'Freak Play' or 'Part of the Game,' Muffed Punt Spells Doom

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009

CHARLOTTE, Oct. 11 -- Football might very will be a game decided by mere inches. But Sunday's loss to the Carolina Panthers came down to a foot -- that of Byron Westbrook, to be exact.

The Panthers recovered a botched punt return in the fourth quarter after the ball bounced off Westbrook's foot. Carolina took over possession at the Redskins 12-yard line and needed just two plays to score the go-ahead touchdown, on Jonathan Stewart's eight-yard run up the middle. The 20-17 win was the Panthers' first of the season.

During the game and still after, the fumble and the officials' ruling were clouded in confusion. Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said it was unfortunate. Punt returner Antwaan Randle El called it a "freak play." And Carolina Coach John Fox said it's simply "part of the game."

"It was a good play on their part," Westbrook said. "I can't blame the guys, can't blame the Panthers, can't blame the Redskins or the officials."

The Panthers had clawed back from a 17-2 deficit and trailed by five points when Jason Baker lined up to punt from Carolina's 46-yard line. The punt was short and Randle El waved, signaling for a fair catch at the Washington 23-yard line. But as the ball fell, Carolina's Quinton Teal came charging in and pushed Westbrook into Randle El. The ball bounced free and the Panthers' Dante Wesley fell on it at the Washington 12-yard line.

It wasn't just fans who were confused. The officials initially awarded the ball to the Redskins. After conferring, they reversed the call and gave the Panthers possession. The Redskins challenged the ruling, but a review confirmed that the ball had bounced off Westbrook's foot.

The first bit of bewilderment surrounded Teal shoving Westbrook into his teammate. Randle El said he didn't realize it was legal. Officials explained to Zorn that the fair-catch call was negated when Westbrook crashed into Randle El. Zorn said after the game that he would seek further clarification, but his special teams coordinator, Danny Smith, didn't disagree with the officials' ruling. In fact, he said the Redskins' similarly practice shoving a blocker into the punt returner, and Fox confirmed that it was not an accidental play on Teal's part.

"Our guys are coached to do that," he said. "Anybody on special teams, our team, their team included. We understand that you can push a guy into the return team. It's a part of the game. You are able to block into them. That was an excellent play."

Referee Walt Coleman said that because the contact was between Randle El and a teammate, there was no interference on the play and Teal's actions were legal.

"If the Washington player is stationary and just standing there and not trying to block, then he can't do that," Coleman said. "If they are both trying to block, then he can knock him into him. Because they were both engaged, then that's why there wasn't a foul or anything wrong with that play.

"If the Washington player is stationary and just standing there and the Carolina player had come down there and knocked him, then it would have been totally different."

Westbrook said he didn't know that Randle El called for a fair catch and had no idea he was so close to his teammate. The punt was shorter than the Redskins anticipated, and Westbrook's chief concern was Teal, the Panthers' gunner.

"I'm still going to have to engage my guy," Westbrook said. "If I wait for El, five yards back from catching the ball, I didn't want my guy to have a free hit on El. So I'm going to stay on my guy until I hear the referee blow his whistle."

Said Randle El: "I didn't realize he was that close. I knew he was there, but I didn't realize he was that close to get pushed in. Knowing now, I would've made some call to let him know to get out of the way."

After all parties agreed that the shove was legal, Zorn said officials encouraged him to challenge the play, so they could make certain the ball bounced off Westbrook, not a Carolina player. Had it hit a Panther first, the Redskins would have taken possession.

"Up in the booth, we were debating the rule of the fair catch," Zorn said. "I wanted them to rehash that. I thought it was the right call to challenge. If I didn't challenge it, I would have been kicking myself if it could have been in our favor. It was worth the timeout to me."

Amid the collision and the scramble for a loose ball, Westbrook said he doesn't know whether the ball actually hit him or not. "There was a lot of guys in there," he said. "It could've been a leg, an arm, a helmet, I have no idea."

The review confirmed the officials' initial call, and the Redskins were left with just one timeout.

While Panthers players said the muffed punt was the game's turning point, Redskins coaches and players point out that they still had more than nine minutes to make up the three-point deficit. "We still had our chance to go score after that," said Randle El.

The Redskins' lone possession in the remaining time only reached midfield and resulted in a punt with 5 minutes 16 seconds remaining. Carolina was able to run the clock after that and lock up the victory, the third team this year to claim its first win against the Redskins.

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