Monday, November 19, 2001

DENVER — There have been worse games than the one the Redskins and Broncos engaged in yesterday. Fortunately, most of them were played before the advent of television.
It was an NFL Films kind of afternoon at Invesco Field. Steam pouring out of the players’ mouths. Rain (and later snow) pouring down on the players’ helmets. Fans bundled up in brightly colored parkas. The quality of play, though, was reminiscent of the Marx Brothers’ efforts for Huxley College. There were so many dropped passes and dropped punts and botched handoffs and coyote-ugly plays that you tended to lose track of who was winning and who was losing. Worse, you stopped caring.
By the end of the first half, the stands were so deserted that the rest of the game seemed like a private showing for the diehards who remained. I’ve got two words for the good people of the Mile High City, who just spent $400 million on this latest pro football palace: retractable dome.
And the delays. Oh, the delays. It took so long to resolve a fumble/no-fumble/in-bounds/out-of-bounds controversy in the second quarter that you could have squeezed the halftime show in. And that might have kept the game under four hours or whatever it was.
But if you’re looking for perfection, I suppose, you’re not going to find it on a frigid afternoon 5,000 feet above sea level. Besides, there was much beauty to be found in this game for the Redskins, basically because, against all odds, they found a way to win their fourth straight and inch a little closer to playoff contention.
Yes, playoff contention.
We can utter the P-word now without sounding borderline delusional. A month ago, when the Redskins were playing as abominably as any team in the league, you figured they’d be mathematically eliminated by now. But after coming from 10 points down to beat the Broncos, 17-10, they’re 4-5 and looking better all the time. Let’s not forget, they still have two games against the Cardinals and another against the Cowboys.
Each Redskins victory these days seems more improbable than the last. You had a rookie receiver (Rod Gardner) racking up 208 yards against the Panthers. You had a just-off-the-bus punt returner (Eric Metcalf) taking one all the way back against the Giants. You had a little-used tight end (Walter Rasby) catching a TD pass to begin the scoring against the Seahawks.
And yesterday you had Kent Graham coming off the bench to replace fuzzy-headed Tony Banks and throwing for two touchdowns, the second the tiebreaker to another obscure tight end, Zeron Flemister. It’s almost as if Marty Schottenheimer is drawing names out of a hat before the opening kickoff and saying, “OK, it’s your turn to be the star.”
Graham’s cool under fire was admirable, particularly since he didn’t join the Redskins until the third week of the season (after Jeff George was terminated). But then, he has spent the better part of his career being thrown into games; such is the life of the backup quarterback.
“I’ve been in similar [offensive] systems to this one,” he said, “so it wasn’t that major an adjustment for me. When I came in [after Banks suffered a concussion], I just tried to be as focused as I possibly could on each play and on taking care of the ball and not worry about the next play.”
Taking care of the ball was no easy task. It was as slippery as a watermelon seed only it had laces. Even center snaps were an adventure. One time, Graham and Cory Raymer missed connections, and the quarterback scooped up the ball and still made a lunging handoff to Stephen Davis, who ran 17 yards to the Denver 26. It looked like a huge play for a moment or two … and then a penalty wiped it out.
“I was just flying by the seat of my pants out there,” Graham said.
If that’s the case, then yesterday he was Lindbergh.
As for Flemister, he seems to remember catching a game-winning touchdown pass as a junior at Iowa against Indiana, but he might be a little off in the details. He’s fairly certain, though, that it was from “about 10 yards out. It was one of those plays where the tight end blocks and then releases late,” he said. “I was pretty nervous when Kent called my number [at the Denver 3 with about three minutes left]. As we broke the huddle, I’m telling myself, ‘Don’t mess up.’”
He didn’t. He wrapped his big hands around the ball, hugged it to his bosom like a rare Beanie Baby, and the Redskins had their most significant victory of the season.
“We haven’t played too well on the road,” he said an understatement to say the least. The Redskins were 0-4 in their travels before yesterday, scoring just 19 points. “It was important to show we could win one, especially in a place like this.”
Particularly since they have to play in another “place like this” this week: Philadelphia’s always friendly Veterans Stadium, home of the bodybag and the torn ACL.

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