It was the moment every kicker dreams about, with all the pressure of a season riding on his shoulders and every eye in a sold-out stadium riveted on his right foot.
The Washington Redskins trailed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 14-13, with 1 minute 17 seconds remaining in the game. Place kicker Brett Conway patted down the spot on the field where he would attempt the 52-yard field goal. The wind gusted at his back. Conway brimmed with confidence, having already made a 48-yarder, that he would deliver on this one, too, and send the Redskins into the NFC championship game with one heroic boot.
But the unthinkable happened, and the dream turned into a nightmare.
Long snapper Dan Turk botched the snap, and the ball bounced across the turf instead of flying into the waiting hands of quarterback Brad Johnson, who doubles as the holder on field goal attempts.
Johnson managed to scoop up the bouncing ball, but the chance for a field goal attempt--which requires almost perfect timing to be successful--was gone. Conway hesitated. Johnson sprang to his feet, desperate to save the play. Conway attempted to throw a block, and Johnson tossed the ball toward Mike Sellers.
But the alchemy wasn't there. Johnson was hit, and the ball fell incomplete. Tampa Bay took over on its 43 after the Redskins lost 10 yards on the play. Three plays later, the game was over, and the Redskins' season ended in a surreal mirror image of the way it began: A game that started out promising slipped away on a botched field goal attempt.
Conway didn't need to be reminded of the field goal that never was in the Redskins' season-opening loss to Dallas. The score was tied with just a few seconds remaining in regulation. Holder Matt Turk mishandled the snap from Dan Turk, his older brother. The Redskins lost in overtime.
"I didn't want to say that," Conway said, reminded of the outcome against Dallas. "But I'm a realist. The Dallas game did start off [the season] like that. But there's a million things we could have done better. We didn't play like we've played all season."
The Redskins took possession against Tampa Bay with 3:05 left in the game. Running back Stephen Davis, whose sprained left ankle was weak by that point, was replaced by Skip Hicks, who caught passes of six and 11 yards. On second down from the Tampa Bay 33, Johnson rushed a deep throw to Michael Westbrook that fell incomplete. The next play was a handoff to Hicks, who followed the left tackle. But the Buccaneers blitzed, holding Hicks for no gain.
The Redskins called time out, which could have rattled their kicker, knowing he was facing a 52-yard attempt. Conway said the lull was a blessing.
"It was all right," Conway said. "I needed to get out there and pat the field down and make a nice spot for the ball."
Johnson took his spot as the holder, believing Conway had a 50-50 shot of making the kick.
Watching from the sideline, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp thought to himself, "God help us."
It unfolded like this, from Conway's vantage point:
"The ball came back, and it was low. It looked like it bounced halfway back, and I think it bounced a second time--maybe a third time. Brad bobbled it for a second and actually set it down for a minute. I kind of hesitated. He picked it up and ran with it. I tried to block for him. We had good protection. There was nobody coming in. I didn't see the guy coming off the back side [cornerback Floyd Young] because my back was to Brad, and I couldn't block for him."
Redskins Coach Norv Turner said he thought television viewers had a better vantage point. He saw it only once. But it looked to him like the ball rolled back.
"Brad never had a chance," Turner said. "When you're kicking a 50-yard field goal, and the ball rolls, the kicker has got to regroup. Brad could have tried to get it down, but the timing is all gone. You've got to be perfect on that."
Turner became angry when someone suggested that it was yet another failure on the part of the Redskins' special teams unit.
"Hey," he said. "You evaluate that. One guy doesn't get the job done. That's one guy. That's not special teams."
Dan Turk was among the first out of the locker room and onto the team bus.
"I don't know what happened," Turk said. "I just [did] what I've done for so long. I don't know if I short-armed it or what. The [nose tackle] got a little jump on me, but nothing abnormal. I don't know."
Conway said he'd never seen Turk snap a ball like that and guessed that he wouldn't likely do it that way again in 10,000 attempts.
"There's a first time for everything," Conway said. "I missed a kick earlier this year--a 28-yarder to win it--and I said, 'There are more important things in life.' And Dan is going to realize that. There are more important things in life than that."