By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 13, 2010; 12:01 AM
As soon as Nick Sundberg's high snap slipped through the hands of holder Hunter Smith, you had to gasp. A game that seemed certain to go to overtime had suddenly turned into a 17-16 gift win for the Bucs. Now, Tampa Bay, you've seen the Redskins as we have known and endured them for so long.
Unless you actually play for the Redskins, you probably had to scream, laugh or just watch slack-jawed in awe at the single most unfathomably amateurish and embarrassing blunder in the last 18 years of gaffe-, gall- and guffaw-filled Washington football.
That decisive play - a snap that wasn't terribly bad and a muffed hold that wasn't all that easy - combined the cruel and unfair, but also seemed perfect and symbolic, too. It captured everything the Redskins have promised to be but then, for almost two decades, usually have failed to deliver.
The sublime and the ridiculous, usually poles apart, occasionally collide to produce the sublimely ridiculous. The Redskins are artists in the form. Yet, somehow, they never flip the script and accidentally stumble into the ridiculously sublime.
"The years come and go. The players come and go," said Redskins veteran Santana Moss, the tiny, tough receiver whose six-yard touchdown catch on fourth and goal on a pass from Donovan McNabb, with the game at stake, seemed to have capped a classic 75-yard, game-saving drive. "We're blessed 'cause we keep getting opportunities. But what's opportunity when you can't come through?"
What indeed? Especially in the last dozen years under owner Daniel Snyder, when vast financial resources, usually incinerated in some farce like the Albert Haynesworth escapade, have constantly bought the Redskins the appearance of opportunity, the reality has been disappointment, usually served with a sauce of disbelief.
"We've got some type of bad luck going around here," said Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo, who's only needed two seasons to pick up the black-cloud vibe.
This high snap brought up harsh memories of the 1999 season, when Dan Turk's bad snap on a 51-yard last-second field goal attempt (against the Bucs and in a one-point game) knocked Washington out of the playoffs in the second round.
Was that when the bad karma started? Turk died of cancer within a year of that snap and his widow was angry that so few Redskins representatives visited him after his cancer diagnosis, even though they lived near Redskins headquarters.
That, however, is only one slice of the wide range of local response to these years of frustration. On Sunday, in a cold drizzle, a paid attendance of 66,124 was announced, so perhaps only 25,000 seats were empty on a day so lousy that anybody could be excused for ignoring another losing team.
As kicker Graham Gano dead-hooked two awful field goal attempts from 34 and 24 yards, then almost missed an extra point, most of the crowd stayed. When the Redskins got a delay-of-game penalty at the Bucs 2-yard line with 20 seconds left in the half, perhaps squandering four points, no insurrection of boos erupted.
"I normally don't make mistakes like that," Shanahan said. "We're talking on the sideline . . . had no idea we had [only] a 30-second timeout."
In the final minutes, at least 35,000 loonies were still beating their wet paws together and screaming. That's a fan base that's hard to kill. Chanting "Defense, defense" hadn't worked with four minutes to play when the Bucs hit a 41-yard touchdown bomb and made the two-point conversion to turn a 10-9 Redskins lead into a 17-10 deficit.
But, facing fourth down, the fans still stood and yelled. McNabb, whose 100.7 passer rating overstates his day, delivered for them. His year's often been homely, but he's thrown touchdown passes in 12 straight games, a personal best and a Redskins first since Joe Theismann, and he's on pace for his first 4,000-yard season.
As Gano lined up for the formality of an extra point, he "was envisioning an overtime field goal coming and I was going to win the game." But he never even got to swing his leg.
"It's really upsetting. I wish I could take it back," said Sundberg, whose snap on Gano's second field goal miss was also high. However, Smith's hold was, by NFL standards, the bigger flaw. And, to his credit, he knew it and accepted it.
"I have to catch the ball. It doesn't matter where it is," said Smith. "I've caught a lot of high snaps."
Wet ball? "I've caught a lot of snaps in the rain," said Smith. "The ball was wet when Donovan threw the touchdown pass to tie the game, too."
"See the replay? How'd it look?" Smith asked of the snap that might have hit him in the helmet. Kind of high. Went through your hands, he was told.
"It should have stayed in my hands," he said.
Snide has been the easy response to the Redskins for plenty of over-hyped years. But if you saw their faces after losses like this, you'd probably accept that they're pros working a mighty tough job who, except for the occasional Albert, take all this to heart.
Sometimes, a particularly ludicrous mortification marks a bottom for a franchise. But the swinging-gate, down-35-0-after-16- minutes, double-Gibbs-timeout-penalty Redskins can top themselves.
This game, however, left them feeling bitter, angry and snakebitten as well as guilty of multiple self-destructions. On the 41-yard touchdown to Kellen Winslow, Orakpo was held so egregiously, exactly like the final play of the season opener against Dallas when the call went Washington's way, that Shanahan showed a photo of the play to officials just minutes later.
"He was mugged," Shanahan said. Furious much, Mike?
"I'm right there [to make the sack]. It's not fair to the team," said Orakpo, aware there could be holding on most NFL plays. The official "told me he missed it. He said he was looking downfield."
That news toasted linebacker London Fletcher, who saved the Redskins seven points early in the fourth quarter by recovering a fumble in the end zone on a first-and-goal play by the Bucs.
"If you don't see that [hold], what are you looking at? Are you watching the game like a fan?" Fletcher asked. " 'Well, I missed that.' That's not good enough. That's all your job is."
Of course, when you waste a brilliant day by the offensive line, which opened 18-wheeler-size holes for Ryan Torain, who rushed for 172 yards on 24 carries, you should probably look in the mirror 10 times for every shot you take at the refs. But the Redskins, like their fans, are fed up.
Does it seem as if the bizarre plays, the incredible new ways to lose close games, the endless forehead-smacking Sunday sufferings, have reached the point where - year after year - the phrase "bad luck" may actually apply?
"Everybody says that, including the fans. It seems like we don't ever get the luck, don't get a late call," said 15-year vet Phillip Daniels. "But we put ourselves in those positions. We don't put away teams when we have them down early - like today. We do it to ourselves.
"But, yeah, it would be nice to get a break. It's Christmas. We can use a gift."
Year after year, they certainly know how to give one.