Some Redskins seasons are remembered by Washingtonians for great plays or bad ones. This Redskins season will be remembered for a play that never happened.
Because of a bad snap on a desperately needed field goal attempt, the Redskins ended their year in bitter disappointment with a blown 13-point lead and a 14-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a National Football Conference semifinal here today.
Would Brett Conway, with the wind at his back and 77 seconds to play, have made his 52-yard attempt to put Washington ahead? The kick would have been one yard longer than his longest this season. But he'd made a 48-yarder earlier with plenty to spare.
Conway never got his chance. Center Dan Turk dribbled his snap along the ground--a blunder that Conway said might happen "once in 10,000 times." Holder and quarterback Brad Johnson was swamped by tacklers as he looked for someone, anyone, to whom he might throw the ball. As had been the case all day, the confluence of Tampa Bay tacklers and Redskins mistakes had culminated in a Washington defeat--by the narrowest of margins.
"You'd like to see the ball get into the air," said Coach Norv Turner of the kick situation, which Johnson handicapped as "a 50-50 shot from [about] 50."
The Redskins' odds were much better earlier in the game. Thanks largely to Brian Mitchell's 100-yard kickoff return--a National Football League playoff record--to start the second half, the underdog Redskins had reached what, in chess, would be called a "winning position." Yet they could not negotiate the endgame.
Leading 13-0 in the middle of the third period, the Redskins' mistakes, a few tormenting breaks and the fourth-quarter heroics of Tampa rookie quarterback Shaun King cost them a chance to advance to the NFC championship game next Sunday against St. Louis or Minnesota.
The Bucs' winning play was as much a hairbreadth affair as the Redskins' failures. With 7 minutes 29 seconds to play, the 22-year-old King was within a split-second of being sacked by Ndukwe Kalu. That would have brought up fourth down and goal from the Redskins' 10-yard line with the Redskins still ahead, 13-7. Would the Bucs have settled for a field goal? Gambled for a touchdown? As with Conway's aborted kick, no one will ever know.
Just as King was about to be leveled, he flipped a desperate, yet perfect, little toss in the right flat to tight end John Davis for a one-yard touchdown. After the extra point by another heralded rookie, Martin "Automatica" Gramatica, the Bucs had their final margin for victory.
"When King and I were lying on the ground, I thought, 'Good job. You made the sack,' " said Kalu. "Then I heard the crowd go crazy. That tells you how close it was."
Now, the Bucs advance to the NFC championship game and the Redskins' season ends with both gratification--at a 10-6 regular season record, an NFC East Division title and a first-round playoff victory--and also bitter disappointment.
"There was not one player who didn't think we were going to win right up until [the bad snap]," said veteran cornerback Darrell Green. "There's no satisfaction in playing well. Our goal was the Super Bowl. This is a tough business. They run over you. They knock you out. They break your fingers. This isn't a sport where you say, 'If we just win one playoff game, that'll be nice.' Get it? That's not what this is about."
While many in Washington agonized for hours through this tense defensive battle, some Redskins fans got to experience the wild range of emotions firsthand. In the middle of the week, Tom Mulrine, an attorney from Arlington, heard on TV about a package tour for 650 people, arranged by the Redskins. After five speed-dial attempts and a 10 minute wait, he had two tickets and a round-trip plane flight to Tampa for $499. He called his girlfriend and announced, "We're going to Tampa for the day."
When the Redskins held their early lead, Judy Shields, a CPA from Germantown, was so excited she said, "I wouldn't have missed this for the world." That was during the first 2 1/2 quarters when the Redskins seemed completely dominant. Slowly, like fingers losing their grip on a desperately held rope, those hopes slipped away.
An interception of Johnson's pass late in the third quarter seemed to give inspiration to the Bucs. A 73-yard drive was capped by a touchdown run by Mike Alstott, officially for two yards but actually for more as the big back ran nearly from one sideline to the other during the play.
Once awakened, the crowd seemed to carry the Bucs and give them luck. Early in the fourth quarter, Johnson was sacked by Steve White and fumbled. The Bucs then drove 32 yards for the winning score. One play on that decisive Bucs drive may be remembered almost as long as King's touchdown-pass improvisation and the final bungled snap.
On third down from the Redskins 25-yard line, King was sacked and fumbled. Instead of a Redskins recovery, or even a Bucs recovery which might, at best, have set up a 50-yard field goal attempt, the ball bounced directly to halfback Warrick Dunn. Weaving shamelessly, as though he deserved such blind good fortune, Dunn got a first down at the 17-yard line.
After that, the spooky music started. And it never stopped.
Some plays--such as a John Riggins run in the Super Bowl--live in a city's collective sports memory, passed down through the generations. Sometimes, those remarkable plays happen even in defeat. Today Mitchell added his name to the list. All season, Mitchell was supposed to be a bit too old, a bit too slow, for the life of a suicide-squad kick returner. On the first play of the second half, Mitchell was a step too fast, a stiff-arm too strong and altogether too good for the Buccaneers for 100 yards. As he burst through the wedge, as he knocked Gramatica flat, as he stepped out of a tackle and as he outran the last defender, Mitchell seemed to be giving a career summation in a matter of seconds.
That, however, proved to be the Redskins' crescendo.
"We should not be going home. We should still be playing [next weekend]," Kalu said in a despondent locker room. "I hate to be a sore loser. But we are better than that team. I wish we could play 'em again tomorrow."
Unfortunately for Dan Turk and many other Redskins, that's not the way it's done.
Staff writer Carol Morello contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Brett Conway (5) is ready to attempt 52-yard field goal, but holder Brad Johnson can't handle low snap by Dan Turk.