Ralf Mojsiejenko had been on the sidelines almost two hours when the Washington Redskins needed him for the third and final time on Sunday. It was fourth and 11 on their 14-yard line, and the situation once more was precarious.
They had fought back from a 21-point second-half deficit into a 38-38 tie at the end of regulation, and were playing a game of field position, which Mojsiejenko almost lost when he shanked the punt 31 yards.
The Lions downed it at the Washington 45 and were a first down or two from attempting a game-winning field goal. Defense saved the Redskins when they forced the Lions to punt it back, and Jeff Rutledge's 40-yard pass to Art Monk swung the momentum one last time.
But this week, as the Redskins have reviewed the films and savored an unlikely victory, they have been reminded of how many different ways they came close to losing that game.
Mojsiejenko doesn't need to be told. This weirdest of seasons -- a mixture of bad luck along with some extraordinarily good and bad performances -- almost turned disastrous.
Had Detroit's Robert Johnson held on to a third-and-six pass, the topic of conversation at Redskin Park this week might not have been the heroics of Rutledge, Wilber Marshall and others, but the poor punt that ruined a splendid comeback.
"I didn't feel good about it," Mojsiejenko said yesterday as the Redskins returned to work in preparation for Monday night's game in Philadelphia. "I don't think I felt any extraordinary pressure to hit it good. It wasn't pressure. It's just that this has been such a weird year. . . . I've never had a year like this. I hadn't punted since the second quarter and you just never get into any kind of groove."
When the Redskins got him from the San Diego Chargers last year, they thought they were getting one of the NFL's most reliable punters. This season, he has turned into one of its least used.
His 26 punts are easily the fewest in the NFC and the second fewest in the NFL. The raw numbers say he also is having one of his worst seasons: His 40.2-yard average is the 19th highest in the NFL and his 35.6-yard net yardage (when returns are subtracted) is the 15th highest in the NFL.
At the same time, he has done a good job of getting the ball down inside the 20-yard line -- what the NFL calls "pooch punts."
He is the only punter in the league who hasn't kicked a punt into the end zone, and he has had 10 punts downed inside the 10, four inside the 5.
The Redskins begin any critique of his work by emphasizing the positives.
"He's worked very hard on those kicks, and he has gotten very, very good at it," special teams coach Wayne Sevier said. "He had problems with that the four years we were together in San Diego, and he has worked at it and made himself better. Four years ago, he was getting about half his punts down inside the 20-yard line. Now he has about a three-to-one ratio. You have to give him credit for that. That's helped our special teams play a lot."
At the same time . . .
"I don't think any of us are happy with the way he's hitting the ball away," Sevier said. "He's not happy about it and we're not happy about it. But it has been a strange year. He has just never had enough punts to get into any kind of groove."
Mojsiejenko went an entire preseason game without a punt, got only four in Week 4 against the Cardinals and none in Week 5 against the Giants. "The last preseason game was the one that really hurt," Sevier said. "That was a game I was looking for him to get in a real good groove, which he always had in past seasons. But what happens is that he doesn't get a single punt."
Mojsiejenko shrugs. He has taken extra work in practice, taken less work, kicked more into the sideline nets during games, kicked less into the sideline nets.
What his job comes down to is that he has gotten about three important chances in eight games and one of them could have cost the Redskins a game.
"I'm not happy at all about my punting," he said. "I really feel I'm not getting enough repetitions to get into a groove. It seems like I get into a game and the first two or three are pooch punts. Then I've got to unload on one and don't hit it good. It's an odd situation. You can practice as much as you want, but repetitions in a game are the ones that matter. I've never had a year like this. I've never had this few punts after eight games and I just haven't gotten into any kind of a rhythm. I'm not making excuses because I'm paid to go out there and do what needs to be done. But I don't think I've gotten any bounces, either. I look up and the punts are bouncing back toward me."
The tough part is that he can't get better unless the Redskins' offense starts doing less. He said he needs "six or seven punts to get me going. But that's from a personal standpoint."
One of the things that excited him about coming to Washington was the chance to play in a playoff game or a Super Bowl and he's keeping an eye on that prize. "If I get the reps I need, it'll be because the offense wasn't doing its job," he said. "I don't want that. It might help me do my job, but from a team standpoint, I want the offense on the field all the time."