When all you want is dignity, just a bit of your professional pride left at the end of the bruising, does that sound like too much to ask? When you risk concussions or torn limbs, when every play sounds, up close, like a small car accident, you ought to be left with something more than blooper reel misplays, the ugliest punt snap in football history, dropped passes, one last fumble ripped away and blunders by the officials and even the guys holding the down markers.
But fair, at least in the sense of merciful, is not how it’s going to be for the Washington Redskins this season. This year is going to be about humiliation, expectations shredded and the best intentions torn to pieces and thrown in your face to see how you’ll react. Six days after they were “embarrassed” in a Monday night game by San Francisco, the Redskins embarrassed themselves on Sunday night, losing 24-17 to the mundane New York Giants. For almost three quarters, they resembled a normal football team. Then, leading 17-14 with 1 minute 5 seconds left in the period, the play that ought to be this season’s ugly emblem rose up to make the Redskins a national chucklefest once again, the providers of an internet laugh-loop that you replay until you cry. Tears of laughter, tears of rage; take your pick.
We can discuss, at our leisure, whether center Kyle Nelson’s hideous snap bounced and dribbled, plopped and piddled, four, five, six or 300 times before it finally reached amazed punter Sav Rocca. We can marvel that Rocca, faced with a worm-burner, could mix sports, field the grounder and still boot the ball side-saddle, like an old-time quick-kicker for an actual 18-yard punt.
We can while away the winter, all those weeks in January and February when the Redskins won’t be playing any football, wondering why Nelson was also called for holding on the play. Perhaps he just wanted to preoccupy one person in FedEx Field from watching that horrible ball bouncing — a snap like no other that he, or perhaps anyone, had ever seen in professional football. What more harm could a 10-yard penalty do, balanced against all the national-TV misery and mockery befalling Washington?
What’s beyond debate is that it’s a play — in its harsh humor, its almost malicious edge — that captures how a team that went 10-6 one season can now be 3-9 and can’t honestly be sure if it will win again this season.
The New York Football Giants, once they stopped their New York Football Laughter, accepted the short punt, and the penalty, then drove 46 yards in 88 seconds to take a 21-17 fourth-quarter lead in this NFC East Pride or Putrid Bowl.
“No, no, no,” said Nelson, when asked whether he had ever perpetrated or seen a snap like that. “It was a shock to me, too.” If everyone were as accountable for everything as Nelson was for that goofy snap, on which he essentially double-hitched, thinking he heard something that wasn’t there, it’d be quite a nice world within minutes.
“It was a missed communication,” he said repeatedly, a non-explanation that can be forgiven. “If I hear something, then stop [the snap motion], just take the penalty,” he said.
And the hold? “With that snap, I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure they don’t get the [loose] ball,” said Nelson, who grabbed the nearest Giant and held on. “Rocca kind of saved me [by getting the punt away].”
The football furies weren’t finished. As the Redskins tried to mount one last game-tying drive with three minutes left, Logan Paulsen dropped a pass, then Pierre Garcon dropped a pass and finally seldom-seen Fred Davis took his turn, flubbing what might have been a long gain inside the Giants 30-yard line.
Perhaps the Washington follies infected the officials who managed to bollix the down-and-distance markers in those final minutes. That would be a novel in itself — except that this was a game between 3-9 and 5-7 teams, so how outraged can you be?
Washington still had one final play that, in its humiliating 2013-Redskin-ness, left little doubt who deserved to escape this game with a humble victory. On fourth and one, Garcon caught a short pass for a first down, then had the ball ripped, torn and stolen from him by the Giants’ Will Hill with just more than a minute to play. Give up the lunch-money time. Fumble, bumble, stumble — that’s the Washington way this season.
“He took it,” Garcon said.
In football, when a season goes wrong, everyone agrees to say that they are playing for pride. What they are really playing for, however, is far more important: the future.
Last week, the Redskins lost to a 49ers team they should not be expected to beat. But on Sunday, they played a team of their own ilk — the staggering (5-7) Giants, another team determined not to let the poisons emitted by a bad season infect future years, too.
Just because a game is nearly meaningless in the standings does not prevent it from being entertaining and, yes, meaningful in other fairly important ways. The Giants, for example, now have the option to think of themselves as a team that has won five of its past six games.
Washington, except for the mortifying method of their loss, might have several sources of residual dignity. Robert Griffin III, under the kind of pass-rush pressure that the Giants have not mustered against any other team, but which is unavoidable against the Redskins’ line, completed 24 of 32 passes for a modest 207 yards, but with a touchdown and no interceptions. He also sacrificed his body to run 12 times for 88 yards. Eight receivers caught passes, a sign that the team’s play-calling may be getting less predictable. Okay, there isn’t much else.
Because of that snap and all those last-drive drops — twin reminders of awful special teams and a knack for the wrong play at the wrong time — this game shifted from modest progress to one more chance to let to let the nation have a free bedtime belly laugh.
“We don’t want to play for pride,” Coach Mike Shanahan said, “but that’s the card that’s dealt. We’ll see how guys step up.”
The Redskins have regressed from NFC East champ to a team that couldn’t win the easiest game left on its schedule. It will be a challenge to “lose out.” The Falcons are terrible and the Redskins visit New York for a rematch with the Giants, both winnable games. But Washington will be underdogs in both. So, 3-13 is now on the table, a record that would give Shanahan exactly the same winning percentage as Washington coach — an abysmal .375 — as Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn.
When Washington raced to an early 14-0 lead, it seemed that the bus with the real Redskins, at least the ’13 version, had gotten lost in traffic. But, all too soon, the bus arrived. And the Redskins threw themselves under it.
Night’s like Monday and Sunday of this one grotesquely memorable week could make you sad. Or they could make you mad. But when the final game of this circus season finally arrives, mostly, you’ll just be glad.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.