The Redskins saw their longshot playoff hopes end in a controversial game today in which a series of disputed penalty calls left the team frustrated and furious.
"It was chaos out there," halfback Joe Washington said about Buffalo's 21-14 victory. "I just don't think anyone understood what was happening. It was a game where there still are a lot of questions left unanswered."
The Redskins were outraged in particular over three plays: a third-period muffed punt by Mike Nelms, an illegal procedure penalty later in the same quarter that nullified a 32-yard pass completion, and an illegal-use-of-the-hands call in the fourth that helped thwart their last serious threat.
But they also were just as upset over five turnovers, including a fumble by Joe Theismann at the Buffalo five early in the last period that denied them even a chance for a field goal.
"I'm sure when we see the films we'll find some calls we don't like," safety Mark Murphy said. "But we still had chances to win it and we couldn't do it. We couldn't make the big play and they did. It ultimately comes down to that."
The loss dropped Washington's record to 5-8 and wasted the best game the Redskin defense has played this season against a quality team.
Despite rushing for 188 yards, the Bills (8-5) put together only one long drive, and that came on their opening possession. But they converted two Washington mistakes into scoring drives of 37 and 26 yards. The Redskins couldn't turn any Buffalo errors into points, a major reason they didn't win despite rallying from a 14-0 deficit with two touchdowns in the final 2:08 of the first half.
Still, everything else was overshadowed by Washington's problems with the officials, especially during a third quarter that threatened to become a Keystone Kops movie.
The Redskin troubles started on Buffalo's opening possession of the second half. The Bills, who were held to 135 yards in the first two periods, punted to Nelms. He tried to catch the ball at his 26 but it hit the ground, bounced against his legs and was recovered by Buffalo's Rod Kush.
On television replays, it appeared that the Bills' Roland Hooks impeded Nelms' attempt to get under the punt. Nelms and Coach Joe Gibbs thought Buffalo should have been penalized.
"They are supposed to give me the chance to catch the ball," Nelms said. "They were in the way and I pulled up. No one hit me and maybe I should have kept going. But they were impeding me. I asked one official and he said, 'The wind changed the direction of the ball.' I said, 'So what?' "
Gibbs had tried vainly to stay calm about the officiating, but grew particularly perturbed when discussing the punt to Nelms.
"He had to weave his way through five guys," Gibbs said, his voice rising. "Cripes, you are supposed to give him a chance to field the ball. We have the best punt return man in the league and they have to get out of his way."
Buffalo needed two plays, an eight-yard run by fullback Roosevelt Leaks and an 18-yard run off guard by Hooks, who had 109 yards as Joe Cribbs' replacement, to go ahead, 21-14, with 3:34 gone in the period.
The Redskins began the ensuing series at their 37. Moments after an illegal contact penalty on Buffalo gave them a first down on a first-and-25 situation, Theismann scrambled to the Bills' 31, where an accidental knee to his head forced him to leave the game at the end of an injury timeout. The gain was negated by a clipping call on Terry Metcalf.
Rookie Tom Flick took over at quarterback, only to see his team called for a false start when center Jeff Bostic double-pumped the snap. Flick left and Theismann returned to face a third-and-27 situation at his 32.
He moved out of the pocket before throwing toward tight end Don Warren. The pass hit Warren's hands and bounced into the arms of receiver Virgil Seay, who picked up enough yards for the first down at the Buffalo 36.
But Tom Catlin, the Bills' defensive coordinator, pointed out to the officials that Theismann had not sat out one legal play, as is required following an injury timeout. After a lengthy conference, and although no flag was thrown, referee Ben Dreith called illegal procedure on the Redskins, nullifying the first down.
"There doesn't have to be a flag thrown," Dreith explained. "The side judge said he was going to throw a flag but we made an announcement. But Theismann has to stay out for one play and the false start did not constitute a play . . . the clock stays the same, the down stays the same. We just give them a five-yard penalty."
The Redskins were stunned. They thought the play was good, since they saw no flag. When told in the locker room that that didn't matter, Gibbs said: "I've never seen anything like that. If that's the rule, it's a darn bad one."
Gibbs thought an even more important play for his team took place late in the fourth quarter, after Theismann had lost that fumble at the Buffalo five when the ball was batted out of his hand by Sherman White. One down earlier, Seay had dropped a pass in the end zone.
The Redskins were driving again, helped when Buffalo's Nick Mike-Mayer missed a 39-yard field goal attempt. Working on first down at the 50, Theismann threw a screen pass to John Riggins, who was stopped at the Buffalo 32. The play was called back when Dreith penalized Bostic for using his hands illegally trying to block end Ben Williams.
"The ball was 25 yards down the field when he threw the flag," Gibbs complained. "It was so late, it cut off a big play." Said Bostic: "I blocked the guy, I'm on the ground and I look at John downfield and then he (Dreith) pulls the flag. I couldn't believe it."
Two plays later, Theismann fumbled again, this time on a blind-side tackle by blitzing safety Jeff Nixon. Buffalo recovered at the Washington 25 to end any further comeback hopes.
"We just had too many turnovers, too many mistakes, too many times when we couldn't come up with the big play," Gibbs said. "We dropped too many passes. And we just had too much other stuff to overcome."
But even two fumbles and a first-half interception that led to Buffalo's second touchdown couldn't nullify a fine performance by Theismann, who completed 22 of 34 passes for 220 yards against the league's third-ranked defense. He was 10 of 13 for 142 yards in those two scoring drives late in the second period, when the Redskins got touchdowns on a two-yard run by Riggins and a 25-yard reception by Art Monk.
"I try not to get upset about penalties," said Theismann, who fared much better than his Buffalo counterpart, Joe Ferguson (six of 18, 76 yards). "But today I got angry about two of them. I mean, when you snap a ball and an illegal procedure penalty is assessed, it's a play. And that call on Jeff Bostic, I didn't agree with it. I know we'll all be doing a little homework tonight seeing if those were right calls."
This was a game the Redskins were convinced they could have won, especially after receiving both that surprising defensive effort and a lift from Joe Washington, who rushed for 69 yards and caught seven passes for 64 more, despite very sore ribs.
"We should be happy right now, celebrating a win," defensive tackle Perry Brooks said. "Instead, I feel hurt and frustrated by what happened. You work so hard and try to overcome that terrible early season start and then have a chance for the playoffs, and this happens."
The Redskins reported three injuries: Murphy (hyperextended left elbow), linebacker Neal Olkewicz (bruised right knee) and Theismann (bruised right leg).