By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 12:24 AM
As stunned players again struggled to assess what happened to the Washington Redskins in their most recent late-season loss, the man at the center of Sunday's storm nicely summarized the past three seasons and the dizzying events that capped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 17-16 victory at FedEx Field.
Needing only a successful point-after attempt to almost certainly extend the game to overtime after driving 75 yards for a touchdown in the final 3 minutes 39 seconds, the Redskins found yet another way to lose when long snapper Nick Sundberg's high snap sailed through the hands of holder Hunter Smith. The miscue all but ended the game, and Smith later mused that, during the past few seasons, these sorts of things simply happen to the struggling Redskins.
"I have never seen such awkward ways, or maybe outlandish ways, to lose a game," said the veteran punter, who accepted responsibility for the botched extra point attempt. "It is kind of interesting, I guess, how we've been giving ourselves a chance to lose games."
On a dreary day, an announced crowd of only 66,124 - the fourth-smallest in the 14-year stadium's history - withstood the rain and cold as the Redskins (5-8) squandered a career-high 172 yards rushing by Ryan Torain while losing their third game in a row and fifth in six games.
The Buccaneers (8-5) took another step in their impressive turnaround after finishing 3-13 last season, rallying behind emerging second-year quarterback Josh Freeman (266 yards passing, 1 touchdown, 109.8 passer rating). Trailing 10-3 at halftime, Tampa Bay scored 14 unanswered points to take a 17-10 lead with 3:47 remaining when Freeman and tight end Kellen Winslow teamed on a 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown with linebacker Rocky McIntosh in coverage.
Then Freeman (listed at 6 feet 6, 248 pounds) bulled his way into the end zone for a two-point conversion. "A pass is a pass," McIntosh said. "Everybody's a pro here. He caught the pass. Tight coverage, he made a play."
On Tampa Bay's go-ahead touchdown, television replays appeared to show that Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn had his arm wrapped around Brian Orakpo's neck. Under NFL holding rules, Penn should have been called for holding.
"No. He wasn't held," Coach Mike Shanahan said of Orakpo. "He was mugged. We showed 'em [the officials] that picture."
And what did the officials say?
"I can't go into that," Shanahan said.
On the ensuing possession, Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose proficiency in Washington's two-minute offense was questioned by coaches earlier in the season, smoothly directed the long touchdown drive that ended with his six-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss on fourth and goal. Smith, Sundberg and place kicker Graham Gano - who missed two short field goals in the first half - had problems throughout the game on the slick field. But their most agonizing moment would occur after the timely McNabb-Moss connection.
Initially energized by the arrival of Shanahan after last season's 4-12 debacle, the Redskins no longer talk about the possibility of a playoff berth this season. And although players expressed confidence in the locker room that owner Daniel M. Snyder hired the right man to make the franchise relevant again, they acknowledged this is not the way they expected to begin their return to prominence.
"You work," said Moss, who had seven receptions for 82 yards and one touchdown. "It's your job to come out here and play this game of football. When you're playing this game, you're playing this game to win. Somebody got to win, somebody got to lose. But when you're just losing, and you know that you had a chance to win - [and] I ain't talking about the last play.
"I'm just talking about throughout the game, throughout the years, throughout the weeks, throughout this year. When you're losing and you ain't got no say-so why. . . . That's why it hurts. That's why I feel the way I feel, because I'm just getting tired of it. Everybody play for their own perspective and their own reasons, but I put too much in it, and it means too much."
With the loss, the Redskins are assured of their ninth non-winning season in Snyder's 12 years at the helm. Their record in the second half the past three seasons is 5-16. Washington has not been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, but it has not been a viable playoff contender for weeks. In the last 11 seasons, the Redskins have earned two postseason berths.
"Guys are out there still fighting, definitely, and trying to make plays," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who helped set up Washington's first-half touchdown by stripping the ball from running back LeGarrette Blount and recovering the fumble.
"But ultimately, Coach Shanahan, [General Manager] Bruce Allen and the rest of the staff gonna have the ultimate say-so on, 'Hey, even though this guy gave a hundred [percent], it might not be what we need.' I mean, when you keep losing games like we do, you don't know how things are gonna turn out."
Again Sunday, the Redskins failed to seize opportunities.
After sitting out the last four games because of a lingering hamstring problem, Torain established a new personal-best with 158 yards (an 8.8-yard average) in the first two quarters. His rushing total was the highest in the first half of an NFL game since former New York Giants back Tiki Barber had 171 yards against the Redskins on Oct. 30, 2005.
But two Torain-powered drives stalled inside the red zone at the Tampa Bay 16- and 6-yard lines, respectively.
On a 34-yard attempt in the first quarter, Smith did a nice job of handling Sundberg's low snap and setting the ball for Gano, who sent the ball off the left upright. On a 24-yard field goal early in the second, Gano hooked the ball left.
Gano made a 25-yarder shortly before halftime. His PAT kick was good after McNabb (228 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 100.7 passer rating) and backup tight end Logan Paulsen combined on a one-yard touchdown in the second.
"Throughout everything, as crazy as it sounds, I was just as confident as I've ever been," he said. "Those are moments I dream of, just being able tie the game. I was just foreseeing going into overtime and hitting the game-winner. And that's not how it worked out, but I'm going to stay confident with my head up."