MINNEAPOLIS — Fourth and the game. Fourth and maybe the season. Fade to the left corner for Santana Moss, a pass that Robert Griffin III threw almost perfectly and Moss somehow held onto — until the replay showed his feet out of bounds.
Out of time. Out of options, soon, for fixing this broken football team.
They didn’t just fall apart the final 20 minutes and lose a game they had no business losing; Griffin and this roster of massive underachievers became that team where the quarterback has to do it all.
And when he has to do it all, he is going to come that much closer to getting seriously hurt again.
That’s not an awful premonition. That is a real worry that must be addressed going forward if this season is indeed lost and Griffin is at the mercy of a roster that can’t protect him and a defense that knows it has to hit him hard and often to have a shot at winning.
The margin of error is officially too slim for the kid. The defense is too unreliable. The discipline to not be baited into the kind of stupid unsportsmanlike penalties committed by Perry Riley Jr. and Darrel Young just isn’t there.
Worse, the offensive line is letting the kid get hit again. And again. Four sacks in all, numerous more hits and hurries and hurt.
The play-calling near the goal line, for a team with Alfred Morris in the backfield, vacillates between questionable and downright depressing.
It all has bad omen written all over it.
You can protect Griffin from a lot of things. But you can’t protect him from his desire to win. You can’t stop the RGIII-against-the-world hyper-competitiveness that consumes Washington’s quarterback when his teammates have not done enough to help.
A devastating second-half collapse against a one-win team to fall to 3-6 for the second straight year was merely the wound seen in plain view.
Griffin can’t say this, but he doesn’t want to run blind bootlegs and become tethered to a read-option playbook. Because he knows every official in the NFL gives drop-back guys the benefit of the doubt when they are maliciously hit while dual-threat QBs are viewed as sitting ducks who officiating crews rationalize might run anyway.
When Jared Allen drilled him the second play of the game, when he heard the chirping about hitting and hurting him from yet another defense, he steeled himself for another painful night.
Opposing defenses don’t exactly put a bounty on him, but like the old, kill-the-quarterback NFL, the logic becomes ‘get to Robert and put a hurt on him, get the win.’
Again, he can’t say this. But either by play-calling or roster upgrades, that has to change for this team to ever be a perennial contender.
His health is worth more than just a few more wins this season to make what is becoming a lost year respectable, record-wise, for Mike Shanahan.
The larger truth about Shanahan’s deeply flawed roster is that his key to genuinely pointing this franchise in the right direction — heck, his key to Canton — is dangerously close to trying to do everything by himself because Griffin feels he has to.
And if he gets himself in another situation in which the price of victory equals catastrophe, the head coach and the offensive coordinator are not going be around the next time he heals from injury.
You can look at all the second-half miscues and defensive breakdowns and offensive line brain lock as possible.
But this whole RGIII-or-bust pattern began way earlier in the first half.
Griffin delivered a beautiful strike to Jordan Reed, cutting across the middle on a third and goal from the 11-yard line, diving into the end zone to score a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
Off his back foot, under extreme duress, Griffin was back to bailing out the defense again after a two-week reprieve of having to do almost everything right himself to ensure Washington stayed in the game and in the hunt for .500 and beyond.
Even against the miserable Minnesota Vikings, 1-7 coming in, the margin of error is still so slim for a second-year quarterback coming back from major knee reconstruction.
He hit the deck early and often.
As Adrian Peterson, James Andrews’s other most prominent NFL patient, knows so well: it’s almost impossible to be a decent team, let alone special, if a team’s best player does not have the help he needs to win in November and December.
If they somehow pulled this out, Shanahan is on borrowed time if his team cannot have Griffin’s back more often.
It’s bad enough Washington essentially wasted a monumental win over the Chargers last week in overtime by failing to parlay it into victory over a very bad defensive team like the Vikings.
It’s worse that this coaching staff has so little confidence now in its special teams that they pooch kickoffs to avoid good return men. It’s worse that this defense did not find a way to give up less than 34 points to a one-win team coming in.
It’s inexplicable that Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris were not more involved in some of the most crucial plays near the goal line at the end of this maddening loss. It’s a defeat that could be very well be season-defining.
All that is commendably bad.
But worse, they keep putting the face of the franchise in harm’s way because Griffin has no idea how to keep himself out of it once none of his teammates and coaches do their jobs.
Again, they didn’t just blow a game they badly needed; this 3-6 band of brotherly disappointment let the quarterback go down too often for anyone to feel good about the future.