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They're Sinking In Shallow Water

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 1, 2008

Playoffs? What playoffs? The Washington Redskins, so hot two months ago, can't remember to rush an extra point.

After a stinker of a 23-7 loss to the Super Bowl champion Giants yesterday at FedEx Field, one in which rookie coach Jim Zorn spent much of the day fuming at his discombobulated team on the sideline, the Redskins find themselves in dire need not merely of a win, but of a winning streak if they are to keep their season alive in January.

Partly their plight is their own fault for losing four of their last seven games, as the league has exposed the grievous weakness of their offense, especially their lack of any deep-threat receiver except Santana Moss. In the NFC, only two teams have scored fewer points than the Redskins' paltry 208, which is just five more than the 0-12 Lions.

Partly, however, their playoff misery is just dumb luck. In some seasons, like last year, a 9-7 record lets you play in January. In others, like this year, a 7-5 mark with four weeks left makes you an underdog, almost a long shot.

Yesterday, as the Giants, in Jason Campbell's words, "dominated" the Redskins in all three phases of the game, all the wrong teams -- from Washington's perspective -- were winning in other cities.

Tampa Bay and Carolina pulled out games in which they trailed, tackle Chris Samuels was told soon after the game. "Oh, we know. It's not good for us," he said grimly. "They're both 9-3. One's going to win the South division, the other one will probably be a wild card."

If so, that would leave the Redskins behind Dallas and Atlanta (8-4) for the second NFC wild card. The complex conference is an even tougher maze than that, since the Eagles (6-5-1) may be on the Redskins' heels, too, when they come here in three weeks. Teams with worse records than Washington may win the NFC North and West divisions, but make the playoffs automatically.

"We have made it very interesting for ourselves, where there is not a lot of margin of error left for us," said London Fletcher, whose defense, which had allowed only 249 yards a game in its previous seven outings, was shredded by Eli Manning for 404 yards. "We've got a tough ballgame coming up with the Ravens. Each week it gets harder when you don't win. We've got a tough row to hoe."

If one play can capture the faltering concentration and infuriating failure of execution that has bedeviled the Redskins for their last seven games, it came just five minutes into this game after the Giants struck for a 40-yard touchdown bomb from Manning to Amani Toomer.

On the extra point, all 11 Redskins fell asleep. After an initial perfunctory rush, they simply stopped playing and stood like indifferent statues. No one noticed that Giants holder Jeff Feagles had dropped the ball and that place kicker John Carney had stopped in mid-kicking motion. When no one rushed, Feagles eventually put the ball down, Carney flicked at it, like a golfer hitting a chip shot, and blooped the ball barely over the goal post 20 yards away.

Zorn went nuts. As he should have. How can you play an arch rival that happens to be the Super Bowl champion in a home game you desperately need to win, yet go into a collective coma after just five minutes?

"I was very upset with that first extra point. How can you let the holder drop the ball, look around, reset it and still kick it?" said Zorn. "Very upsetting, shouldn't have happened. . . . The first half was like that. Poor execution.

"I just started whining at everything, believe me. I was on everybody. I was even on myself. . . . Today I wasn't cracking it light on anybody."

Just two months ago, the Redskins were beaming with a 4-1 record, wins on the road over Dallas and Philadelphia and an NFL record for committing only one turnover in their first five games. Then they made the mistake of acting human -- making a normal number of errors. Since then, the Redskins have had 11 turnovers, including two against the Giants, in seven weeks. Not bad. Below the NFL average. But for a team with an offense as lacking in big-play potency as the Redskins, near-perfection is necessary.

"There is still hope for us to get some wins here and get into the playoffs. It's almost like we have to win out. Or at least win three out of four," said Campbell, who was held without a touchdown pass on 23 of 38 completions for 232 yards, 59 of them irrelevant against a prevent defense in the closing minutes.

"Who's to say our season can't take off like the Giants' did last year? The light bulb just turned on for them," said Campbell. "Who's to say that can't happen to us?"

In theory it could, but in reality it probably won't. The reason, which now bedevils Zorn as it tormented Joe Gibbs, is that the Redskins, except for Moss and tight end Chris Cooley, have an extremely weak group of receivers.

Antwaan Randle El might be a positive as a third wide receiver, but as a No. 2 wideout he poses little danger to defenses. He's a dink-and-dunk guy. Veteran James Thrash scares nobody. As for the three receivers on whom the Redskins spent valuable second-round draft picks this season, someday Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly and tight end Fred Davis may develop. But so far, all three look like busts. Blame injuries, lack of work in training camp or whatever you like, the three have 15 catches for 101 yards.

Thomas had his season highlight with a 29-yard touchdown run on a reverse. But the rookie who was supposed to complement Moss didn't catch a pass. Kelly, who has seldom been healthy enough to get on the field, had a clean chance at a long pass but, as Zorn said, "Bless his heart, it hit him in the chest" and fell to the ground.

As Zorn noted, both Thomas and Kelly must still learn how to "adjust to game speed," rather than the relative sanity of practice. "It's what you want those guys to learn in preseason," he added, "not in a critical game in-season."

In a season of astronomical NFC scoring, especially with three and four wide-receiver formations, the Redskins often seem to be playing with only 10 men, especially in third-and-long situations where other teams flood the field with fine wideouts. Within the NFC East, the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles average 323 points this season, 115 more than the Redskins. That's a huge handicap to overcome.

Meanwhile, the Redskins look at other receivers, all taken in the second round, who are flourishing, including wideouts Donnie Avery (Rams), Eddie Royal (Broncos) and DeSean Jackson (Eagles) as well as tight ends John Carlson (Seahawks) and Martellus Bennett (Cowboys). Three of them have scored against the Redskins.

"We are good at short plays and intermediate plays but we haven't had the big plays that can separate a game," Campbell said. "We just have to come up with that."

Despite Clinton Portis's excellence and Cooley's versatility, the Redskins have no quick-strike players except Moss. Double-team him and the options dwindle. In their seven-game slump, they've averaged only 14.1 points. The Steelers' and Giants' defenses both bottled up Portis (who had 22 yards on 11 carries against New York) and made the Redskins' attack, which hasn't cracked 30 points all season, look hopeless. Next up, Ray Lewis and the Ravens in Bal'mer.

"We're not out of the playoffs. Back two weeks ago, everybody was crucifying the Cowboys. Now the Cowboys are America's greatest team again," Portis said. "I think we're in that same situation."

Who's to say that playoff light bulb can't still turn on? But right now, if you look candidly at the Redskins of the last seven weeks, getting dominated by elite teams and struggling to beat even weak ones, it's getting pretty dim.

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