Time to Get a Grip

Josh Brown drills a 49-yard field goal as time expires Sunday to lead the Rams to a stunning 19-17 upset of the Redskins.
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 13, 2008

In the NFL, it doesn't matter what the question is, the answer is almost always the same: turnovers. The team that has more of 'em wins more than 80 percent of the time. No other factor matters nearly as much. 'Twas ever thus.

Pro football might be a far fairer but much less entertaining sport if fumbles and interceptions didn't matter so much. But they do. And a combination of violence and luck are what causes them. Since every team is plenty big and mean, the law of averages obtains. When it comes to turnovers, you can run, but you can't hide. Not all season.

Turnovers caught the Redskins yesterday. In the first half, the team announced that it had set an NFL record: the first team to open its season with five games without a single offensive turnover. Go on, say it: "Uh-oh."

Everybody knew it couldn't last. But did it have to end at home against one of the worst teams in the NFL? Here's the bad news: The Redskins lost, 19-17, on a field goal at the gun because they lost three fumbles, thus ruining scoring opportunities of their own and, in one case, letting the Rams return a fumble 75 yards untouched for a score.

Here's the worse news: Over every relevant time period, including the glory years of Gibbs I, the Redskins are a typical NFL team that suffers about 30 turnovers a year. Sometimes it's closer to 20 or 40. But it's always plenty. After six games, the Redskins have only four turnovers. So, more exasperating days like this one are almost certainly coming. It's not just the law of averages; it's the immutable law of the NFL, where vio lence begets chaos which breeds fumbles and interceptions.

It's how you cope that counts.

Against St. Louis, the Redskins actually coped quite well, coming from behind to take a 16-14 lead with 4 minutes 31 seconds to play. Few teams with a minus-2 turnover differential come so close. But not close enough.

How can the same team beat the Cowboys in Dallas and the Eagles in Philadelphia, back-to-back, then knock the Rams around for a 368-to-200 advantage in yardage, and a huge 181-76 disparity in rushing yards, yet lose? Simple. Be a good team, with enough chemistry and toughness to close out winnable games against tough foes, but not a great team that beats the NFL's nemesis No. 1 -- the turnover.

"We win the takeaway battle, we win the game. We lose the takeaway battle, we lose the game," said linebacker London Fletcher, adding, "I dropped one" of a potential interception right into his arms. So did LaRon Landry.

"We aren't good enough to overcome turnovers, penalties and blowing [our] scoring drives," said Portis, who ran for 129 yards on 21 carries with two scores. In a self-critical mood, Portis added, "The headlines got good. We were saying, 'Yeah, we're here. We've got three games [in a row] we can win. And we overlooked a team today that came in here ready to play."

In the NFL, where the weekly pain is so harsh and constant, it's probably easier to flagellate yourself for not being quite motivated enough than it is to face a more likely, but unpleasant truth: You can batter your brains for three hours and give a respectable account of yourselves -- as the Redskins did -- but lose to a crummy team anyway because of stupid turnovers. Especially the fluky haunting kind, like the fumble by guard Pete Kendall that transformed this game.

As central as turnovers are, there is also no stat that is so uncontrollable, so apparently random, so infuriating. The team that hits harder usually has a turnover edge. But, seriously, in the NFL, where everybody is a monster, how much harder does one team hit than another? Not much. So, sometimes, the game simply picks a victim, like Kendall.

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