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Another Nightmare Ending

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.

"That's three heartbreaks three weeks in a row," conceded Gibbs. "It takes a toll on a team."

Week after week, victory is just one fine play, or one less mistake, from the Redskins' grasp. To make the disappointment even worse, all around the NFC, almost every opponent that Washington wishes would lose seems to oblige them. On Sunday, the Giants were stomped at home by the mundane Vikings and Arizona spit the bit with overtime blunders to lose to the crummy 49ers. If the Redskins had won here, coupled with those defeats, many would have seen Washington as a sensible wild-card pick.

"So much potential and you keep coming up short," said Moss.

The most potential belongs to Campbell. A week ago in Dallas, his improvisational pass while scrambling was intercepted in the last two minutes to kill a potential winning drive. This time, he made two inexperienced mistakes. First, with 3:40 to play, cornerback Ronde Barber suckered the youngster with a veteran con job. "It was a [quick sideline] route [to Moss] we had been hitting all day," said Campbell. Of course, Barber knew it and, since the Buccaneers had led the whole game, could afford to wait until the game was on the line to gamble. Barber was yards inside Moss, but Campbell threw anyway, before looking.

On the final interception, Campbell said, "I should have gotten more air under it, thrown it to the back of the end zone so Santana could get it, but nobody else." He short-armed the pass, perhaps the first of his late-game failures that may've been nerves.

Even so, Campbell's teammates love what they see. "Jason's a gamer. He took some shots and came back," said Keenan McCardell, who caught six passes.

Far from losing confidence in Campbell, Gibbs seems to be gaining it. "He's playing his rear off," said the coach. "We have a real talented guy there."

With Campbell, this is one of those stand-up-and-be-counted moments. For a team that, for many years, has had enormous payrolls, flashy names and tons of galling close losses, is Campbell part of a continuing problem or a solution -- beyond the horizon? The feeling here, even on days like this, is that he's clearly the first franchise quarterback in town in many years.

"I'm getting worn down a little bit. But my mental state of mind is still there. We'll fight to the end," said Campbell.

Is the next part of his development learning to make exactly the kind of red-zone plays that he's mangled the last two weeks?

"Yeah, that's probably the next step," said Campbell.

Wait till next year?

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