Despite having 15 plays on four series starting inside the New Orleans 10-yard line, the Redskins could manage only a touchdown and a field goal and the Saints marched out of RKF Stadium with a 14-10 victory yesterday.
A holding call against Redskins offensive tackle George Starke at the two-yard line in the final two minutes also dealt a critical blow to the Redskin (6-3) chances of moving into a first place tie with Dallas (7-2) in the NFC East race.
Instead, the heartbreaking loss created nothing but frustration for the Redskins on a day when their heretofore improved offensive line crumbled in the face of a fierch rush from the New Orleans front four.
"We looked like the Keystone Kops half the time," said Starke. "It should never come down to one play.As ballplayers, we're supposed to execute and we didn't."
Redskin fans, however, most likely will remember Starke's hold. With a first down at the two-yard line and two minutes left, Starke was slapped with his first holding penalty of the season while blocking on a Benny Malone dive.
After an incomplete pass, Joe Theismann was sacked for the sixth time and lost another 10 yards. A 13-yard completion to Ricky Thompson got the Redskins back to the nine, but an illegal motion penalty cost them five more yards.
On fourth down, offensive coordinator Joe Walton wanted Theismann to call the same pass play that had beaten Cleveland two weeks ago. But a mixup resulted in Theismann sprinting out to the right, where he couldn't find an open receiver.
"I wanted to throw the ball up and hope someone could catch it," Theismann said. "But I couldn't see anyone in the vicinity. I hated to do it, but I pulled it in."
As he brought the ball down, Theismann was hit by end Elois Grooms for the Saints' seventh sack of the contest. Going into the game, the Redskins had given up only nine sacks.
"It's so jumbled up in there it's hard to see anything" center Bob Kuziel said of the holding call on Starke who denied the infraction.
"It's hard to make a call like that. But there's no excuse for what happened to us," Kuziel added. "It's baffling the coaches. New Orleans played well, give them credit, but you should score when you get that close."
Washington's breakdown at the goal line has been a weakness throughout the season but the Redskins had managed to overcome this failure with some last-minut heroics. Yesterday when Theismann had no magic left the offense had nowhere to hide.
This was an improved New Orleans defense that earlier in the season had been incredibly porous. But the Saints got a large helping hand from their stumbling opponents.
"I think each time when we stopped them on the goal line our whole defense was convinced they wouldn't score," said New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning. "After a while so were the Redskins."
Manning had been just effective enough in the first half to get New Orleans the lead. He connected with sparkling receiver Wes Chandler for a 45-yard touchdown, despite a Redskin blitz, and he scrambled on a 19-yard completion to Chandler that led to Tony Galbreath's two-yard scoring run.
Otherwise, the Saints, averaging 23 points a game, were fairly well controlled by the Redskin defense. They could gain only 49 yards in the second half and threatened only once, when Garo Yepremian had a 45-yard field goal blocked to snap his NFL record streak at 20.
"We just wanted to do the minimum," New Orleans Coach Dick Nolan said of his conservative offense. "We didn't want to be spectacular. We wanted them to make the mistakes."
That's exactly the way it worked out with Washington's downfall visitble for all to see from within the Saint's 10-yard line.
The trend for the rest of the day was established late in the opening quarter, when the Redskins, who were controlled effectively in the first half, suddenly got a break on a Mike Bragg punt.
Rich Mauti tried to pick up the bouncing ball at the 10, but he was hit by Redskin rookie Monte Coleman, who recovered the fumble at the nine.
Benny Malone, turning in his best effort with Washington (65 yards in 15 carries), burst around left end to the one. Malone tried left guard, but was stopped for a yard loss. On third down, Riggins regained that yard, falling just short of the end zone.
With New Orleans leading, 7-0, Coach Jack Pardee decided, "We had to get some points on the board.We didn't want to come away empty-handed. Would I do it again? Certainly."
So Mark Moseley booted an 18-yard field goal, with 1:29 left in the period. Manning came right back to drive his team to Galbreath's touchdown, only to have the Redskins answer with their only six-pointer of the game.
A Theismann screen pass to John McDaniel for 15 yards and a Theismann scramble for 22 yards on third and 19 got Washington rolling. Malone sprinted off tackle for 11 and a first down at the nine.
Malone broke around right end to the one, then Riggins was halted for no gain. On third down, Theismann rolled to his right and virtually walked into the end zone, using the play on which he had scored against Philadelphia last week.
Moseley added the extra point and Washington trailed, 14-10, at intermission despite gaining only 89 yards. They had lost seven passing, with Theismann completing just one of four attempts.
The second half became a matter of New Orleans holding on, while Washington self-destructed.
The stumbling started after Perry Brooks recovered a Galbreath fumble at the Redskin 45. Suddenly, the offense started functioning effectively. Three Theismann completions, an eight-yard Malone run and a 12-yard scamper by Clarence Harmon had the ball on the New Orleans six. Malone got it to the two on first down, but Theismann, who dropped back despite the previous success on the rollout, was sacked by Grooms for an eight-yard loss.
New Orleans appeared to have held again when a third-down pass fell incomplete, but Ray Brown was caught pushing Thompson near the goal line and Washington had a first down at the five.
The break only added to the Redskin frustration. Malone was stopped for a three-yard loss by Mike Fultz and Buddy Hardenman couldn't hold onto a Theismann pass at the two. On third down, Theismann was sandwiched by Barry Bennett and Fultz at the 13 and Moseley came on again for a 30-yard attempt, normally a chip shot for him.
His kick never cleared the line of scrimmage. A high center snap allowed Eric Felton to sprint in from the outside and block it clearly.
"It was a standard field goal block," said Felton. "I came from the outside and I saw the snap was high and I tried to jump up instead of out, because that extra time put me a step closer."
It was the first Moseley kick blocked sinse Ed Jones of Dallas did so last Thanksgiving. It also turned out to be an important play, since it prevented the Redskins from winning later with a field goal.
Washington mounted its final scoring attempt with 7:41 left in the game after Coleman, a brillant special teams player, smothered Yepremian's field goal try and recovered the loose ball at the Washington 35.
Again, the Redskins had no trouble moving the ball against the Saints' defense. Riggins, who gained 47 yards for the game, ran for 12, Malone added seven and Theismann found Hardeman for six. A 23-yard third-down pass over the middle to tight end Don Warren and a powerful blast by Riggins, who broke four tackles on the nine-yard run, had Washington at the six.
On the next play, Riggins gained four on a trap and the Redskins were on the two, first down and seemingly on the verge of atoning for an embarrassing day. But Sharke's holding call and the two ensuing sacks dashed those dreams.
Washington netted 136 yards in the second half, a decent total considering Theismann was thrown for 78 yards in losses during that span.
Yet Walton shrugged off everything but those horrid goal-line efforts.
"We played a little bit better in the second half," Walton said, "but overall the offense just wasn't very good. We didn't play well. They rushed us pretty good, but we knew they would be tough, that didn't surprise us.
"We had our opportunities, no doubt about that. The plays are sound, what we are doing at the goal line is sound. We just got beat off the ball."
Ironically, Washington had worked from the opening day of training camp in July to develop a power running attack. Extra attention had been devoted to pushing the ball over from inside the 10.
"We just have to work on it more," Walton said. "Obviously, the work we've put in hasn't been enough."
Ahead now is a trip to Pittsburgh and a meeting with the mighty Steelers, conquerors yesterday of Dallas. Pardee said it will be "a real test for our team to be able to overcome this and continue to play like the team we are."
Tackle Terry Hermeling was thinking only of yesterday and the performance of the offensive line.
"When you get that close to the goal line so many times and just get 10 points," he said, "you aren't doing your job. It was awful and there is no one to blame but us."