By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007
TAMPA In the frenzy of a final, desperate chance, Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell never saw Brian Kelly on Sunday afternoon. At least not until he let go of his last pass, which turned out to be the exact instant Kelly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cornerback, jumped into view.
And in a blur everything seemed to happen at once.
Kelly leaped and intercepted the pass. Some 65,596 pairs of arms thrust euphorically into the air at Raymond James Stadium. And once again the Redskins had lost a game they were on the verge of perhaps winning, this time, 19-13. Washington Coach Joe Gibbs brusquely shook the hand of Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden. The Redskins players pulled off their helmets and shuffled slowly toward the locker room, losers of three games in a row.
Nearly an hour later Campbell tried to explain the failed comeback, lamenting the Kelly interception that would have been the game-winning touchdown.
"That one I wish I could have back," he said.
Then he added: "We just have to not turn the ball over as a team. It makes it tough when you have six turnovers."
So many things collaborated against the Redskins, now 5-6 and fading from the playoff picture, to put them in a position where they had to make that mad run at a touchdown with seconds to go. There were the turnovers, which for a while came every time Washington had the ball in the first half. Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss had the ball wrestled from his hands on the team's first offensive play. His teammate, running back Clinton Portis, saw the ball stripped from his arms on the Redskins' next possession. Early in the second quarter, Tampa Bay's Greg White knocked the ball out of Campbell's hands as the quarterback was about to throw. Then two minutes later, Portis fumbled again.
In all, the Redskins lost the ball on four of their first five possessions -- every one of them inside their 35-yard line. Normally this would be death to a football team, essentially inviting the opponent to take the game away. But the Redskins were fortunate that Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia left the game three plays in with a back injury, forcing his less-capable backup Bruce Gradkowski to find a way to score. Gradkowski turned the opportunity into 19 points (a touchdown and three field goals) yet far less than the more desirable 28 (four touchdowns) that would have put the game out of reach.
Thus the Redskins, who did everything to give this game away, were left to chase an opportunity that perpetually dangled just out of reach.
Mostly their futility came in missed chances. In addition to the four first-half fumbles, there was the questionable decision Gibbs made late in the third quarter to go for a first down on a fourth and one on the Tampa Bay 4-yard line rather than kick the almost certain field goal. Portis was stopped short of the first down. Instead of kicking the field goal that would have cut the Buccaneers' lead to 19-13, meaning a later field goal would have put the Redskins within three points of tying the game late, Campbell was forced to try to find a way to get a touchdown in those final moments.
The Buccaneers were waiting and twice in the last 3 minutes 40 seconds they intercepted the young quarterback's urgent, hurried throws.
Later, Gibbs would call the decision to go for the fourth down "the smart call."
"It was inches, I felt like," he said. "And it was our best shot right there. I thought, 'Hey, if we get that then we have a chance to score right there,' and I felt like we could get it."
Yet the Redskins probably could have survived the blown chance to score near the goal line if only they had been able to hold onto the ball. In the locker room Portis and Moss were at a loss to explain how they had the ball plucked from their arms.
"They made plays," Portis lamented. "We go over the strip drill and, right place, right time and they made plays and recovered the ball every time it hit the ground."
Added Moss, "Maybe if we didn't put ourselves in a hole early we wouldn't always have to always be fighting later."
Tampa Bay is known for its aggressive defense. Knocking the ball from the hands of running backs and receivers is something it has done well in the tenure of its defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin. Somehow, though, the Buccaneers felt they had lost some of that fury. They wanted it back and came out determined to knock the ball from the hands of Redskins players, several Buccaneers said.
Then there was motivation of Tampa Bay's White, who spent some time on Washington's practice squad in 2004 and still is perturbed that the team's defensive coordinator, Greg Blache, cut him later that year. In the days leading up to Sunday's game, he imagined himself giving Blache an on-field reminder of just what he missed. The end result was two forced fumbles, a sack and four tackles.
"It wasn't anything personal," he said, then paused before laughing. "Okay, a little personal."
"We had a little setback in D.C.," he continued. "I don't know if I didn't fit their defense that year."
Chances are the Redskins could have used White this year. If nothing else they could have used him being anywhere but in a Buccaneers uniform on Sunday afternoon. Not that there was much Campbell could do about it. He stood in a gray suit in the hallway of the same stadium where a year ago he made his first NFL start and talked of regret for mistakes made in another close defeat.
"I wish I had a couple passes back," he said then, sounding very much as he did on Sunday.