One of these days, the Redskins are going to stop making life so hard for themselves. But until they do, they are what they are -- a .500 team that tends to play to the level of its competition. When that competition is the Chargers, it's not so bad. But when that competition is the Rams, a club quarterbacked by a seventh-round rookie starting his first NFL game, it's another matter entirely.
The Redskins ended three weeks of near-miss misery yesterday by holding off St. Louis, 24-9, at the Edward Jones Dome, but that's about all they did. No statements or breakthroughs were made. And once again you found yourself wondering: Why was this game even remotely close?
Rams QB Ryan Fitzpatrick might be a Harvard grad, but in terms of his pro football education, he's little more than a Student Driver. He has a nice arm, nimble feet and may eventually develop into something, but it certainly wasn't going to happen last night. Fitzpatrick's presence under center was a gift from the football gods for the Redskins, and yet they led only 10-7 going into the fourth quarter and didn't put the Rams away until the rookie did a rookie thing and botched a handoff near midfield with 11:10 left. Not long after that, Chris Cooley scored the clincher on a 4-yard flip from Mark Brunell.
So the Snydermen continue to have a faint playoff pulse, but only after another 60 minutes of living much too dangerously. When you dominate an opponent the way they did the Rams, outgaining the home team 341-129 in the first three quarters, you should be pretty much in a position to empty the bench. Instead, the Redskins were putting themselves in a position to blow another one.
"We kept making mistakes," Jon Jansen said. "The holding penalty [against Chris Samuels] that pushed us out of field goal range, the personal foul [against Santana Moss for unsportsmanlike conduct that made another John Hall attempt a lot longer than it needed to be]. We'd just do things that kept us from being successful earlier in the game. You can't do that."
Not against a credible team, you can't. But you can against St. Louis, a club missing its coach (heart-troubled Mike Martz) and top two quarterbacks and dealing with all kinds of defensive issues. Rock Cartwright looked like Bronko Nagurski against the soft-tackling Rams, gaining 118 yards in just nine cracks. Clinton Portis, meanwhile, had 136 and a pair of touchdowns. Heck, for stretches, the Redskins hardly needed Brunell's left arm; Jansen and Co. were controlling things that well.
"The offensive line did a great job," Cartwright said. "All I had to do was just run. Everything worked the way it did on the practice field."
They wouldn't be the Redskins, though, if there weren't a few fourth quarter palpitations. Yesterday's Adventures in Angina were caused by Brunell and Portis bumping on a pass play deep in Washington territory, resulting in the scariest of fumbles. But as the ball bounced in the end zone, the veteran quarterback had the presence of mind to knock it out of bounds, where the Rams couldn't get their clammy hands on it. The safety made it 17-9, a one-score game, but it sure beat the alternative.
"That's what's happened to us all year," Cooley said. "We have a chance to put the game away, and then we make a stupid turnover. But then we came back with a great drive [ending with his TD catch]. You know, I think we've had the lead in the fourth quarter of just about every game but the Giants. We just have to continue to learn how to win."
It's difficult to say how much progress they've made on that front. After all, they began the season with a game similar to yesterday's -- playing a rookie quarterback (the Bears' Kyle Orton) starting his first game -- and flirted with disaster in that one, too. The fact that they're still pulling these stunts in December is cause for concern.
In too many situations, they're just not making winning plays. Their trip to the red zone late in the first half is a perfect example. They had first-and-goal at the St. Louis 6, a terrific opportunity to go up by a touchdown, and somehow managed to wind up back on the 20 (thanks to two plays that went virtually nowhere and Moss' 15-yard hissy fit after being jostled on the third-down incompletion). Luckily for them, Hall, who had already missed a field goal, made good on a 38-yarder.
"We've got four to go," Joe Gibbs said. "We all know how important they are. It's just fun to have something to play for and maybe be able to control a little bit our own destiny."
It is, indeed. But how many more of these games can a 65-year-old coach be expected to stand?