DENVER. - There are two things we can conclude from the Redskins' 21-19 loss to the Broncos yesterday. One, the Redskins aren't going to finish the season undefeated. And two, LaVar Arrington isn't good enough to play for them anymore.
The first doesn't come as much of a shock. After all, only one team in NFL history has had a "O" at the end of its record. But the second speaks volumes about where the Redskins are at the moment -- and where they may be heading.
Where they are at the moment is 3-1, tied for first place in the increasingly competitive NFC East. They're also -- and this can't be disputed -- one of the hardest teams to beat in the league. The latter is where Joe Gibbs really has made inroads with this club. The Redskins, after all, started out 3-1 two years ago under Steve Spurrier, but no one ever suggested they were one of the hardest teams to beat in the league. Heck, they started out 7-1 under Norv Turner in '96. But again, nobody ever confused them with, well, the '80s Redskins.
This, more than anything, is what Gibbs has restored to the franchise -- a no-surrender, it-ain't-over-till-it's-over mentality. And he's quickly surrounding himself with this kind of player. The kind of player who blocks punts with 8 minutes left, as Chris Clemons did yesterday when the Redskins were down 21-10. The kind of player who sacrifices his body to pick up linebacker blitzes, as Clinton Portis did on the final series to enable Mark Brunell to complete a 21-yard pass.
"It was just a little quick stinger," said Portis, who went to the sideline briefly after his close encounter with Denver's Al Wilson. "But I was all right. I was able to come back and try to help us win the game."
Arrington never got the opportunity to help them win the game, presumably because the coaching staff thinks more of minimum-wagers Warrick Holdman and Clemons than it does of him. LaVar, who played only two plays last week against the Seahawks, never got on the field against the Broncos. He, backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey and Cory Raymer all logged DNPs. Now there's a threesome for you.
But Coach Joe has been trying to set a certain tone since he returned to Washington, and he'll go to any lengths to accomplish his objective. If he has to bench a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, a $6million-a-year man, to get his point across, he'll do it. At this point, it's clear, Gibbs and his coaches don't think of Arrington as part of the solution; they think of him as part of the problem.
Whether the situation is irreversible remains to be seen. It certainly doesn't look very good for LaVar. Two plays one week, no plays the next -- how long before his name appears on the inactive list? But the Redskins are going full speed ahead, with or without him. And they've made it clear in these first four games that they don't need him to contend for a playoff spot. Holdman and Clemons are doing just fine, thank you.
Gibbs wasn't thrilled with all the mistakes his team made yesterday, especially the botched handoff that led to Denver's first touchdown, the blocked field goal try and the 10 penalties. But he was encouraged, once again, by the effort his players put forth. "I think we've got a bunch of fighters," he said, "that's for sure."
And that, often, is what separates one club from another -- not talent or coaching, necessarily, but sheer will. Blood and guts. The Redskins hung in there against Dallas until something good -- indeed, something miraculous -- happened. They wilted in the fourth quarter against Seattle, then put together a drive in overtime to win it. And yesterday at Invesco Field, when plenty of teams would have packed it in after struggling for 3 quarters in soggy conditions, they gave themselves another chance at victory by rallying for a field goal and a touchdown. Only when the Broncos recovered Nick Novak's onside kick, after Brunell's 2-point conversion pass went awry, were the Redskins officially declared dead. Barely a minute remained.
"Just determination, man," Portis said of the comeback. "We got behind, but we stayed poised, we stayed calm, and we stuck with our game plan. ... But when you look back on the [blocked] field goal, the turnover, the penalties -- we beat ourselves. We've got Kansas City coming up now, and we can't afford to let this happen again."
You can see why Coach Joe appreciates Portis, apart from his fearless taking-on of pass rushers. He's the kind of guy who looks in the mirror instead of making excuses -- and then moves on, with a minimum of wallowing. A victory at Arrowhead Stadium would take away much of the sting of the Denver game ...and put the Redskins in good position after playing three of their first five on the road. But if they don't win, rest assured it won't be for lack of trying.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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