8-1 next time it faces the Cowboys. After five weeks, only one team in the NFC East looks as if it doesn't belong.
It's just not the team most of us predicted.