The arcing pass from Mark Brunell fell gently to Clinton Portis in perfect stride as the running back emerged from a fog of bodies, sprinted past the Green Bay defense and launched himself across the goal line for a 43-yard touchdown, leaving the Washington Redskins just an extra point away from taking the lead yesterday afternoon with less than three minutes to play.
Washington had been facing third and eight and trailing 20-14, but as delirium spread through FedEx Field and exhausted offensive linemen chased Portis around the end zone seeking to join in his celebration, the officials were collaborating in the backfield, where a flag had been thrown. This was Washington's biggest play of the season -- the kind of sequence that can propel a middling team on to greater things and re-ignite a stumbling offense -- but in the eyes of the NFL, none of it ever occurred.
The officials called an illegal motion penalty against wide receiver James Thrash, who was in motion on the play, a decision that left the Redskins both confounded and vexed. Brunell (25 of 44 for 218 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions), scorned by the crowd throughout the game, was no longer redeemed, and threw an interception on the next play. Green Bay added a touchdown and two-point conversion on that drive to secure a 28-14 win, handing Coach Joe Gibbs another stinging defeat and dropping his team to 2-5, alone in last place in the NFC East.
"Our season was on the verge of just turning around if we win that game," tackle Chris Samuels said. "If Clinton's touchdown was good. But unfortunately they made the call. That's what they thought. There's nothing we can do about that now."
Washington's coaches left the stadium last night unsure of why the officials threw that flag. Gibbs said he was told initially that Portis was observed moving at the line of scrimmage, but the coaches were adamant the runner was set. Another official told Gibbs that Thrash was the culprit and either did not come to a complete stop while in motion or was lurching over the line; Thrash was involved in pass protection on the play and did not go out for a pattern.
"I've got to tell you, it's an absolute mystery to me," Gibbs said of the call. Thrash was similarly confused. "I think [the referee] said the back [Portis] was moving forward, and then he said I was moving forward in motion. To be honest I don't know for sure. . . . I'm not going to say something bad about somebody because I don't know for sure."
Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense, tried to call other officials to the sideline to get a clarification, but said his pleas were ignored. "Nobody gave us a clear definition of it," he said. Don Breaux, the mild-mannered offensive coordinator, berated an official in the corridor outside Washington's dressing room after the game and was still searching for answers an hour later. "I don't know what they called there," he said. "I really don't know." A league official contacted after the game confirmed an illegal motion penalty was called on Thrash but was unable to offer any further explanation on the penalty.
That swing -- from potential game-winning touchdown to loss-clinching interception -- was but one of many twists in this contest, during which several questionable calls did not go the Redskins' way. Packers quarterback Brett Favre, still reeling from the recent death of his brother-in-law and the revelation that his wife has breast cancer, went from completing 14 of 18 passes for 234 yards in the first half to nearly handing the game away with poor decisions in the second half. Washington's top-ranked defense, lacking several vital players, recovered from a slow start to force three turnovers and put the offense in stellar position to win it late.
Green Bay scored on its first three possessions with Favre (playing his 197th consecutive game) attacking the Redskins' undermanned secondary; starting safeties Matt Bowen (injury) and Sean Taylor (suspended after a DWI arrest) were out and replacement Andre Lott left with an injury in the first half. Ryan Clark, starting for Taylor, bit on a fake from wide receiver Donald Driver on the first drive, leading to a 41-yard catch to set up a 37-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell. The Packers moved 75 yards on nine plays on their second possession, a pass interference call on linebacker Lamar Marshall on fourth and one from the 3 put the ball on the 1 and Ahman Green scored from there early in the second quarter. Green, who was stymied rushing, took a screen pass 48 yards on the third drive, which culminated in Favre's nine-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker for a 17-0 lead.
Nothing was working for the Redskins. The team burned timeouts early again and waffled on clock management. Gibbs turned to trickery for the first time this season, but a reverse and an attempted touchdown pass from wide receiver Rod Gardner failed (as would an onside-kick attempt to start the second half), and Brunell, one of the lowest-rated passers in the NFL, continued to overthrow receivers, missing Laveranues Coles twice on third down plays. "That can't happen," Brunell said. "You have to get the ball to the receiver."
Brunell's nadir came on the first possession after Walker's touchdown, when he was intercepted while under duress. He hobbled off the field with the fans booing and chanting, "Ramsey, Ramsey," hoping backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey would enter the game. "You never want it to happen and you certainly hear it," Brunell said of catcalls. "It's frustrating."
That's when Favre began to unravel as well, however. He was intercepted by Shawn Springs on the next play, and an illegal block penalty on the quarterback moved the ball to the 24-yard line. "It's a great win," Favre said. "But I can't be pleased with the way that I played."
Tight end Robert Royal kept the ensuing drive going with his first catch of the season, gaining 23 yards on fourth and 22 by diving forward and extending the ball for the first down, then Gardner caught a 12-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-7. The Packers (4-4) converted the recovered onside kick to start the third quarter into a 39-yard field goal and the Redskins were behind 20-7 as the fourth quarter began.
Favre's low pass was picked off by Springs and returned to the 17 with about five minutes to play and, after exhausting two primary receiving options in the end zone, Brunell found Gardner in the left corner for a 12-yard score to pull the Redskins within 20-14. Favre badly overthrew Robert Ferguson on Green Bay's next possession and cornerback Fred Smoot completed another outstanding performance by intercepting that pass.
Washington took over at its 38 and surged into Green Bay territory. The coaches opted to unveil a new play -- a post-pattern for Portis (17 rushes for 70 yards), to utilize his speed -- and positioned the back as a blocker in one of their maximum pass protection schemes. He was, however, the primary receiver, with Thrash in motion to the opposite side to draw attention there. All of it worked well, but one yellow flag negated everything and Green's second touchdown put the game out of reach.
"I thought we had finally done something to help us win," Breaux said. "It tears your heart out, really."