Perry Riley's illegal block is not the Washington Redskins' problem

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 1:03 AM

When a third straight season without a playoff game for Washington is filtered and distilled, poor Perry Riley is certain to get the goat treatment.

But that would be a mistake. Don't buy the idea that if the Redskins' 22-year-old linebacker hadn't needlessly clipped a Vikings player on Brandon Banks's scintillating punt return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, this town would be alive with noise and belief about its 6-5 NFL team - that it's all the kid's fault.

Scapegoat the rookie and you're as reactionary as the former brain trust. Riley's brain-lock moment was merely a window into a season - a decade, really - of self-inflicted wounds that will in all likelihood keep the Redskins from the postseason in Mike Shanahan's first year in Washington.

On Sunday alone, if Santana Moss had only snagged a laser off his pads that became an interception, if Donovan McNabb's receivers had not dropped, oh, five passes, Riley's gaffe is forgotten.

Further, if the Redskins don't fall apart against the Texans at the end of Week 2, if they don't wilt on the road against the Rams and Lions, they're sitting pretty the last month of the season.

Now it's run the table or else, from a franchise that has not won three games in a row since Jim Zorn's first month of the 2008 season.

"St. Louis, Detroit, Houston," Chris Cooley said, rattling off the list of games that also got away after Brett Favre and the Vikings killed the clock at FedEx Field and emerged with a 17-13 victory. "It's not indicative of a playoff team."

"A good team will push it over the top," he added. "We have the potential to be that team, but we are not. I'm not saying we're a bad team . . ."

No, but something about the urgency and passion with which they played Sunday had 8-8 written in stone - again. If that mark came to pass, it would be the fourth .500 mark in the Daniel Snyder era and the eighth non-winning season in his 11 years of stewardship.

This isn't Perry Riley's fault. It isn't Mike Shanahan's, either. (Though it would have been nice for Play-Caller Kyle to display more innovation after using Banks early in the Wildcat formation, an opening drive of style and precision that represented Washington's only touchdown.)

The sobering truth: These are the cards the last regime dealt Shanahan, the final decision-maker, and Bruce Allen, the general manager.

The coach's biggest problems to date: Albert Haynesworth's contract, offensive-line and running-back positions horrendously neglected in the draft the past decade and a receiving corps so marginal in talent that a released second-rounder like Devin Thomas was cut by a lousy Carolina squad.

These are all preexisting conditions of the Snyder-Vinny Cerrato era. Not all the fortitude in the world shown against the Titans last week can compensate for gaping holes dug over time by the people who used to be in charge.

On Sunday, Shanahan was down to his third and fourth running backs. Washington was still nursing a slew of injuries suffered in last week's resourceful victory at Tennessee.

Was this still a winnable game? Definitely.

In fact, the Vikings' alibis far outweighed the Redskins. Adrian Peterson (bum ankle) did not play for most of three quarters. Minnesota had not won a road game all season before Sunday. The Vikings were coming off a week in which their coach was fired and their 41-year-old relic of a quarterback looked half-ready to cry and half-ready to quit.

The best thing that can be said about Favre is he didn't lose the game for the Vikings. For the second time all season, he didn't have an interception and for the first time Minnesota didn't have a turnover. Like Trent Dilfer or Jeff Hostetler or any other marginal quarterback who won big, Favre managed the game more than won it, and barely did anything that amounts to the dumb and dangerous quarterback who so needs to be the hero. He even moved those tired old bones at the end, running 10 yards for a game-clinching first down.

That was just enough to beat a home team that almost seems to enjoy beating itself more than pummeling the other guys.

Riley actually had two blocks in the back on returns, and when one teammate found out about the second penalty afterward, he worried for the rookie's job. "I hope he doesn't get cut," said the veteran defensive player, who requested anonymity.

Jettisoning Riley would be more reactionary than hiring a position coach, one his former team wouldn't even promote, to take Joe Gibbs's old job; or luring Sherm Lewis out of retirement at 67 to call plays; or paying a defensive lineman, one with attitudinal problems, more than any defensive player in the history of the game.

If they don't go to the postseason again, it's not because of a rookie linebacker's mental miscue in the moment. Nope. This kind of mediocrity takes time and planning.

Playoffs is a very tough sell today. The Redskins have the Giants at the Meadowlands next week and surprising Tampa Bay at home the week after. Then it's suddenly dangerous Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, at Jacksonville and the finale at FedEx Field against New York, probably still in divisional title contention, on Jan. 2.

And even if the Redskins won them all, who knows if 10-6 even makes the cut this year. All Shanahan has going for him at the moment is the blind optimism of some of his players.

Ten and six is "not that far off," Phillip Buchanon said afterward, referring, incredibly, to Washington winning its last five games after falling to 5-6. "We got the Giants twice. Dallas. It's not that far off."

Eh, must be a new guy. Stick around for a while, Phillip, and you'll learn.

Or ask the owner. Better than anyone, he knows 8-8 when he sees it.

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