- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

For years the Eagles have been coming to FedEx Field and slapping the Redskins around. Last season it was 31-7. The season before it was 37-7. The season before that it was 20-6. Never have the Redskins seemed farther away — from respectability, from contention, from the Super Bowl — than when Philly has been in town.

Last night, though, it was just the opposite. Last night the Eagles served as a measure of just how far the Redskins have come. Your Heroes still have a ways to go, sure; they’re 4-9 and alive for the playoffs only because they play in the woebegone NFC. But their 17-14 loss to the mighty Eagles may well turn out to be a watershed in the Second Gibbs Era, the game in which Coach Joe finally got the wheels back on the tracks.

In this one, after all, the Redskins looked like a Club on the Verge of Doing Something. And how long has it been, really, since we’ve been able to say that?

Yes, the Redskins got off to a 3-1 start last year under Steve Spurrier, but that was against teams either without their starting quarterbacks or disfigured by injuries. Last night they were trading punches with an 11-1 powerhouse that has rarely been challenged this season, never mind beaten.

Beyond that, though, the game just had a different feel to it. Not only were the Redskins able to run the ball on the Eagles — which you need to do, since their defense is somewhat suspect in that area — they were able to throw it on them, a much more difficult proposition. This enabled them to retain possession in the first half for a very Gibbslike 17:46.

On the other side of the ball, the Redskins gave up a couple of big gains in the passing game — one on an 80-yard bomb to Todd Pinkston, the other on a 47-yard interference call against Shawn Springs — but they played exceptionally well with their backs to the wall.

In the second quarter they forced a turnover at the Washington 5 and then sacked Donovan McNabb twice in scoring territory, pushing David Akers’ field goal attempt back to 48 yards. He was nice enough to miss it.

The best thing about what was going on, however, was that there was no sense the Eagles were off their game or taking the Redskins for granted. They hit people with their usual zest — just ask Laveranues Coles and Shawn Springs — and attacked on offense all evening.

And the Redskins didn’t blink. For the second time in a month they went into the fourth quarter against Philly with a chance to win. And unlike the game at Lincoln Financial Field, they didn’t let the Eagles turn it into a rout by giving up a pair of touchdowns. They kept it interesting right to the end.

That’s all you’re looking for from the Redskins at the moment — reasons for hope, signs of progress. In the first half of the season, the Mark Brunell half, they barely had a pulse, basically because they couldn’t move the ball and had almost no ability to come back in a game. But now they’re at least stringing together a few first downs and keeping their overworked defense off the field a bit more. (And no one’s happier than Dan Snyder; he was beginning to run up a heck of an oxygen bill.)

The biggest disappointment for the Redskins was their continued insistence on racking up huge amounts of penalty yardage — 112 on nine infractions in just the first half. Good teams just don’t do that — and Coach Joe’s never used to. (Actually, they were lucky it wasn’t more. Sean Taylor made a valiant bid in the third quarter for his fourth personal foul penalty in as many weeks, but the refs turned a blind eye to it.)

If a 17-14 defeat can be invigorating, this 17-14 defeat certainly was. The Redskins, it would seem, must be close to turning the corner if they’re playing the top teams — the Eagles, the Steelers, then the Eagles again — so tough. And in the next three weeks we’ll find out. The 49ers, Cowboys and Vikings are all beatable, even though the first two games are on the road and the last could determine whether the Vikes make the playoffs. (At the very least, Ramsey and Co. should be able to find the end zone more often; and when the club scores more than 18 points, remember, it’s 1-0.)

But the Redskins aren’t there yet. That much was obvious when they couldn’t convert a third-and-one near midfield with five minutes left and then, inches short, chose to punt rather than go for the first down. That’s not showing much faith in your offense. And until the coach starts believing in this team, unconditionally, there’s probably no reason for us to.

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