Another Nightmare Ending

Despite not having a first down in the second half, Tampa Bay could celebrate a victory over Jason Campbell (17), Chris Samuels and the Redskins.
Despite not having a first down in the second half, Tampa Bay could celebrate a victory over Jason Campbell (17), Chris Samuels and the Redskins. "That's three heartbreaks three weeks in a row," Coach Joe Gibbs said. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 26, 2007

TAMPA When the Washington Redskins tell bedtime stories to their children, the bears eat Goldilocks, Jack never escapes down the beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood gets intercepted in the end zone. With these guys, there's never a happy ending. They just can't finish a good story.

Twice in the last four minutes Sunday, the Redskins were working on a fairytale ending, one that might reverse the ugly story of their season full of find-a-way-to-lose defeats. Twice, Jason Campbell threw toward Santana Moss in the northeast end of Raymond James Stadium where the pirate ship with the huge skull on its prow is perched beyond the goal posts. Twice, Buccaneers jumped the pass routes, made almost simple interceptions and left Washington with more recurrent nightmares of a season that, after this utterly unnecessary 19-13 loss, is unlikely to extend into January. Cue Captain Hook: Almost time to snuff Peter and Tinker Bell.

Once again, the Redskins' locker room was filled with more disbelief than disappointment on Sunday afternoon. A season that might have been a pot-of-gold trip to the playoffs, after the ignominy of last year's 5-11 disaster, is inexorably slipping away as one winnable game after another gets botched -- perhaps none as badly as this one.

"You hate to see a season go to waste because we couldn't finish," said linebacker London Fletcher, stunned that any team, much less his, could lose a game in which it didn't give up a first down in the second half. "But, so far, that's been the case."

Some teams know how to win. It's a gift, an intangible -- the football equivalent of the right stuff. Franchises search for players and coaches who have this quality, even though it can't be defined. Other teams, like these Redskins, know how to lose, as this third straight defeat illustrated. It's a curse, a mystery and a perverse weekly revelation to see how they'll do it again.

This time, the Redskins truly topped themselves. After their defense knocked out the Buccaneers' starting quarterback, Jeff Garcia, on the first series of the game, Garcia's replacement, Bruce Gradkowski, who now has beaten Joe Gibbs's team two years in a row, looked bewildered all afternoon. On every possession of the second half, the Buccaneers went three-and-out.

Meanwhile, the Redskins had 316 net yards after intermission alone. The offense marched up and down the field, sometimes without apparent resistance as Jason Campbell completed 32 passes to six receivers while Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts combined for 115 yards rushing during the day. With dominance on both sides of the ball, and no snafus by special teams, Washington should have been able to name the score in this game. In the second half, Washington ran 55 plays to the Buccaneers' 13, a disparity that should've left Tampa Bay's defense too exhausted to cope. Yet the Redskins lost in perhaps the only possible way. How?

By committing six turnovers while getting no takeaways themselves.

Pause to ponder the double-edged magnitude of such a feat. Washington arrived here as a road underdog, then lost four fumbles in the first half as well as Campbell's two late interceptions. That six-turnover deficit is the kind of NFL blunt-force trauma that normally leads an average team to a 30- or 40-point defeat. Yet Washington almost won. Perhaps that proves how hard they fight, as they claim. But it also shows how much ability they must be managing to disguise.

"This was a real, real big, big game for us. . . . We had a lot of fight in us. . . . But the first half was such a mess. . . . You can't turn the ball over like that against a real good team and expect to win," said Gibbs, whose team must now win at least four of its last five games, and perhaps all five, to have a plausible chance to make the playoffs. "If you are on the short end of the turnovers [by one], your chances of winning go down by 25 percent. And it just gets worse from there."

Gibbs himself made matters worse by shredding the standard coaching "book" and going for fourth-and-inches in the third quarter when the Redskins trailed by nine points. Conventional wisdom: you need two scores. Lots of time left. Take the field goal. Some decisions are justified by their logic. Others, like this one, are hunches or bets on the importance of momentum. They're only correct if they work. A Portis plunge was anticipated and crushed behind the line.

If the Redskins had, instead, taken the chip-shot field goal, those three extra points would have put Washington in position to force overtime when they reached the Tampa Bay 16-yard line with 25 seconds to play, rather than gamble on a final end-zone pass to Moss. Note, however, that when Gibbs went for fourth-and-short two other times in the second half, the team made both attempts.

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