LANDOVER, Md. – Arms crossed, Reed Doughty stood still on the Washington Redskins sideline. He was supposed to be in the game, a full-time NFL starter now, a childhood dream realized in the most nightmarish of ways.
The player Doughty had been assigned to replace at safety was dead. Sean Taylor was murdered this week during a break-in of his Florida home.
Even in the violent, disposable, replaceable world of the NFL, even among all these tough-guy players almost immune to violence, it was a core-rocking event.
"None of us have ever lived through this before," said Joe Gibbs, the 67-year-old coach.
So here were Taylor's old teammates trying their best to honor him. They quietly decided the defense would line up on the first play against the Buffalo Bills with just 10 defenders. Doughty would stay on the sidelines; if Taylor couldn't take the field, then no one would.
"It wasn't one less man, it was playing with 10 and Sean," Doughty said. "We had all 11 out there. That is what we designed. I was sitting out the first play because Sean was going to be in there."
They were willing to concede what inevitably happened, the Bills' Fred Jackson running 22 yards against a defensive alignment with a hole in it. Then Doughty jogged onto the field to make the defense complete. The Bills threw to Josh Reed and Doughty flew to him, wrapping him up after just a two-yard gain, playing safety in a manner of which Sean Taylor would have approved.
It was perfect, the perfect football tribute at the end of a horrible week. The ideal on-field compliment to the moment of silence and the video tribute and the No. 21 towels waving in the stands.
Only football is an unforgiving game and this one turned out anything but perfect, with the Redskins losing in the final seconds – self-destructing, even – 17-16.
Looking as spent as his players, Gibbs sighed, "It's been a long, hard week."
It may have been long and strangest for Doughty, the replacement for Taylor. The 25-year-old has been fighting for football opportunities his entire life – from little Johnstown, Colo., to a Division II spot at Northern Colorado, to a sixth-round selection by the Redskins in 2005.
Then, just as he could concentrate on making his mark, he and his wife had a son born premature – now a 1-year-old who deals with daily dialysis and faces a kidney transplant.
To finally assume a starting spot in the NFL should have been a crowning achievement for Doughty. But like this? Yes, he had taken over when Taylor was hurt a couple weeks ago, but that was temporary. For all the wrong reasons he now is the Redskins' best option.
"I've told people I've taken over free safety but not his spot on our team," Doughty said.
How could he? Taylor was everything Doughty wasn't. Taylor was an overwhelming talent from the start. A star in high school in Florida, a star recruit to Miami, a 6-2 speedster born to hit, born to play football. His teammates called him "Meast" – half man, half beast. He was a first-round draft pick at age 21, a Pro Bowler at 23.
"Sean sometimes did more than his job and his presence out there sometimes made offenses do other things," Doughty said.
Now Doughty had to replace him? As he stood on the sidelines that first play, the Sean Taylor play, it wasn't just emotions that sailed through his mind, but the enormity of the challenge.
"It's really difficult, to be honest, to run out there knowing that you're taking over (for) someone that has legend proportions," Doughty said. "That was really tough to run out there and know I'm coming in for Sean (for the) last time."
The feel-good story would be that Doughty rose up and played like a Pro Bowler, that the Redskins put together their finest game of the season and the entire afternoon turned into a three-hour tribute to Taylor.
But things don't always work out. Not in real life, not in the NFL. As rich and famous and talented as these guys are, this wasn't any different than what "normal" workplaces deal with on occasion. People die, co-workers go on. No one is certain what the best way to remember is, no one has all the answers, no one is all that sure.
"Tomorrow we have to go down (to Florida) and lay Sean to rest," said cornerback Leigh Torrence, of a franchise trip Monday.
The Redskins, being football players, wanted to win the game for Taylor. The symbolic stuff was nice and all, but they knew what he'd want most. Into the final minute, they even led 16-14.
But by then a soft rain had begun to fall, the cold but pleasant day taking on bite. And with that, everything came undone at once. With just 10 seconds left the Bills struck on a long pass play over the middle – Taylor's old territory, Doughty's new one – about the only play that could give them hope.
"I actually stepped in front of the pass, I thought I was going to intercept it," Doughty said.
That gave the Bills a shot at a desperation 51-yarder through the rain. But then Gibbs, the legendary coach who knows almost everything about football, made a rookie mistake and called consecutive timeouts in an effort to ice the kicker. You can do it once, but not twice. That's a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, suddenly leaving Buffalo with an easy 36-yard game-winner.
"I made a decision that, in all likelihood, cost us the game," Gibbs said, shaking his head. "That's on me."
As the Bills' kick sailed through the uprights to all but assure the victory, heads sagged on the Redskins sidelines. That included the coach and the man who had stepped up to replace Sean Taylor.
On this day that began with the most perfect of memories, it was a most imperfect finish.
"They took the game from us," Doughty said.
By then the rain was coming down harder.