LANDOVER, Md. – Oscar-winning actor Edmund Gwenn, best known as Santa Claus from "Miracle on 34th Street," was once asked in his final days about whether dying was tough.
"Yes, it's tough, but not as tough as doing comedy," Gwenn said.
In the past month, the Washington Redskins have relied on comedy and winning to help them deal with death.
The Redskins are riding a four-game winning streak heading into Saturday's NFC wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks. The streak began after Washington lost its first game without the late Sean Taylor, a home defeat to the Buffalo Bills in which Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs made a critical error in the final seconds because he didn't know a rule.
Four days later against the Chicago Bears, the Redskins were in the midst of a scoreless game when they lost up-and-coming quarterback Jason Campbell to a dislocated kneecap. Suddenly, Washington was without two top leaders while another was being called into question.
Enter quarterback Todd Collins and a story line straight out of one of George Bernard Shaw's plays. Shaw was a Nobel Prize winner whose earnest messages were spiced with comedy. Collins is an earnest man who has provided necessary humor at a time when the Redskins badly needed to laugh.
"He's a very funny guy," said Washington guard Pete Kendall. "He's not funny at the expense of knowing what to do. He works hard. He's not a clown. He just says stuff that makes you laugh. … We needed that."
Said linebacker Marcus Washington: "He kind of puts me in the mind of the guy (actor Steve Carell) from 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' … He's a funny guy."
Collins comes up with odd lines about international fishing treaties, goofy stuff that gets players wondering half the time if he's serious or just pulling their legs. More important though, Collins has thrived as reserve-turned-starter.
Collins was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for December after completing 67 of 105 passes (63.8 percent) with five touchdowns and no interceptions for a QB rating of 106.4. That month has been a decade in the making. Over the previous nine years, Collins had thrown a total of 27 passes as he went 10 years between starts, the longest ever for a quarterback.
The award also followed Collins being NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Chicago. Collins was 15-of-20 for 224 yards with two touchdown passes in leading the Redskins to victory. Collins and the Redskins have followed that up with a win over the playoff-bound New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys and won a critical road game at Minnesota over a Vikings team that had won five straight at the time.
To Collins, the recognition has been nice. But when you go 10 years between starts – spending four years without taking a single snap – there has to be something deeper that drives you.
"Everybody likes to be recognized, but I think what is important with this [playoff berth] is that it has been the whole team that has been recognized as opposed to an individual," Collins said.
Collins worked at his craft for years as a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs under current Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders. He learned Saunders' meaty playbook page-by-page and joined Washington last season.
In the process, Collins has rekindled the notion that Gibbs can win with just about anybody at quarterback, harkening back to the 1980s and early '90s when Gibbs went from Joe Theismann to Doug Williams to Mark Rypien in three Super Bowl wins. The talk that Gibbs had lost his touch has quieted during the winning streak.
Perhaps what's being ignored, however, is what has happened on defense even with the loss of Taylor. The Redskins were growing into a stout defense with Taylor and cornerback Carlos Rogers this season. Rogers was knocked out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the Week 8 loss to the New England Patriots. Then came Taylor's tragic death when he was shot during a burglary at his home in Miami in November.
Since then, they have allowed fewer than 20 points in four of their past five games and only a garbage-time score by Minnesota kept that from being six straight overall.
"What we're doing on defense is really special," Washington said. "We have total focus. Everybody has stepped up."
Said linebacker London Fletcher, one of many players sporting a "21" towel on his uniform in memory of Taylor: "Everybody has pulled together. Nobody has made any excuses. That's not the way you honor somebody."
No, you honor people like Taylor with earnest, heartfelt effort.
And a good joke once in a while, too.
- The Redskins