Work in Sports
What We Learned
Three things we know after the Redskins-Panthers game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
LANDOVER, Md. -- Washington staved off Carolina 20-17 at FedEx Field on Sunday in a game that bore no resemblance to the 38-36 slugfest victory that the Redskins earned against the Panthers last season. Alas, the different subplot did not produce a different result. Here are three observations from Sunday's game:
1. The weak link in the Redskins' star-studded roster showed up in a big way. Washington's kickoff coverage unit almost single-handedly kept the Panthers in the game.
"Our kickoff coverage is horrible," Redskins head coach Norv Turner said afterward, in blunt assessment.
He was being far too kind.
After the Redskins opened the game with a textbook, 12-play, 79-yard touchdown drive, eating up 7:09 in the process, they gave the lead back in about 15 seconds. That's how long it took return specialist Michael Bates to scoot 92 yards through the heart of the Washington coverage unit for the fifth kickoff return touchdown of his eight-year career. Early in the fourth quarter, the Redskins' disaster squad struck again.
After quarterback Brad Johnson's 1-yard touchdown dive gave Washington a 17-10 lead, Bates ripped through the Redskins' kickoff coverage unit for 90 yards to the Washington 5. A very borderline blocking-in-the-back call against Carolina fullback Chris Hetherington against Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason negated the big runback, but that didn't make Turner feel a lot better.
"We put together a reel of [Bates'] returns last year," Turner said. "I don't know if we psyched our guys out or we just weren't ready for the first kickoff. But it's an area we have to address."
While Washington survived its special teams blunder, Carolina wasn't so fortunate. When kicker John Kasay went down with a season-ending cracked kneecap about three weeks ago, the Panthers held tryouts and went with former Cowboys kicker Richie Cunningham.
Crank up the kicking tryout once again. Cunningham finished the preseason in shaky fashion, missing twice in the last game, then blew a very important 27-yard attempt wide left late in the second quarter. The kick could have given the Panthers a 13-7 lead and kept momentum on their side. Not to mention that the game's final outcome was three points.
2. It's early to call it an unqualified success, but the Bruce Smith signing started paying off immediately for Washington. The Redskins had six sacks against the Panthers, which represented more than 1/7 of their 1999 team total. With 59 yards lost, Washington produced more than one-fourth of its 1999 sack yardage (221).
Smith had two of the Redskins' sacks, tying for game-high honors with left end Marco Coleman. The game's biggest play was Smith's third-quarter sack and strip of Carolina's Steve Beuerlein. Reserve defensive end N.D. Kalu recovered the fumble at the Carolina 28, setting up Redskins kicker Brett Conway's game-tying 24-yard field goal.
And Smith's real value to the Redskins was borne out after the play. On the sack, Smith hyperextended his left knee and stayed on the ground in pain for several moments before hopping off. It looked like the kind of injury that ends a 37-year-old lineman's day. It didn't.
Smith, teaching the youngsters a thing or two about veteran perseverance, missed only a series after walking off the injury on the sideline. "Those are plays guys like Bruce Smith make," Turner said. "He made one today. ... Bruce Smith, anyone who thinks that tank is running on anything but full. ... He's a force. He's going to help everyone on our defensive football team."
Exactly right. With Smith drawing so much attention, Coleman was single-blocked all day and made the Panthers pay with his two sacks for minus-22 yards. Coleman and Smith both had five tackles, tying for third on the team. Smith refused to do any crowing in Buffalo's direction in the postgame locker room, but we'll do it for him. If Sunday was any indication, Smith isn't done wreaking his own familiar brand of pass-rush havoc. He may be one of several rent-a-star Redskins, but he's still a Star, with a capital S.
3. Like everyone else outside of the nation's capital, I'm sick of reading about Daniel Snyder's spring-and-summer signing spree. At some point, the numbers all gloss over in the mind's eye. But give the Redskins' checkbook-toting owner some credit. He got running back Stephen Davis' contract extended a day earlier rather than a day too late.
Davis on Saturday agreed to terms on a nine-year contract worth about $90 million, including a $6.5 million signing bonus. The deal is elongated for salary-cap purposes, but who knows what the price would have been Monday, after Davis' showing against Carolina?
In the first half, Davis was pedestrian, with 10 carries for 35 yards, including his 2-yard, first-quarter touchdown run. But in the second half, with the muggy 81-degree heat taking its toll and teammates and opponents alike cramping up, Davis was a workhorse.
He rushed 13 times for 98 yards in the final two quarters, including a 33-yard burst in the final 1:30 that effectively sealed the Redskins' victory. Davis is the kind of back who can invite an offense to climb up on his back and ride along for a while. Judging from Sunday, his NFC-best 1,405-yard breakout season of 1999 was no fluke.
Washington's offensive formula is impressive to behold. It can beat you with Brad Johnson throwing downfield to receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell, turn to the short passing game with fullback Larry Centers, or hammer at you for four quarters with Davis playing the role of battering ram.
For one week of Washington's hyped 2000 season at least, Davis was worth every dime of his superstar salary.