The best story in sports this side of the Patriots’ run at perfection has ended prematurely, much like the life of the man who inspired it.
Carolina Panthers coach John Fox once said, after a close loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that kept the Panthers out of the playoffs, that he was disappointed for his players, not in them. Joe Gibbs no doubt felt the same way after seeing his team’s four game winning streak come to an end in the unfriendly confines of Qwest Field. In the 2007 NFC Wild Card round, Seattle’s 12th Man would cheer the Seahawks to victory while the Redskins’ 12th man, the late Sean Taylor, watched his team lose by three touchdowns.
In many ways it’s an appropriate and fitting end to the Redskins’ improbable playoff run that they’d lose by 21 points (35-14) – Taylor’s jersey number – a week after defeating the Dallas Cowboys by 21 points (27-6) in week 17 en route to their playoff berth.
The team from Dallas wasn’t merely playing the Cowboys to Washington’s Indians, but also a roadblock in the Redskins’ playoff ambitions. As such they had to be beaten — definitively. By the time the smoke cleared, Redskins players were running to the sidelines exclaiming that they’d beaten the rival Cowboys by 21 points – surely a positive omen that their playoff run was anointed to be something special.
ESPN.com quotes Redskins linebacker London Fletcher: “I can’t believe it’s over with for us. It just seemed our story was going to be written all the way to the Super Bowl for us.”
But on this day, the Seattle Seahawks pass rush proved too severe for the depleted right side of the ‘Skins’ offensive line. Todd Collins fluctuated wildly between having no time to throw and taking too long to throw. By the end of the game this translated to two pick-6s and three sacks.
And when Washington’s blitzes didn’t make it to Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck, cornerback Shawn Springs was left on an island with receiver D.J. Hackett, to the tune of six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Beating the hated Cowboys by 21 points is a testament of the galvanizing, motivational force that Sean Taylor was and still is for his former teammates, who wear shirts bearing his image, patches bearing his number, and throw “shout-outs” his way whenever they can, as when Santana Moss held up his pointer, middle, and pinky fingers after a touchdown, their 2-1 alignment spelling out the number of his fallen teammate.
But losing by 21 points to the Seahawks is a testament to the extent to which Sean Taylor’s talents can never truly be replaced, not by Reed Doughty or anyone on the Redskins roster. Losing a 24-year-old man is tragic no matter how you look at it. But Taylor was also one of the top safeties in all of football. When he came into the NFL from the University of Miami, pundits predicted that Taylor would revolutionize the safety position the way Ray Lewis has the middle linebacker position.
Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu could match Taylor’s range. There might not be a smarter safety in the game than Baltimore’s Ed Reed, also from “The U.” And there’s no better “eraser” of bad plays with good tackling than Indy’s Bob Sanders.
But none of them could tackle, and run, and cover, and rush the passer, and play sideline to sideline, and do all of them effectively, the way Taylor could.
To their credit, the Redskins fought hard until the bitter end. Just as their strong safety would’ve done had he been there, the Redskins played to the final whistle, even as the score got increasingly out of reach. Washington simply didn’t have the horses to build on their 14-13 lead, giving up 22 unanswered points in the last 6:06 of the game – the one and only playoff game coach Joe Gibbs has ever lost after leading in the 4th quarter.
Living in Washington, D.C. for the last half-year I’ve been amazed by how deeply the city – the region – relates to the Redskins. Perhaps, growing up in Detroit as a Lions fan, there weren’t many “big games” to stoke the excitement of this fan base, which has seen its team win three championships under Joe Gibbs and only returned to the playoffs when Gibbs returned to the sidelines.
People who live in D.C. actually talk about “the game” on the bus – it is, after all, better small-talk fodder than the weather. People who live in D.C. take the day off work, even when they need the money, just for the chance to see the Redskins on TV. People who live in D.C. feel, and mourn, the team’s losses, which is a tougher proposition in the playoffs, which don’t offer the hope of “next week.”
When Taylor passed, fans set up a spontaneous memorial at the parking spot he had won with his on-field performance. The chance of going back to Dallas to stick it to the Cowboys again seemed too good to be true.
And, in the end, it was.
Still, the Redskins should be proud of the season they’ve authored. They’ve certainly made more noise than any 8-loss team in recent memory. They had every reason to fold things up after Taylor’s death and especially after Gibbs’ clock mismanagement cost them the Buffalo game that same week, capping a four game losing streak that sank the Redskins to 5-7. They had every reason to decide that four wins in a row was too high a hill to climb and start making vacation plans.
But they didn’t.
That they didn’t is a credit to Gibbs, his coaches, the players, and the organization. The Redskins only made it this far because their strong safety wouldn’t have given – nor tolerated – anything less.
And their failure to break out of the Wild Card round is proof that some players are just irreplaceable, even if they do inspire others to play beyond themselves.Powered by Sidelines