Tre Johnson needed only one sentence to perfectly sum up the day, the lead that evaporated, the botched attempt at a game-winning field goal, the despair of losing a game that was eminently winnable. "The steak was on the plate, it was all cut up, and then we can't eat it," he said.
That's it in a nutshell, accurate and on point. This wasn't supposed to amount to a playoff loss. The Washington Redskins followed nearly every detail of the blueprint: Get the lead, win the battle of field position, stop Mike Alstott, protect Brad Johnson, be in position to win it late. They did so much of the hard stuff admirably, such as battle Warren Sapp and the Tampa Bay defensive line, such as hold Alstott to a measly 24 yards rushing. "We got ahead. We made them do things they didn't want to do like rely on the passing game the second half. We did most of what we talked about needing to do," Johnson said. "I'd rather be blown out than lose like this."
It was an old-fashioned NFC playoff game, the kind that should have been played in Green Bay or the old Met in Minnesota, someplace without luxury suites and palm trees. It was brutal and hard-hitting and not for the faint of heart. It was a game where moving the ball to the 50-yard line before punting "was an accomplishment," Coach Norv Turner said.
A season that started with a botched field goal attempt ended with the same. Talk about perfect--and unwanted--symmetry. A 52-yard field goal attempt is hardly a gimme; it's not even close to a 50-50 proposition for even a Pro Bowl kicker. But you'd like to at least give your kicker a chance, and the Redskins didn't. "If we can't get the simple mechanics of a field goal down, you don't deserve to go forward," Johnson said.
The irony is that the Redskins looked so deserving for most of the game. As a reminder of how nothing this season has made any sense, the Redskins, whose defensive coordinator and special teams coach were nearly fired at midseason, were on the verge of going to the NFC championship game on the strength of their defense and special teams.
With the score 13-0 it seemed plausible, even probable. If there's any team in the NFL that wouldn't be able to come from behind by scoring two touchdowns in the final 22 minutes, it's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, offensively challenged for years. Especially with Alstott and Dunn running into a brick wall of a defense, and especially with rookie quarterback Shaun King making his first playoff start.
Even after King got hot and the Bucs had taken a 14-13 lead, the Redskins were in position to win but for two things: Skip Hicks not getting three yards on third and three, and Dan Turk's bad snap to holder Brad Johnson on the field goal attempt. Hicks was marvelous in the quick passing game, but what made Turner call his number on third down--up the middle, no less--when everybody on both teams knows Hicks isn't a tough inside runner? "We thought we could hit 'em with a run, with that formation," Turner said. "We didn't think they'd hit us with a blitz. They did." That play was followed by the bad field goal snap.
Tampa Bay's best unit topped the Redskins' best unit with a spot in the conference championship game at stake; that's what this amounted to. With the game on the line, we all know the Redskins want their offense on the field. Conversely, we all know the Buccaneers want their defense on the field. Before Tampa Bay's defense went on the field for the final time, the irrepressible Sapp pronounced to his mates, "We've got enough points."
And Coach Tony Dungy would say later, "There's no feeling that we like more than our defense being on the field protecting a lead. We'll take that situation every time. We wouldn't have it any other way."
For the first 43 minutes of the game, the Redskins shocked the house by matching the Tampa Bay defense blow for blow, sack for sack.
I guess this is what's meant by "better late than never." It took 18 games, the input of special consultant Bill Arnsparger, and more anxiety than any of us will know before the defense could get to this point. It was as if the defenses on these teams switched uniforms before the game. Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson became Sapp and Brad Culpepper. Derek Smith and Shawn Barber became Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson. Leomont Evans became John Lynch. It was the Redskins defense that pitched a virtual shutout for a while. It was the Redskins' defense, after getting torched by the likes of Charlie Garner, that battered a Pro Bowl running back senseless. Alstott must have felt he was going against the Bucs' No. 1 defense in practice.
Nolan and Arnsparger called a wonderful game. The defense was aggressive when it needed to be, judicious when appropriate. There were times the linebackers and safeties showed blitz to the rookie, King, but backed off just to make him crazy.
But the only guy on the Tampa Bay squad as calm as Dungy seemed to be this King kid. Rattled early, he came back and completed critical passes when he had to, such as the go-ahead touchdown toss to John Davis while Ndukwe Kalu tried to plant him like a tulip. King is so serene in the huddle it's like he's about to fall asleep. "That's been his M.O. since college," Dungy said, referring to King's undefeated senior year at Tulane and his 5-1 record as an NFL starter. Now, I wouldn't give you a quarter for Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Shula or his offensive game plan. The Bucs have too much talent to have to steal pages from the Woody Hayes playbook.
But this is Tampa Bay's M.O.: Trust the defense, put the offense on a short leash. That defense held the Redskins to 26 yards the second half. "There's not a whole lot of scoring, and not a whole lot of fun stuff with us," Sapp said. "But these kinds of victories are more gratifying than blowing somebody out."
The Redskins play a more high-risk sort of game. They don't have a Bucs-style defense to turn the game over to. Even with a 13-0 lead, they needed points. Asked if the Redskins were in control, Darrell Green said, "A low-scoring game is nobody's game. Thirteen points? You can't even think about winning a game with 13 or 14 points."
And so Brad Johnson was throwing the ball deep, which gave safety Lynch a chance to pick it off and change the game. If that didn't change it, that sack-fumble-recovery that Warrick Dunn carried for a nine-yard gain did. The nerve of a team as talented as the Buccaneers to be lucky and good.
It is a play that will haunt the Redskins this offseason, as will the botched field goal try. A team that appeared good enough to play for the NFC championship goes home both significantly improved and still hungry, that steak having been eaten by someone else.