By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008
As the winning kick wobbled through the goal posts and time expired, Jim Zorn did not move. All around the Redskins' coach, his players had left, beginning their slow disheartening march to the locker room. But Zorn stood still, his head craned to the right, staring at the scoreboard that looms over FedEx Field almost like he wished the final three points would not appear, as if some kind of magic would keep this 19-17 loss to the St. Louis Rams from being a reality.
Later he would laugh and say he was hoping the scoreboard clock would say there was one more second, a glimmer of a chance that maybe Washington could come up with something and still beat a team that had not won a game all year.
The clock read 0.00.
No miracles left.
Only when Zorn understood this did he pull off his coach's headset and walk away alone, his hair disheveled, his face still perplexed, perhaps trying to grasp how his Redskins could beat two of the NFL's best teams -- the Cowboys and Eagles on the road -- and yet lose to a team in such disarray it had fired its coach only two weeks before.
In postgame interviews, the litany of mistakes stretched so far Zorn couldn't remember them all.
There was the pass knocked into the air that landed into the arms of his guard Pete Kendall, a 6-foot-6, 286-pound man who at 35 years old had never found the ball in his arms while standing upright in a professional football game. Inexplicably, for reasons still unknown to Kendall himself, he decided to run with the ball. This led to it immediately being jarred from his grasp by the Rams' Pisa Tinoisamoa, allowing it to roll into the hands of St. Louis's Oshiomogho Atogwe, who ran 75 yards the other way for a touchdown that put the Rams ahead 10-7 at halftime.
"My instinct was -- believe it or not -- to knock [the pass] down and why I didn't?" Kendall said, letting the question hang in the air for a moment before adding, "It will bother me for a long time."
There were the botched punts by the Redskins' rookie punter, Durant Brooks, the last of which traveled just 26 yards and left the Rams in easy position to kick a field goal that put them ahead 16-7 at the end of the third quarter.
"Something is not right," Brooks said, stating the obvious.
There were the gaps in the Washington offensive line that led to Rams defenders barreling in untouched, knocking quarterback Jason Campbell to the ground. There were as well three lost fumbles that came after the offense set an NFL record by not turning over the ball once in the season's initial five weeks.
So many other little things, like a kickoff that rolled out of bounds, two dropped interceptions, even an inadvertent stumble by the Redskins' Kareem Moore that tripped kick returner Antwaan Randle El when it looked as if he was about to break into the open for a big punt return.
All of this led to running back Clinton Portis to declare, "We dug ourselves into a hole."
And yet with all of that, the Redskins had a chance to win the game. In fact they were winning for most of the game's final 3 minutes 53 seconds after two frantic fourth-quarter drives brought 10 points, giving them a 17-16 lead and leaving the final verdict to the defense. But when Rams quarterback Marc Bulger threw a pass deep down the right sideline that was caught by a diving wide receiver Donnie Avery at the Redskins 16, Washington's fate was all but sealed. Thirty-five seconds remained. All that was left was the running out of the clock and the final kicking of the winning field goal.
Still Zorn found hope. One of the team's training assistants, standing near the sideline, started waving his arms saying Avery had dropped the pass. Several of the Redskins' coaches agreed. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray shouted "he didn't catch the ball." Zorn himself later said he was certain he saw the ball slip from the receiver's hands as he rolled on the grass.
Zorn fumbled for the red coach's challenge flag he keeps attached to his belt, desperately trying to throw it before the Rams ran another play. Then he remembered he didn't have the flag. Reviews in the game's last two minutes can only be requested by the referees. Zorn threw his hands over his head calling a timeout. Eventually the officials agreed to look at the replay only to inform Zorn that Avery had indeed made the catch.
A last-second penalty on Rams offensive lineman Richie Incognito that pushed the ball back to the 32-yard line made the field goal by St. Louis's Josh Brown a little longer but would do nothing to save the Redskins. Zorn seemed to know this. He had been a coach with the Seattle Seahawks for the years when Brown had been that team's kicker. He knew Brown almost never missed field goals such as these. Yet even when the kick went through the goal posts and into the net in front of the stands, Zorn looked desperately for any last-second hope.
He found none.
"I don't know if anybody could overcome the things we did today and still win," Kendall said. "And we almost won."
Such was the realization that haunted Zorn as he stood at a lectern in the interview room, trying to find a way to explain why he chose not to berate his players after the game. He instead tried to compare the defeat to a teenager who had borrowed the family car only to return it with a scratch and had to listen to his parents scream, "YOU SCRATCHED THE CAR!"
"Okay, now we're past that, what do we do?" Zorn asked, his team's beautiful start to the season blemished with a loss to the lowly Rams.
It suddenly seemed to be a very appropriate question.