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Tantalizing 'What Ifs'

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 15, 2007

GREEN BAY, Wis. Football happens in a blink. You see a hole, cut back and, just as you're off-balance, at the most vulnerable point, a huge defender who outweighs you by 113 pounds, pokes the ball loose and you can't quite snatch it back. As you try to climb out of a pile of bodies and chase the play, you see the other team running your fumble back 57 yards for a score.

That's what befell the Washington Redskins' little wide receiver Santana Moss on Sunday, when 313-pound defensive tackle Corey Williams caused a bobble on a reverse and Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson scooped it up and scored to turn a 14-10 Washington lead late in the third quarter into a 17-14 defeat. "They won the game on that play," Moss said. "He made a great play, but I have to make a better play and hold on to the ball."

Football isn't fair. A high hard pass on a wet day is thrown just a bit behind you on a crucial third-down play in the red zone. As you cut, you reach back and feel the ball slither through your hands. It's "wet as all outdoors," but you think you should have grabbed it. Then you look back and see that the pass has deflected off your hands for an interception.

"I've got to make that catch, regardless," said Moss, who did not have a single reception all day.

Finally, worst of all, football preys on your mind -- especially on a dank, misty day in Lambeau Field with a Packers crowd of 70,761 screaming at you. In a flash, you realize you can atone for your near-misses, mistakes and bad luck. You break wide loose on a deep pass pattern, the kind you're famous for tracking like you have an extra sense and grabbing no matter how contorted your body. But this time, in mid-stride, you catch a leg cramp, just enough to distract you and, all alone inside your opponent's 15-yard line, the football hits you squarely in the face mask and bounces away incomplete.

That also happened to Moss, just three plays after Woodson had picked up his fumble and scored. "I fumbled and cost us a game," said Moss, his voice quivering. "And I just dropped that [expletive] ball on the long pass. I can't even imagine this. I make those plays in my sleep. I dream about those plays."

"I let the team down. I face reality. Life is like that. Be that man and come back from it," Moss said. "We're better, way better than what we did today."

As has been the case all season, the Redskins don't know exactly how good they are, but they are tormented by the belief that they have squandered a chance to be 4-1 or even undefeated. In every corner of the locker room you heard the same words -- could have, should have. "We let one get away," cornerback Shawn Springs said. "We're better than that team," said owner Dan Snyder, huddled with confidants mulling over the defeat.

Against the Giants, the Redskins had a first down at the 1-yard line and couldn't score to force overtime. And now comes this defeat on a day when Washington had more yardage (304-225) and first downs (18-13), had more time of possession (32:48-27:12) and failed to capitalize on two gifts -- missed field goals inside the 40-yard line. The big statistic, however, was the Packers' three-to-two advantage in turnovers. "If you are on the negative side of [turnovers], your chances of winning go down to 30 percent," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "You can't turn the ball over. And we let a couple of them get away from us, too."

Ironically, Sean Taylor, who has found a home playing a deep center field-style safety, intercepted two passes by Brett Favre but dropped two others right in his hands. "I can't tell you how valuable he is to us. He's unbelievable at covering ground," assistant head coach Gregg Williams said. "He probably has the best hands on our defense. He just has to come up with those."

Carlos Rogers whiffed a basic tackle and turned a short pass into a 60-yard gain, setting up Green Bay's only offensive touchdown. In the middle of the fourth quarter, Jason Campbell laid a long pass on the fingers of Brandon Lloyd near the Packers 10-yard line. The ball slipped off Lloyd's fingertips. If he had bought a winning lottery ticket, his dog would have eaten it.

"We did drop a lot of passes," said Gibbs, who also endured third-down drops by Antwaan Randle El and Mike Sellers. However, the coach isn't on a hot streak, either. With seven minutes to play, he passed up a tough 50-yard field goal attempt to tie the game to go for it on fourth and two. A completed flat pass never gained an inch and the Redskins never crossed the Green Bay 30-yard line again.

Perhaps tight end Chris Cooley saw this game most clearly. Because Green Bay's defensive backs are so strong, "We came in saying that I would be the matchup for us," said Cooley, who had nine catches for 105 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass from Campbell on a slick double move that resembled, both in formation and initial pattern, his hook-at-the-goal line scores the previous two weeks.

"There were so many times we were a yard short," Cooley said. "I had a long pass go just off my fingers. I had a third-down catch where I came up a yard-and-a-half short. And we kept losing linemen the whole game. It's tough. You don't notice what's happening. Then you see guys on the sideline. After [Stephon Heyer] got hurt, we had nobody else left to play the line. If [Todd] Wade hadn't come back in for the last play, I guess [tight end] Todd Yoder would have had to play tackle."

"I was the last guy. Dire straights," said Wade, who left the game when a pre-existing injury acted up again. "I've never seen anything like this before."

The impact is obvious. On crucial plays, the Redskins must run, roll out or fake play-action to their left, where veterans are still in one piece. "We're not running the ball to the right at all any more," Cooley said. Do opponents realize it? "Definitely."

Last season, if the Redskins had faced similar injuries and narrow defeats, their reaction might have been to disintegrate. That seems unlikely now. The defense has been consistently exceptional. Campbell's development has exceeded expectations. Until his linemen started disappearing, he was outplaying Favre. "This was probably my best game," said Campbell, who completed 21 of 37 for 217 yards despite at least 75 yards of drops. "But I'm all about winning and we came up short."

No team with a stout, malicious defense, a rising quarterback and highly paid playmakers on offense has any reason to wilt. "We have a team that will fight," Cooley said. "That's a different feeling than last year. We feel like we should be winning games, not coming close. I think we are good and need to take the next step and be a great team."

Are near-misses like this one becoming a way of life, ingrained over many years? Or are these frustrations just a necessary passage from being a dismal 5-11 team to returning to the playoff form of '05? Provided that five gentlemen, average weight at least 300 pounds, can be found to play from tackle to tackle, the latter still seems more likely.

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