Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said the distressing part is that running back Earnest Byner is one of his hardest workers, a player meticulous about preparation and dedicated to doing the right things.
Gibbs also said there were "4,000 mistakes" during Sunday's 21-10 loss to the New York Giants in the Meadowlands and that to focus on one or two of them would be another mistake. He said there were bad blocks, missed tackles and poor passes, and that any one or two of them could have broken one of pro football's most perplexing streaks.
Yet, once more Byner found himself doing the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. The Redskins (4-3) may have made dozens of mistakes in losing their sixth straight game to the Giants (7-0), but it's Byner's that will be remembered.
The Redskins had fought back from a 14-0 deficit and trailed 14-10 with 6:51 remaining when quarterback Stan Humphries threw to an open Byner in the end zone.
The Redskins have a chamber of horrors about the way games against the Giants have slipped away.
Add this: A catchable ball squibbed out of Byner's hands, bounced off his shoulder pads and over his right shoulder.
Giants safety Greg Jackson, admitting, "I was lucky," saw the ball skip toward him and cradled it to his chest.
"Maybe he took his eye off it for a split second," Jackson said. "I really don't know what happened."
The Redskins were done. Moments later, Everson Walls intercepted a Humphries pass and returned it 28 yards for the clinching touchdown.
Humphries threw three interceptions, the Redskins gained only 64 yards on the ground and the Posse -- receivers Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders -- had its worst regular season game ever, catching only four passes.
But all those things could be attributed to what is perhaps the game's best defense. The Redskins had so little success running the ball and throwing downfield in the early going that their offense didn't get started until they stopped trying and dumped the ball to tight end Don Warren (a career-high 10 catches) and Byner (six catches).
Yet the Redskins were in a position to win, and for the second time in three weeks, they didn't. The Giants have beaten them nine of the last 10 nonstrike games and have taken control of the NFC East.
Byner declined to discuss the play. He hasn't spoken to a print reporter in about three weeks and said yesterday he had nothing to say about this latest disappointment.
But Gibbs did.
"If he's not playing hard for you, that's one thing," he said. "But he has laid it on the line, blocking on the goal line and everything else. He made a bad play, but I've called bad plays, we've got guys who've missed tackles and guys who've made bad punts. There were 4,000 of them in that game. You can't blame one guy for a game."
When the Redskins watched the play during yesterday's film session, Gibbs said he didn't say much.
"I said the same thing I said to you guys," he said. "You fight your guts out, and it's too bad this had to happen."
Byner's career has been nothing if not star-crossed. He has established himself as one of the game's most versatile and durable backs and is a player both respected and popular on his teams.
Unfortunately, timing is everything, and a couple of his mistakes have been shown over and over. It was Byner's fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship game that cost the Cleveland Browns a chance for a fourth-quarter tie; the following year it was back-to-back personal foul penalties that hurt the Browns.
Byner said during training camp that the fumble will follow him the remainder of his life. He said Browns fans pulled beside him at traffic lights and yelled reminders. He said a U.S. serviceman in Germany reminded him of it during a family vacation.
"I have to live with it," he said. "You don't forget things like that."
Humphries had completed 11 straight passes when he threw the pass to Byner, but he followed it with a mistake of his own -- to Walls, who returned it for his first career touchdown.
Humphries has faced the Cardinals, Eagles and Giants twice in his first four NFL starts and has played about the way the Redskins might have predicted. He was terrific against the Cardinals, completing 20 of 25 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Since then, he's seen two of the NFL's best defenses and has played very much like a young quarterback -- no touchdown passes, six interceptions (all against the Giants). More than his statistics suffered. He sustained a severely bruised left shoulder on the third play of the game and was knocked out briefly when his head hit Byner's knee as he fell after the final interception.
His head was clear, his shoulder sore yesterday as the Redskins worked out briefly in a chilly, swirling wind. But he said he expected to be on the practice field when work resumes Wednesday and Gibbs said he was not even close to benching him in favor of Jeff Rutledge.
"What I look for in a quarterback is toughness, leadership and his willingness to compete," Gibbs said. "He's been very good with all of those things. A couple of times he's made mistakes and they've hurt us. He's like our team has been. He fights very hard, but has missed a couple of big plays at inopportune times that could win games."
And: "I don't think it matters whether he's young or not. . . . He's playing for the Redskins, and we're not in a situation here where we're going to have a building program and spend some time waiting for someone to get ready to play. . . . We want to win right now."
The Redskins now will attempt to turn their attention to one of the NFC's three wild-card slots and they enter Week 9 with the best record among the seven or so contenders.
"You're going to see over the next nine weeks how good we are," Gibbs said. "All you can say right now is we've lost to the Giants and 49ers. I don't think the answer about this team will necessarily come against those two teams. I think this team will either prove itself the next nine weeks, prove it's a fighter, or it won't. I don't have the answer standing here today. It's going to be answered on the playing field."