A pair of former Washington Redskins reared up like ghosts to haunt their former team Sunday at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Playing for the Detroit Lions, quarterback Gus Frerotte made the critical plays when he needed to, and return specialist Desmond Howard ran 68 yards for a touchdown on a punt return to spark teammates he'd only met the day before, when the Lions signed him.
But when the deafening cheers subsided, there was no mistaking, as the Redskins reflected on their 33-17 loss to Detroit, that their own mistakes had been the biggest hand in their defeat.
The Redskins committed 14 penalties for 122 yards, compared with nine infractions that cost Detroit 65 yards. Moreover, the Redskins turned over the ball four times. Quarterback Brad Johnson threw two interceptions, and two of Washington's six fumbles were recovered by the Lions.
There were explanations for many of the gaffes, which included everything from holding, illegal blocks, and face-mask penalties to intentional grounding.
The crowd of 77,693--the Lions' fifth sellout of the season--created such a ruckus as the Redskins tried to fight their way back into the game that linemen could not hear.
Wide receiver Michael Westbrook insisted that the cast on his broken right wrist was not a factor in the fumble he committed after an 18-yard reception, but it looked as if he got stripped for that very reason. The turnover led to a 52-yard field goal that made it 26-17.
"I was trying to make a play," Westbrook said. "I saw the guy coming. . . . I was trying to spin out, trying to score a touchdown. I obviously wasn't protecting the ball enough."
Finally, there was Detroit's imposing defensive line--as fast and physical as any Johnson remembered facing in some time. Johnson was sacked five times, losing 32 yards in the process. One of those plays put the game out of reach.
Trailing 26-17 with 8 minutes 23 seconds remaining, the Redskins needed two scores to win. Johnson dropped back to pass on first down at the Washington 20, and defensive tackle James Jones lunged at his throwing arm to force the fumble. Luther Elliss, the Lions' other defensive tackle, scooped up the ball and ran it back 11 yards for the score.
Said Redskins Coach Norv Turner: "If you're going to turn the football over and going to give up big plays in the passing game like we did, you're going to have a tough time winning."
Westbrook, a Detroit native who had bought tickets for more than 60 friends and family members, was perhaps the most disgusted player in the Redskins' locker room afterward.
"Mentally we just need to screw our heads on right now," said Westbrook, who caught a 39-yard touchdown pass. "We just can't have that many penalties and expect to win a game. I'm not doubting anybody's heart; everybody's heart is there. We all left that out on the field today. We just can't be playing stupid football and expect to win."
In the first quarter, the Redskins succeeded at much of their game plan. Redskins running backs carried six times on an opening drive that consumed 14 plays and chewed up 8:38. By controlling the clock as well as taking a 3-0 lead, the Redskins took the home crowd out of the game at the outset.
The offensive line had its hands full with onrushing defensive ends Robert Porcher and Tracy Scroggins, but the protection was reasonably good at first. Still, Johnson felt pressure from the first snap, he said.
"They came from the get-go," Johnson said. "At times we protected really well. But it seemed they were able to come after us."
The Redskins went up 10-3 on a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by James Thrash. But minutes later, Washington's defense allowed Frerotte to complete throws of 6, 30 and 23 yards on a four-play touchdown drive to tie it at 10.
Howard scooted 68 yards for his score on the punt return by making Curtis Buckley miss, then eluding Sam Shade and motoring past punter Matt Turk.
Johnson had few opportunities to throw deep. Trailing 17-10, one of those rare chances slipped away when he lofted a ball to Albert Connell that was both behind him and high.
But the drive that seemed to haunt Johnson most came early in the second half, with the Redskins behind 20-17. Johnson started the drive from the Washington 25. After a five-yard completion on first down to Stephen Davis, the Redskins backed up from there, committing five penalties in the course of the possession (two were declined). There were holding calls on linemen Cory Raymer, Jon Jansen and Andy Heck, as well as a false-start penalty against Raymer and an intentional-grounding call against Johnson, which backed the Redskins up to fourth and 32 from the 3.
"We did stuff that we don't normally do," guard Keith Sims said. "I jumped offsides--for the first time all year. We don't do those kind of things. . . . We accomplished what we wanted to at the beginning, taking the crowd out of it. They got back in. And we made it very difficult on ourselves."
The Redskins' 14 penalties included five offensive holding calls and four false starts.
Said Johnson: "The crowd noise really had an effect today. We were on our heels all day long. They didn't bring any blitzes or anything, but I think that's what caused a lot of our penalties."
Johnson marched the Redskins to the Detroit 40 the next time Washington got the ball. There, he got a crucial first down with a 16-yard completion to Irving Fryar. But the play was negated by a penalty against Jansen. Backed up to third and 14 from midfield, Johnson handed off to Brian Mitchell, who gained 10 yards around the right end, which brought up Turk to punt.
Said Sims: "You've got to take your hat off to Detroit: They played well. But we made them play a lot better than they did."
As Johnson Goes. . .
In the first seven games of this season, Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson threw 14 touchdown passes with two interceptions and fumbled twice. The team was 5-2. In the past five games, the story has been different, and team has won just twice.
Past five Opponents TD Passes INTs Johnson's fumbles
Bills(L) 1 1 1
Eagles(L) 2 3 2
Giants(W) 0 1 1
Eagles(W) 1 1 1
Lions(L) 1 2 2
First 7 games 14 2 2
Past 5 games 5 8 7