There's not a lot new going on here, is there? The primary story line is pretty much the same: The Redskins face a playoff contender, the Redskins make huge mistakes, the Redskins lose big. That's been the scenario against the Cowboys twice, Buffalo and now the Detroit Lions.
Talk about things you could always count on, the Lions hadn't beaten the Redskins since 1965. Sonny Jurgensen was the quarterback. The Lions were playing outdoors, at Tiger Stadium. We had come to believe that the Redskins beating the Lions was preordained. But 14 penalties, four turnovers and giving up too early on the running game can reverse any arrangement. Life would be peachy if the Redskins could play the sorry Giants every week, but the fact is the Colts and Dolphins are still on the schedule with only one month left in the regular season.
Remember when the Redskins' offense could do no wrong? Well, lately it hasn't been anything special. Sunday, in a 33-17 loss, it couldn't do much right. The Redskins haven't scored 30 points in five weeks. Here in the Silverdome against the Lions, the offense scored one touchdown. The man who for my money is the best back in the NFC this season--Stephen Davis--got a grand total of three carries in the second half of what was a close game for the most part. It's as if Davis was kidnapped at halftime, or the Lions defensive coordinator started calling Washington's offensive plays.
Desmond Howard seemed to have more touches in the second half than Davis, and 24 hours earlier, Howard was in Chicago trying to get his teeth cleaned. I'm serious. Howard, freshly cut by the Packers, was headed to Florida for the winter and wanted to make sure his smile was working. "I had just gotten my braces removed, and I was trying to set up a teeth-cleaning appointment," he said, describing what he was doing when the Lions called, looking for an emergency return man.
You think Howard wasn't on cloud nine after he helped his new team beat his old team? You think Gus Frerotte wasn't the happiest man in Michigan after completing 21 of 32 passes for 280 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and no concrete wall mishaps? Said Howard: "I told Gus after our Saturday night meeting, 'Now calm down. I know they screwed you. You're excited, I'm excited for the same reasons. You're going to be great tomorrow.' "
They both were. Howard's 68-yard punt return for a touchdown put the Lions ahead to stay, 17-10. Fabulous as he was on such a huge play, it's crazy for Howard to influence this game more than Stephen Davis.
Davis was so under-utilized, I wondered if he was sick. Or hurt. "Felt better today than I have in weeks," he said.
There was nothing wrong with him when he was handed the ball, as evidenced by 12 carries for 51 yards. He just didn't get the ball. Did he understand why? Of course not. Nobody did. Not only that, but Davis offered the most on-point analysis after the game. Asked about Detroit's ornery defensive line, the one that made Brad Johnson's life miserable, Davis said, "Their defensive linemen are really quick. . . . But when we were running at them, we were making yards." Absolutely correct. The best way to nullify linemen buzzing all over the place is to attack them with smash-mouth football, which is what this line and Davis have done well several times this season.
Now, I don't want to start throwing haymakers at Norv Turner about his play-calling because it's been a 9.9999999 on a 10-point scale all season. I can't imagine who in the NFL might be better. Whatever criticisms we might have of Turner, offensive game plan/play-calling isn't one of them. But the help Johnson needed Sunday wasn't from his line, it was from the running game. Turner second-guessed himself afterward when he said that not running the ball enough is "probably one of the things I'll look at."
With the running game kept under wraps and Johnson not throwing with the accuracy he has most of the season, the offense wasn't scaring the Lions. That's not good news because the Lions were playing a pair of backup cornerbacks and the Redskins' passing game still couldn't take advantage of the situation. Was the officiating mistake that turned a Redskins touchdown into a field goal in the first quarter a bad sign? Maybe. But so was the fact that Johnson's pass should have been picked off by Mark Carrier anyway. Then it would have been zero points instead of three. Johnson wasn't pitching one of those perfect games (as he did earlier this season) that mandates a team keep throwing the ball every down. Take the second series of the game, for example. After keeping the ball for 14 plays and 8 minutes 38 seconds on their first drive, the Redskins got the ball right back and had the chance to start really leaning on the Lions' defense. Instead, Johnson threw incomplete on first down, then threw an interception on second down. Davis didn't get a whiff.
The guy who had the great game was Michael Westbrook, who caught five passes for 108 yards (one touchdown) and was robbed of another touchdown by a crazy replay reversal in the fourth quarter. Even Westbrook's fumble in the final period is forgivable. Noted sports physicians have expressed surprise that Westbrook is able to play at all with his wrist in a cast. He's giving what he can, which is a lot. And he also expressed the frustration I'd like to see coming from more folks on this team.
"We can't win playing stupid football," he said. "My fumble didn't help. Brad's interception didn't help. It's all of us. We were sacking Gus, but we weren't hitting him. He was never rattled. We didn't rattle him. We made him look like Joe Montana out there. And how many penalties did we have?"
Told the number was 14, Westbrook said, "What? I've never seen that many flags on one team in a game . . . not since college. . . . Fourteen penalties is ridiculous."
The Redskins' inability to put together a good game against a worthy opponent is growing fairly ridiculous, too, and they've got precious little time to do anything about it, with tougher opponents on deck.