By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 12:17 AM
Perry Riley didn't get a chance to see immediately a replay of one of the most critical plays of the Redskins' season.
"People told me it looked like a block in the back. Some people say it was kind of iffy," Riley said. "I'm going to go home, try to find it. I'm sure it's going to be on 'SportsCenter' somewhere."
It certainly was one for the highlight reels, remarkable not because of what it was but, for the Redskins, what could have been. Midway through the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by only four points, Riley, a rookie linebacker out of Louisiana State playing in just his third career game, was penalized for an illegal block in the back. As the officials conferred on the call, punt returner Brandon Banks was in the end zone dancing, celebrating a touchdown that would have given the Redskins a late lead, that could have helped propel them to a 6-5 record with only five games remaining.
Instead, the touchdown was called back, the Redskins' offense went three-and-out and it never took the field again. The Redskins lost to the Vikings, 17-13, on Sunday, severely damaging the team's fading playoff hopes.
"Of course, I felt bad about it," said Riley, who saw the most extensive action of his short career Sunday. "It was all in good spirit. I was thinking positive on the play. It turned out bad on my part, but that's something that I will fix. I feel terrible for the situation."
The play put two Redskins rookies in the spotlight at FedEx Field. Banks showed again that he's one of the team's most electric players, capable of changing the momentum of a game with a quick stutter-step.
"It's awesome," center Casey Rabach said. "The guy just keeps on making big play after big play for us each week."
Riley, on the other hand, became an instant target of vitriol, as fans assaulted his Twitter account and message boards with caustic anger. Riley also was penalized for an illegal block on a punt return in the third quarter.
"That was Perry's first game full time. He'll be a good player," said Danny Smith, the Redskins' special teams coordinator. "He made some plays today. I think inexperience shows in a situation like that."
In his postgame comments, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan didn't delve too deeply into the punt return - "A block in the back is a block in the back," he said - but the moment the flag hit the grass Sunday afternoon, it was clear a block in the back can also be a kick in the gut.
With 7 minutes 15 seconds remaining in the game, Banks fielded the punt at the Washington 23-yard line and paused briefly, surveying the charging Minnesota players, who were spread evenly over the entire field. "I tried to hesitate then to suck them in," Banks explained, "to help my blockers out a little bit."
Working his way to his left, Banks appeared to have at least one step on Minnesota's Everson Griffen. But as Banks turned upfield, Riley flew in and levied the illegal hit on Griffen. Seventy-seven yards later, Banks was dancing in the end zone and officials were collecting the flag.
"You've got to make great decisions," safety Reed Doughty said. "As much as you want to set it free, sometimes a no-block is better than a bone-crushing hit that they call back. It's tough."
Doughty knows this well. Against the Detroit Lions, Banks had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown called back because Doughty was penalized for an illegal block.
"You can't fault a guy's effort like that," Doughty said. "Guys will learn. It's just hard. You're running full-speed. You want to make that key block, you want to help the team. It's about decision-making. Perry's a great player. He'll come back from this. We all have."
Banks said he didn't realize the touchdown didn't count until after his celebration. "That's just part of the game," said Banks, who's been slowed by a sore knee since he had arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago.
Though it appeared to be a close call, Redskins coaches and players did not dispute the officials' decision after the game.
"I'll have to look at the film to be honest with you. But the official saw it, and that's what he called," Smith said.
Said Riley: "I thought I hit him on his shoulder rather than his back. Apparently I hit him on his back. The call was made."
Banks had another strong outing Sunday. Though he didn't have much space on punt returns - he totaled 20 yards on five returns - he collected 123 yards on four kickoff returns. In the final minute of the third quarter, he scooped up a muffed kickoff and sprinted 65 yards downfield, putting the Redskins on the Vikings 28-yard line. The offense failed to move the chains, but Banks had put them in field goal position and Graham Gano's 40-yarder cut the Vikings' lead to 17-10.
Players say that in a close game like Sunday's, no one play should take all the blame. There were other opportunities, they say. But it's Riley's blunder that will be replayed over and over.
"This whole loss is not Perry's fault, whatsoever," Doughty said. "That's one play. And you can't fault him for his effort. You just have to learn from this."