By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008
CINCINNATI, Dec. 14 -- Santana Moss's 10-yard touchdown catch shortly before halftime was one of the few bright spots for the Washington Redskins in their humbling 20-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. His score removed the zero next to Washington's name on the scoreboard, ended a five-game skid during which he hadn't reached the end zone and seemed to breathe life into a listless sideline.
But as with so many other plays on Sunday, what seemed like a jolt of positive news was tempered by the sight of yellow fabric fluttering to the ground. In this case, it was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Moss, who shined his cleats with a towel while still in the end zone and was whistled for using a prop to celebrate.
The resulting kickoff went out of bounds, drawing another burst of yellow, and with the Bengals now starting in Washington territory, any thought of momentum was gone.
So it went. A 31-yard Moss punt return was reduced significantly on an illegal block against Chris Wilson. A 52-yard Ryan Plackemeier punt was wiped out on a holding call against Mike Green. A manageable third and four turned into a third and long after a Jason Fabini false start. A 26-yard Antwaan Randle El punt return was erased on a holding call against Wilson.
The penalties "devastated us on the special teams," Coach Jim Zorn said. "Then you're backed up, and to get backed up when you're behind -- it's not desperation. We weren't desperate. But the odds are we're going to have to go a long way. Now, we're all up for the challenge of going a long field, but you get sort of rocked back, you get sort of ticked off a bit when you lost all the momentum on that drive. I don't know if it took the wind out of us, but we were not successful after we lost 40 yards on a penalty."
The team was whistled nine times -- the most this season. The Redskins were penalized 75 yards, second-most this season, although penalties also wiped out many more yards in returns. Players offered a variety of explanations for the miscues in a game that probably would determine their playoff fortunes. Moss, for example, seemed unaware his towel would be considered a prop, and thus would mandate the 15-yard penalty, but said several times he wasn't torn up about the call.
"I didn't really care," he said. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I cared that I didn't know it was gonna be a penalty. But we needed a spark, and a touchdown was everything for us at that moment. When I found that it was a penalty I told Coach Zorn that, 'Hey, I didn't mean to put us in that situation. I didn't know that it was gonna hurt, but I should have known better.' We're in someone else's house, they're looking for anything. So therefore I've got to be better with that, know the rules a little better, but other than that that really is nothing. That's petty."
Linebacker Khary Campbell and Wilson both said the officiating crew seemed to be calling a particularly tight game on special teams, flagging infractions that might be ignored other weeks, but both said that wasn't an excuse.
"Sometimes you have special teams plays where the jersey's off your back, and guys are getting knocked down on the ground, and they let you play ball," said Campbell, a special teams co-captain. "It affected some of the field position, we backed the offense up when we had real good field position, but we were just trying to be aggressive. We knew that we had to be a spark in getting things going. We take pride in special teams, and at the end of the day, we committed those fouls. They called it on us, we committed them."
Fabini, who was making his season debut, was whistled three times, although two were declined. He said he didn't think his time on the sideline contributed to the flags.
"I had a couple penalties that I'd like to have back, but the bottom line is we didn't win the game," he said.
While the Redskins are ranked near the middle of the NFL in both penalties and penalty yards, the miscues have shown up with increasing frequency. The team has averaged 4.9 penalties in its seven wins, but has averaged 7.7 in the past three games, all losses.
"I think that cost us a lot, but what can you do now?" Rock Cartwright said. "I mean, it happened. You can't change it. That's what the refs called, so we've got to live with it."