Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
Eleven Washington Redskins defenders stood together in the FedEx Field mud Sunday afternoon, clinging to what would be a 23-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Before them stood Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, one of the NFL’s most dangerous players. Behind them was just 16 yards of turf and the end zone.
The scoreboard said fourth down. Thirty-eight seconds remained. The crowd of 60,482, roared as loud as a crowd has roared in this stadium this year. As usual, Alex, Steve and I are furiously texting, “Here we go again!” Or “why do we even bother to watch?!”
Everybody knew what was at stake. They had to get their opponents off the field. If they didn’t then the Panthers would score a touchdown and Washington would be 2-3; nobody wanted to be 2-3.
Cam Newton leaned back and threw. The Redskins players held their breath, then erupted with joy as the throw fell harmlessly behind cornerback Josh Norman. They celebrated so hard one of the officials threw a penalty flag. To the Washington players leaping and dancing across the field, it didn’t matter. They needed this win. They needed to be 3-2 and back in first place in the NFC East.
It had been a long six days since the disaster of Monday night’s 43-19 loss to the Saints. Everything had gone wrong in New Orleans, especially on defense, which gave up what Coach Jay Gruden estimated was 150 yards on three plays where defenders were in the wrong coverage. None of those players had been more maligned that Norman, who was responsible for the most-egregious of those mistakes and had been benched for a series on Monday for wearing headphones during Gruden’s halftime talk.
On Thursday, linebacker Pernell McPhee asked all the defensive players to dinner at an expensive restaurant. They had to be together, he said. McPhee picked up the bill. “The tab was sky high, man,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. He stood in front of his locker in a Sean Taylor jersey, which he said he wore because he thought it was “time” to invoke some of the ex-Redskins safety’s toughness.
Many of the Washington players had been wondering how they would respond to Monday’s blowout. The days after were a constant hum of criticism. Many of the defensive players are young and some of their more experienced teammates wondered whether players would start blaming each other. Instead, their practices Wednesday and Thursday were fierce, and they came into Sunday confident against Newton, who has had great success against the Redskins.
Their plan was to keep Newton from running, because he can be as dangerous as a runner as he is passing. Early in the game their plan worked. Under pressure and unable to break away in the first quarter, he lobbed a wobbling pass that Norman snatched from the air for an interception. Later, Norman knocked the ball from Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Mason Foster. Those two plays, along with another earlier Moore fumble (forced on a punt return) might have been the difference.
Newton had 275 yards passing and another 43 running, but many of those came at the end, after Washington built leads of 17-0 and 20-9 before hanging on late.
With the Redskins passing offense still unable to do much against an aggressive Carolina pass rush — quarterback Alex Smith had just 163 yards throwing, increasingly exhibiting the limitations that come when Mr. Smith Comes To Washington — Washington had to rely on what has become a familiar formula in the early weeks of this season: build an early lead, ride Adrian Peterson and hope the defense can hold.
Much like the defense struggling to keep the season from spinning away, Peterson was a mess this week. He sprained his shoulder in the Saints loss, still vowing that night to play Sunday. But as the week went on and the shoulder hurt, he wavered on that promise. Still, he ran for 97 yards on 17 carries against the Panthers — many times churning through tackles as tacklers banged into him, each blow to his shoulder adding to the ache.
In the room around him, the players were happy but there were no shouts of joy. “We knew this was going to be a grinder,” Peterson had said a few minutes before. And it was. Washington won because of his running, because of three Dustin Hopkins field goals (the longest of which was 56 yards) and a defense that didn’t crumble in the days after the Saints loss, when everything could have been bad.