In the fourth quarter here on Sunday, Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell had the ball knocked from his grasp by his running back as he dropped back to pass. As the ball bounced crazily in the Washington end zone, pursued by one stumbling Brunell and a herd of charging Rams, he knew just what to do. When all around him were panicking, Brunell was calm, deliberately swatting the ball out of the end zone, giving St. Louis a two-point safety that cut Washington's lead to 17-9. "Better two than six," he said.
Just seconds later, on the next play from scrimmage, Rams rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, with no pressure on him, bobbled a simple handoff near midfield, banging the ball off his tailback's knee. In a moment when there was no need to be rattled, he had the handoff jitters. Just as his Rams were given a possible game-changing gift, Fitzpatrick gave it right back.
Sometimes, apparently, it's better to have 13 seasons in the NFL than four years at Harvard.
In those few brief minutes -- as Brunell prevented St. Louis from cutting Washington's lead to 17-14 and Fitzpatrick gave Washington the ball in Rams territory, setting up a 45-yard, game-clinching touchdown drive -- the nightmares that have haunted the Redskins' sleep for the past three losing weeks were dispelled. Suddenly, Washington's string of self-inflicted misfortunes came to an end, a 24-9 victory was entered in the books and its season returned to the dignity of .500.
If the Redskins had blown a fourth-quarter lead for a fourth consecutive week, the rest of this season might have been a misery of self-doubt and general perplexity. Instead, the Redskins are allowed to dream -- so long as they do it one modest week at a time.
"We've got a lot to look forward to down the stretch," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "This has been a tough, tough, tough month. To bounce back so well says a lot for our guys, especially the way we came off the ball [rushing for 257 yards]. With four games to go, we're this far into the season and we still have a lot to play for. It's fun to be here and still have a chance."
Unless the Redskins run the table, including wins at home against the Cowboys and Giants, they probably don't have much chance for the playoffs since a 10-6 record seems like it will be a minimum requirement. But that's not the point. Finally, they may be improving at winning games that are already in their hands. "We want to finish games the right way," Gibbs said.
This time, they did. But only because of Brunell's poise and Fitzgerald's loss of composure. From Gibbs, right on down through the Washington locker room, there was praise for Brunell for not making the instinctive reflex move of almost every ball carrier -- to try to scoop the ball up and salvage the play or else fall on it for a recovery.
"Mark was smart to bat the ball out of the end zone and give us a chance to still be in there at the end," tackle Jon Jansen said.
"The running back hit the ball [going to block]. I saw it" on the ground, Brunell said. "I thought, 'Instead of six, make it a two-point thing.'
"That play just comes from being around the game for a while. You have to be prepared for something bad to happen."
But don't most players try to recover fumbles -- and their dignity -- in such situations rather than make the goofy gesture of swatting the ball out of play? "Maybe I've made that mistake enough not to do it again," said Brunell.
While Brunell was an innocent victim who, while taking his three-step passing drop, had the ball knocked away from him, Fitzpatrick was entirely at fault and knew it. Perhaps the pressure applied by the defense of Redskins assistant coach Gregg Williams set the stage. Fitzpatrick may never have felt real NFL-style pressure in his life. At Harvard, he was undefeated. In his first NFL game last week, entering in the second quarter, he faced the expansion Texans. Against the humble Houstonians, he passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns and produced a 33-27 comeback victory.
Against the Redskins, however, "I felt like a rookie out there. There were some things out there that confused me. I missed a few of those hot reads on the blitz," Fitzpatrick said. "You can watch all the film you want and then when you get out there and do it, things go a little faster."
In response, every rookie tries to do things just a bit more quickly himself. "Haste makes waste" is a cliche for a good reason; it's true. After the Redskins' free kick following the safety, the Rams started with fine field position at their 37-yard line. Then the good break that has so often eluded the Redskins this season fell into their laps. "I knocked the ball against the fullback's side," Fitzpatrick said. "Completely my fault."
Fitzpatrick didn't yell "fumble" or "fire" or any of the other code words that players sometimes use to alert their teammates to a loose ball. He hoped nobody had seen and wanted to get it back himself.
"I was the only one to see the ball come loose," defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn said. "It was to my side and I had a bird's eye view. The quarterback didn't yell anything. He was keeping a secret. He's a heady guy, a Harvard guy."
But, at 285 pounds, Wynn parted the sea of inhumanity and reached the ball before Fitzpatrick or anyone else. "We've ranked near the top in causing fumbles all season," said Wynn, "but we just haven't been recovering them."
That was the Rams' first turnover of the game. About that time, Gibbs said he was thinking, "Another day where we don't get a turnover." Then one arrived as an early and deeply appreciated holiday present.
This Redskins' victory must be evaluated in its proper context. If Washington had a team comparable to those of the first Gibbs era, then this evening's work would provide plenty of room for criticism. Gibbs' play calling was, once again, quite conservative -- which was not one of his trademarks from '81 to '92. Then, he lulled opponents with off-tackle runs so that he could unleash a deep bomb up the sideline or reveal a new pass pattern, devised at 3 a.m., that somehow left a Redskins tight end loping alone in the end zone for a long pass.
Once again, Washington penalties came at destructive times. If 136 yards rushing by Clinton Portis and 118 more by Rock Cartwright had somehow been wasted, if that loose ball in the Washington end zone had become a Rams' touchdown and this day had ended in another defeat, then post mortems on this season would have been in order.
After this game, Gibbs recalled that heart-skipping moment when he saw the ball fall out of Brunell's hands and wobble across the end zone. "You're fighting your guts [out] and then something like that happens," he said.
But, after eight games full of bad calls, bad plays and bad breaks in the fourth quarter, this game fell the Redskins' way. So they, quite naturally, see progress and good reason to become excited about a game next Sunday with the 4-8 Cards in Phoenix.
"This was a good response by us after the last three weeks," said Brunell. "But it's all part of a process."
And a long one, at that.