Happy thousands streamed from FedEx Field into late-afternoon sunshine, the surge of elation over the last-minute dramatics they witnessed overwhelming the unsettling reality of what almost happened.
The Redskins survived.
And, really, that’s the only thing that mattered Sunday.
Look too closely and the meaning of the 45-41 win over the Bears could be lost. Overwhelmed by the well-intentioned, but mistaken, belief that beating Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown in the game’s final seconds somehow turned around this battered season. Or overwhelmed, too, by focus on the head-scatching breakdowns by the Redskins that have become routine, from the continuing special teams woes to Brandon Meriweather’s affinity for helmet-to-helmet collisions.
Instead, the Redskins kept alive the flickering hopes for this season that still can be saved.
They had no choice.
The season teetered on the precipice of all-out failure — imagine facing the Broncos’ offensive meat-grinder in Denver next week with a 1-5 record — but the Redskins found a way to pull back from the brink.
“We still have a hole to get out of,” Robert Griffin III said.
Washington knocked out quarterback Jay Cutler with an injured groin early in the second quarter. McCown, the 34-year-old journeyman who threw 61 passes over the last five seasons, replaced him.
Fail to beat as pedestrian a quarterback as McCown? Well, the ugliness and discontent that simmered through the first part of the season would look mild by comparison.
The fortuitous turn of events provided the Redskins a can’t-miss opportunity. Sure, what followed wasn’t pretty. This game didn’t make them a good football team. But in a nod to the spirit of last season, they showed the pluck to overcome critical turnovers and penalties that boggle the mind and, somehow, emerge on the right side of the scoreboard.
This wasn’t easy. This wasn’t pretty.
For every moment when the Redskins looked to put together a few minutes of solid football, another mistake reared up. Like the first drive, when Griffin’s 38-yard pass to rookie tight end Jordan Reed was followed by a fumble eventually recovered by the Redskins for a 17-yard loss. The game went like that.
Once again, they were their own worst enemy.
Meriweather drew two personal foul penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, including one on Brandon Marshall after the ball fell incomplete that helped set up a Bears touchdown on the next play.
After a week of much-hyped work, the bedraggled special teams whiffed on tackle after tackle when Devin Hester returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown through a lane that half the people in the stadium could’ve fit through. That’s three special teams touchdowns, for those keeping track at home, the Redskins have allowed in the last three games.
Griffin threw an easy interception, giving him six this season after just five all of last year.
But Griffin’s legs churned through the problems. Eighty-four yards on the ground in all. He darted and ducked in the pocket, rarely dropping back but instead throwing off a variety of rollouts that took advantage of his mobility.
They flirted with disaster and found a way to emerge in one piece. Like Griffin’s 45-yard touchdown heave to Aldrick Robinson. The ball looked like a sure interception, the sort of pass that hung in the air waiting to tumble into the arms of two defenders camped in the end zone. Then one fell and the ball, instead, found a home with Robinson.
Certain failure turned to celebration over a couple of agonizing seconds that played out in slow motion and seemed to sum up the Redskins on this fall afternoon.
Griffin finished off the survival course by orchestrating the drive that led to Roy Helu’s game-winning touchdown with 49 seconds left, and Barry Cofield and Ryan Kerrigan sent McCown to the ground for the final time as time expired.
This doesn’t change the Redskins’ deep flaws. The problems of the team once ticketed for the postseason don’t need to be restated. But they showed growth, tenacity. That was enough.
“Well, I think every game is big, but we sure need it after being 1-4,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “You don’t want to dig yourself a bigger hole than you’ve already done.”
No, the season wasn’t saved Sunday afternoon. But the Redskins gave themselves an opportunity to do so. They stayed alive.