Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 11, 2011

Grossman And The Redskins Surprise The Giants

It was of course but a coincidence of the calendar that the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America fell on a Sunday, the first of a new NFL season; but a fortuitous one nonetheless. For a decade ago, as a reeling nation took its first tentative steps toward whatever was to be the new normal, sports played their part in reestablishing a welcome sense of routine while providing much-needed diversions.

Once games began anew, the completion of interrupted seasons led to a thrilling seven-game World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks; and, a few months later, the first Super Bowl won on the game’s final play when Adam Vinatieri’s kick split the uprights for the Patriots. A decade later, the late-season standings allow for at least the statistical possibility of a reprise of that World Series; and for the NFL, this first weekend allowed fans to finally vanquish “lockout” from the lexicon and focus their attention on meaningful play on the field.

The first weekend always brings some surprises, and this year was no exception. Seven months removed from representing their conference in the Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers committed seven turnovers while being blown out by division rival Baltimore, 35-7. In the NFC, Atlanta was an early pick by many experts for a strong season and a deep playoff run. But in Chicago, the Falcons seemed overmatched by the Bears defense in a 30-12 loss.

Other teams were able to match pre-season expectations, positive or otherwise. No team was more active than Philadelphia during the brief post-lockout free agent signing period. The Eagles and their newly enriched roster easily dispatched St. Louis, 31-13. Meanwhile there was great concern in Indianapolis over the Colts’ prospects with Peyton Manning out, perhaps for the season, following a second neck surgery. A 34-7 loss to division foe Houston justified those concerns and perhaps signaled a changing of the guard in the AFC South.

But on this 9/11 the marquee matchup was between the franchises representing the two cities most impacted on 9/11/01. At a packed FedEx Field outside of Washington D.C., after emotional pre-game ceremonies, the Giants and Redskins renewed their long-standing NFC East rivalry. To be fair, it’s been a rather one-sided rivalry of late. New York came into the game with six straight wins over Washington. The Redskins haven’t had a winning record since 2007 while the Giants haven’t had a losing one since 2004, and stunned the undefeated Patriots in the 2007 Super Bowl.

With that as background it wasn’t too surprising when the Redskins went three and out on both of their first two possessions, nor when their first sustained drive ended with a Graham Gano 39-yard field goal attempt sailing outside the right upright. Meanwhile the Giants took the early lead the second time their offense touched the ball. After stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush, Eli Manning found Hakeem Nicks for a 68-yard completion to the Redskins’ one yard line. On the next play Manning took the ball into the end zone himself on a simple bootleg around right end.

It’s a 60-minute game though, and thanks to some spectacular catches by several Redskins’ receivers on high passes by Rex Grossman, the Washington offense began to find some rhythm. Following a 25-yard punt return by Brandon Banks, Grossman completed 4 of 6 passes and Tim Hightower had several fine runs as Washington drove 64 yards to tie the score early in the 2nd quarter. After the Giants took the lead on a 6-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw late in the first half, the well-traveled and lightly regarded Grossman was even better. Running the two-minute offense to perfection, he was 6 for 6 for 80 yards, capped by a short touchdown pass to Anthony Armstrong to send the teams to the locker room tied at 14.

The ability of teams to make in-game adjustments is critical to success in the modern NFL. Last year the Redskins defense was ranked 31st in the league. But on this Sunday, after the Giants rolled up over 200 yards in the first half, it was Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett who changed his scheme just enough to propel Washington to victory. On the third play of the second half, Manning’s short pass to the right was intercepted by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who charged 9 yards into the end zone to put Washington ahead for the first time.

In six more second half possessions, Manning and the Giants managed only four first downs, and one of those was in the game’s meaningless final moments. The closest they came to scoring was when a 38-yard field goal attempt was blocked. When Grossman’s passing and Hightower’s running moved the Redskins 70 yards for their fourth touchdown with just over five minutes remaining, Washington was on its way to victory.

Late in the pre-season Eli Manning announced in an interview that he considered himself one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, on a level with the likes of his older brother and Tom Brady. Even among Giants fans, the claim was met with a mixture of bemusement and disdain. In this season’s first game he finished with a decidedly pedestrian quarterback rating of 69.0. One good rule of thumb may be that if one has to declare oneself an elite player, one probably isn’t.

No one will ever confuse Rex Grossman with Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but on this day he threw for more than 300 yards and two scores, even if it was against an injury-riddled Giants defense. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has essentially bet the season on the notion that he doesn’t need elite players, just ones who will master and adhere to the system that he and his assistants have put in place on both sides of the line of scrimmage. For one week at least, score one for the system.

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