- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

As Clinton Portis dived playfully into the end zone and what remained of the crowd of 89,295 roared back to life, there was a sense around FedEx Field that the Washington Redskins’ 2004 season had just been saved.

But then someone saw it — the bright yellow flag lying on the ground back at the 43-yard line.

Portis’ electrifying touchdown catch from Mark Brunell was wiped away by an illegal-motion penalty on receiver James Thrash, and what for a fleeting moment looked like an inspiring Redskins comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers, was transformed into yet another heart-wrenching loss.

“That’s a season-breaker,” receiver Rod Gardner said of the defining play in Washington’s 28-14 loss. “After all that, we put ourselves in that position. We came back, and they get us on an illegal shift? Come on, man.”

Truth be told, the Redskins (2-5) were lucky to be in position to win the game. Dominated thoroughly by the Packers (4-4) for three quarters, Washington needed a pair of Brett Favre interceptions in the fourth quarter to bring itself back from 17 points and set up Portis’ overturned touchdown.

But for a team desperately trying to resurrect its wayward season, the final moments of yesterday’s game served as both a cruel tease of what might have been and a harsh dose of what is. The Redskins have lost five of six games, and they seem to be doing it the same way each week.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been tested like this,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “I’ve been through 0-5 [in 1981], but I think this is every bit as tough. … We’ve been through seven tough games. We’ve played them all fairly tough, they’ve all come down to the fourth quarter and we’ve lost five of them. That’s a real tough experience to go through.”

Of all of Gibbs’ losses in his first season back from retirement, yesterday’s might have been the most demoralizing, all because of the Portis touchdown that wasn’t.

Having intercepted Favre for the third time in the game and the second time in two minutes, the Redskins faced third-and-8 at the Green Bay 43, trailing 20-14 with 2:43 to play. Brunell, who shook off another atrocious first-half performance that had the crowd pleading for backup Patrick Ramsey, nearly won all of them back when he hit Portis streaking out of the backfield to race untouched on his way to the end zone.

An Ola Kimrin extra point would have given Washington a 21-20 lead that minutes earlier would have been as far-fetched a notion as the thought of Favre giving the game away on stupid throws.

Kimrin, though, never made it onto the field. The Redskins were flagged for illegal motion, a call that left plenty of fans steamed and everyone perplexed. Gibbs said he was originally told by an official that Portis was the guilty party; he was then informed that Thrash, who ran in motion from left to right before the snap, was the culprit.

The coach still wasn’t satisfied with the explanation 30 minutes later.

“It’s an absolute mystery to me,” Gibbs said. “I think the guy on the far side called it. I asked for an explanation. All he said was the ‘R-back’ moved. The ‘R-back’s‘ Clinton Portis. The ‘R-back’ doesn’t move. Then somebody else said they called James Thrash coming across in motion. James Thrash didn’t even release. He saw the safety dropping down, and he didn’t release on the pass. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t know.”

Thrash, who appeared to come set at the line of scrimmage just before the Redskins snapped the ball, was a little more diplomatic in his response.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know for sure. It’s hard to say,” he said. “But I’m not going to say something bad about somebody, because I don’t know for sure until we watch film. Whether it was a good call or a bad call, we can’t go back. We have to live with it.”

Even after the penalty moved the ball back to the 48, Washington still had a chance. But on the next play, Brunell (25 of 44, 218 yards) was intercepted by Packers cornerback Al Harris, and moments later Ahman Green scored from 11 yards out to seal Green Bay’s victory.

“We thought we’d gotten the play we needed to put us over the edge and perhaps launch us into the remainder of the season,” Brunell said. “That’s one that’s going to hurt for a while.”

Despite some late-game heroics, including the second of two touchdown passes to Gardner, Brunell had a miserable time getting the Redskins’ offense going. Only one of Washington’s 12 offensive drives went for more than 34 yards, and that one (early in the fourth quarter) resulted in a missed 35-yard field goal.

Favre, meanwhile, shook off the effects of an injured throwing hand to lead the Packers to scores on their first three drives of the game. The future Hall of Fame quarterback completed three passes of at least 40 yards in the game’s first 22 minutes, setting up a 37-yard field goal from Ryan Longwell, a 1-yard touchdown run from Green and a 9-yard scoring pass to Javon Walker.

Up 17-0 midway through the second quarter, Green Bay’s No. 2-ranked offense had its way with Washington’s top-ranked defense.

“You’ve got to figure you’re not going to stop them,” Gibbs said. “You’re going to just try to limit them as best you can, and try to get your offense to do some things that keep him off the field.”

The Redskins’ offense did little to keep Favre (20 of 33, 289 yards) on the sideline. Washington was 1-for-10 on third down, and time and again the offense proved incapable of coming through with big plays at key moments.

Contrast that with the Packers’ never-ending supply of big plays, and it’s not surprising the Redskins were sulking over a season-changing touchdown that never was.

“We were making plays at the proper times,” Green Bay safety Darren Sharper said. “They were killing themselves.”

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