By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Two hundred seventy-one consecutive times, Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell heaved a football across NFL fields, never once to have it land in the arms of an opposing player. It was an unprecedented feat in Washington Redskins history, a record built through careful decision-making, precision and a little luck.
Then, in the third quarter of the Redskins' showcase game this year, Campbell's first interception came. It arrived on a soft pass tossed high to running back Clinton Portis in which the ball bounced off Portis's hand, then landed in the arms of a Pittsburgh Steelers player named Deshea Townsend.
And when it happened, a great roar filled FedEx Field, and three levels of stands rising to the sky were filled with the twirling golden rags called Terrible Towels that have become a talisman to Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
It would be that kind of a night for the Redskins in their 23-6 loss to the Steelers: Their quarterback's prodigious streak had come to an inglorious end and their home stadium had ceased to be exclusively their home.
"Man, was that weird or what? All I saw were terrible towels in the stands," said Redskins defensive end Demetric Evans. "Even when we were on offense and it's supposed to be quiet, all you could hear was the Steelers fans cheering."
The interception and the defeat were both bound to happen. Campbell had had enough passes that were nearly intercepted that it was only a matter of time before one was. And the Redskins had struggled to survive so many games against inferior teams this fall, it would make sense that they would fall hard to a team that is considered among the toughest on their schedule.
But the migration of thousands of Steelers fans to the stadium in Landover was something of a shock.
As was the player who came to beat the Redskins on Monday night.
Fifteen years ago, Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich was another kid growing up in a red brick home at East Capitol Street and 56th Place in Southeast Washington, dreaming of someday playing for his hometown football team. On the streets every day, he and his friends played a rudimentary game of football they called "Contact."
And then, in his sixth season in the NFL, his career in tatters after the Jacksonville Jaguars and the rest of the NFL had decided he couldn't play anymore, Leftwich replaced Pittsburgh's injured star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, at halftime and sent the Steelers on two marches through the night that delivered Pittsburgh's victory.
The play that probably broke Washington the most was a 50-yard pass that Leftwich tossed high into the air and that was caught by receiver Nate Washington deep in Redskins territory. That led to a touchdown that put Pittsburgh up 16-6 in the third quarter, and from then on the game seemed out of reach.
After that play, the Redskins seemed unable to do anything. Even a Campbell touchdown in the fourth quarter that cut the lead to 23-12 was called back when replays determined that Campbell had actually been tackled on the 1-yard line. The next play, a fourth-down pass to the end zone, was knocked down. The Redskins would never come close again.
Then again, it never felt like their night. Hours before the game, as the stadium glowed a pearly white in the inky sky, mobs of Steelers fans descended upon FedEx Field, first in the hundreds, then the thousands. One woman walking to the stadium from the Metro chirped into her cellphone, "I'm on the way to the Steelers game!"
"We heard them tonight," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior.
Redskins players expressed shock at the number of Pittsburgh fans who seemed to have taken over their stadium. "They had good seats too," running back Shaun Alexander said, his eyes wide with wonder.
"It was especially surprising given what it meant," Alexander continued. "It was 'Monday Night Football.' If we had won we'd be 7-2. Do you realize that? Seven and two. Not many people in this room have been 7-2 before."
Washington even came onto the field in special all burgundy uniforms. But instead of the surprised rumble from the crowd that such a move usually produces, the Redskins players' arrival on their home field was met with boos from the Steelers fans who had poured in as soon as the gates opened.
By the end the game, it really felt like a Pittsburgh home game. The Redskins fans had retreated to the parking lot, leaving only those in the Steelers black and gold jerseys who taunted the departing Washington contingent, waggling their terrible towels into the mild November night.
So pitiful were the last minutes of this night that it's hard to remember that the Redskins actually led this game. In fact, they appeared to control it for the first quarter as two Steelers mistakes -- a botched onside kickoff and an interception -- gave Washington the ball deep inside Pittsburgh territory. But even with those gifts, the Redskins were unable to fully capitalize. Twice they kicked field goals to build a 6-0 lead.
Nevertheless, it felt like a tentative lead, especially as the Pittsburgh roar echoed through the stands. And when Roethlisberger dove into the end zone for a touchdown just before halftime to give the Steelers a 10-6 lead, there was a sense the night had fallen away from Washington. When the second half started, Roethlisberger was on the bench, his right shoulder reportedly injured. Leftwich appeared and soon everything was over for the Redskins.
Then, when the game was finished, the chants of the Steelers fans reverberated over the empty stadium.
"Here we go Steelers, here we go!"
Into the night.