Jabar Gaffney had seen this Rex Grossman before. The two of them were on top of the college football world at the University of Florida back in 2001. Grossman-to-Gaffney was one of the nastiest quarterback-receiver combinations in the country.
“That’s exactly what it looks like,” Gaffney said. “Just like we were in college — nothing but confidence in his eyes.”
Grossman showed some of the form that made him the 2001 Heisman Trophy runner-up. He overcame a rocky start and, for at least one week, validated coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to start him at quarterback over John Beck.
He finished 21-of-34 passing with 305 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 110.5 passer rating was the fourth-best of his 42 NFL games.
“I thought Rex played an excellent game [against] a lot of pressure up front, very talented football team; they play extremely hard,” Shanahan said. “It’s really hard to get big plays in the passing game against a defensive front that puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback.”
It was high praise from a coach who is normally subdued, who has to watch the film before saying anything about anything. But this was the Grossman who Shanahan believes is capable of engineering a playoff push.
The afternoon was even more emotionally charged than usual. A FedEx Field crowd of 80,121 observed the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in a pregame ceremony and other times throughout the afternoon. Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, addressed the Redskins in the locker room before the game.
The Redskins received contributions from all over the roster, as true contenders do. The defense held the Giants scoreless in the second half, and rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan scored the decisive touchdown in the third quarter on a 9-yard interception return.
Rookie Chris Neild, the penultimate player taken in April’s draft, had two sacks. Veteran tight end Fred Davis had a career-high 105 receiving yards on five catches. Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo blocked a field goal.
This was Grossman’s day, though.
The game began like a repeat of Washington’s recent defeats to the Giants. New York won nine of the previous 10 meetings by controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. New York surprised the Redskins on Sunday by blitzing and playing more man-to-man coverage than they expected.
“You always have confidence that eventually we’ll get into a rhythm,” Grossman said.
And he was right. It started with a third-down completion to Santana Moss out of the right slot. A 10-yard checkdown to running back Tim Hightower followed. Grossman was rolling.
“He was down there with [offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan] getting his coaching up,” receiver Anthony Armstrong said. “I think really everybody had a feeling within themselves that we were going to move the ball, score and have success.”
And it’s no coincidence that Grossman became sharp when the blockers in front of him began allowing him time to scan the field and throw. If Grossman’s checkered career has showed anything, it’s that he’s dramatically better when he’s comfortable in the pocket.
He was sacked four times and hit seven, but he persevered.
“His demeanor, even when we do give up a pressure or a hit or a sack, he’s not [mad] at us or blaming us,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “He keeps his composure and just goes on with his next play. He made a hell of a lot of good throws today.”
Lichtensteiger could have been referring to any number of passes. There was the fourth-and-5 that Grossman converted by throwing to Moss against soft coverage to extend the Redskins‘ first touchdown drive.
On the Redskins‘ second touchdown drive, he completed all five of his passes to different receivers, moving the Redskins 80 yards. His 6-yard fade pass in the back left corner of the end zone settled into Armstrong’s grasp after falling over cornerback Aaron Ross’ shoulder.
Grossman was solid while protecting the lead in the second half after Kerrigan’s interception. He did fumble on a sack after Jason Pierre-Paul blew by left tackle Trent Williams, but Washington’s defense bailed them out, and Orakpo blocked the 38-yard field goal.
That allowed Grossman to flash back to those Saturdays in Gainesville when he and Gaffney reigned. On third-and-goal from the 4, Gaffney ran free to the post on a slant. Grossman drilled him in stride in the end zone, sealing the win.
“It was a fun day,” he said. “It was a day I’ll never forget.”