Looking back and who likes to look back more than me? the Redskins’ game at Tennessee in Week5 might have been the high point of their season. They won for the first time on the road under Steve Spurrier, 31-14 over the Titans, and rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey sparkled in his debut. As they flew home from Nashville that night, everybody from Dan Snyder on down had to be thinking that the team was on its way, that good times were just around the corner.
And they were for the Titans.
Every year, some team in the NFL just blindsides you, and this year that team is Tennessee. To refresh your memory, the Titans were in sorry shape the day they faced the Redskins. They had just given up 52 points to the Raiders and were about to lose their fourth straight game to drop to 1-4. Jevon Kearse, their best defender, was out. So was Derrick Mason, their top receiver. And Eddie George was looking like his days as a franchise back were over.
In the second half, Ramsey sliced and diced the Tennessee secondary, leading the Redskins on consecutive touchdown drives of 74, 72 and 71 yards. It was the best Steve Spurrier’s offense has looked all season by far. Since that afternoon, though, the Fun’n’ Gunners have gone 4-7 and dropped out of the postseason picture. And the Titans? All they’ve done is win nine of 10 their only loss was by a point to Baltimore to capture the division title. If they can beat the Texans in Houston on Sunday, which doesn’t seem like a very tall order, they’ll have a shot at the homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs.
It’s interesting reading over some of the remarks made in the two locker rooms that October afternoon. On the Washington side, you had Jeremiah Trotter saying, “We took a big step this week. This game shows some positive strides in the direction we’re trying to go.” And in Tennessee’s bunker, you had Steve McNair saying, “It’s sad. That’s how it goes in this league. You can be on top one day, and the next day you can be on the bottom.”
And 12 weeks later you can be on top again the very top.
Why were the Titans able to save their season while the Redskins, once they went into a skid, couldn’t pull out of it? Well, much of it probably has to do with the teams’ core people. Tennessee has a veteran quarterback, McNair, who carried the club for a spell until it began to play better (and until Mason and Kearse returned to the lineup). The Titans also have a group of guys coach Jeff Fisher, George and Samari Rolle among them who reached the Super Bowl three years ago and believe in one another.
The Redskins have no such Rock of Gibraltar at the QB spot. While McNair was having what many consider a Pro Bowl season, Spurrier was be-bopping from Ramsey to Shane Matthews to Danny Wuerffel, almost on a weekly basis. And as far as having any past success to draw on, the Redskins have made the playoffs only once in the last decade (in ‘99, with a radically different roster than now).
There’s a larger lesson here, though, and hopefully the Ball Coach is taking notes. The lesson is this: In the NFL, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. In major college ball, if you start out 1-4, you can forget about winning the national championship. But in pro ball, the Tennessee Titans can lose four of their first five and Texans willing still end up as the No.1 seed in the AFC. You just have to keep on keeping on, keep on trying to get better. Or healthier. Or luckier.
After all, the Titans are no aberration. Just last year, the Patriots started out 1-3 and went on to win the Super Bowl. And the year before that, the Ravens were 5-4 and in the grip of a three-game losing streak before catching a wave and winning it all. Heck, if Tennessee doesn’t emerge from the AFC hurly-burly this postseason, it might very well be the Raiders, who were just 4-4 at the halfway point after dropping four in a row. And let’s not forget the Jets, once 2-5 but now eyeing the AFC East title thanks to Chad Pennington, the Tom Brady of ‘02.
To put it in a language Spurrier can understand, the NFL is a lot like golf: You drive for show, but you putt for dough. (Alternate phrasing: It’s not how you start, but how you finish.) After that Oct.6 game, the Redskins and Titans went in opposite directions but they were hardly the directions their fans would have imagined. It’s the Redskins, not the Titans, who are looking ahead to the draft this week and the Titans, not the Redskins, who are looking ahead to the playoffs. That’s pro football for you.