ST. LOUIS — When the schedule is examined in January, a couple of games always stand out, measures of stamina and resilience that say more about a team than any opening-week hyperbolic upset. Play-through games, coaches call them.
Play through key injuries on defense, through botched punts and dropped passes. Play through brain-lock losses of composure and physical skirmishes inexplicably allowed to go on after punches are thrown. Play through, really, an abomination of calls that leaves both sides feeling jobbed, angry and with no respect for the replacement referees compromising the NFL’s product.
“Never have I been involved in a game like this,” Mike Shanahan said.
On a blown call Sunday that served as a clear indictment to Roger Goodell’s inability to get the league’s referees back to work, the Redskins couldn’t play through that adversity at the Edward Jones Dome.
They scrapped. They put themselves in perfect position to pull off a pulsating victory in the final two minutes — DeAngelo Hall recovering a fumble, Robert Griffin III using the Rams’ defenders as traffic cones as he moved the Redskins downfield for at least a tying field goal and maybe a clinching touchdown.
But then Josh Morgan happened. On a day when cheap-shotting and woofing ruled, when low-level college referees had no idea how to contain the violence or much less bring order to the field, that bubbling cauldron inside of the soft-spoken receiver percolated over.
Morgan threw away a first-and-10 from about the 29-yard-line – or, at worst, a fourth-and-1 from roughly the same spot – when he threw the ball in frustration at another junk-talking Rams’ defensive back who brought him down.
Flag. Fifteen yards. After Shanahan decided to summon Billy Cundiff for a career-long, 62-yard field goal indoors – reasoning that he’d kicked all those kickoffs from the 35-yard line out of the endzone — the ball fell short and the game was over.
Washington had lost a sloppy, dirty, if wildly entertaining, thriller to the Rams, giving back a two-touchdown lead before falling 31-28.
They lost because their defense couldn’t apply the pressure it wanted after losing Adam Carriker (right knee, it doesn’t look good) and Brian Orakpo to first-quarter injuries. They lost because Sam Bradford is awfully good when he gets protection, and the Rams defense began lowering their shoulders and bull rushing Griffin III until he finally went down a few times and had to give the ball up.
Mostly, they lost because they couldn’t play through some of the worst adversity imaginable a team could face just two games into the season.
That doesn’t make RGIII’s team bad or destined for below .500. But it does lend credence to what Joe Theismann said before the opener, a quote that didn’t get the traction it probably deserved.
“By Week 2 we should have a little bit of an idea of whether we’re gonna suffer through some of the pains of last year,” Theismann said, adding he didn’t see that happening for the Redskins with Griffin having a game under his belt.
His thesis has a lot of merit. It’s one thing to go into a frenzied dome as an almost 10-point underdog with a rookie quarterback going against a defense its town has already martyred in the wake of Bountygate. The Redskins had nothing to lose in New Orleans; they were playing with house money.
It’s another to move up the Mississippi River a few hundred miles a week later, come into a dome as the favorite and feeling so good about themselves after that Week 1 stunner against the Saints.
Up 21-6 and 28-23, they couldn’t handle prosperity as well as they would have liked. Jim Haslett’s defense became porous when the pass rush wasn’t there, Danny Smith’s special teams coughed up its second blocked punt in as many weeks and not even the nimble feet and heart of Griffin could cover for Morgan’s abject mental lapse in an ugly scrum that — not to completely take him off the hook — any player could have lost their cool at the end.
“You wait for the second [punch] to be thrown before you throw a flag?” Santana Moss said afterward. “They were doing a lot of dirty stuff after every play.”
Everyone on both sides was at a loss as to how out of control the game had become. Wayne Elliott, the head referee, was the same guy excoriated for leading a crew that called 11 penalties in the first half of a Chargers preseason game against the Vikings.
Still, there are important, move-the-chain drives in the NFL and then there are game-changing drives — right down the throat of a defense, right into the teeth of a deafening crowd.
That was Griffin in the offense after the fumble recovery in the final two minutes.
Out of the chaos they had every opportunity to emerge with a win on the road, beat a team they were supposed to beat and move to 2-0 heading into Sunday’s home opener against the Bengals.
But the Redskins leave St. Louis with major defensive concerns going forward, almost an about-face from all the years the defense bailed the offense out. Because of that, because of Morgan’s meltdown in the final minutes, they couldn’t play through and have already suffered their first growing pain on the way to getting it right.
For more columns by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.
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