- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

TAMPA, Fla.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Mike Alstott broke the plane on his game-winning two-point conversion try last night. You would have needed X-ray vision to make a definitive judgment, and Bill Vinovich — the man who did the double-checking — is, after all, just a referee.

And let’s be honest, the same goes for Ladell Betts’ 94-yard kickoff return touchdown. Maybe one of his toenails strayed out of bounds, maybe it didn’t. Whatever the case, it was too close to reverse the call.

Ain’t it swell that some things in sports still elude the camera’s eye — and remain, forevermore, in the realm of the imagination, of fable? And isn’t it astounding how many NFC playoff spots this season figure to be decided by eyelashes and whiskers and inconclusive photographic evidence?

Well, it’s swell and astounding if you aren’t a Redskins fan. If you are, then you’re wishing there was a Zapruder film of yesterday’s finish, something that would confirm your sneaking suspicion that “We wuz robbed.” But there was no Zapruder film, only the dispiriting sight of “Tampa Bay 36, Washington 35” on the Raymond James Stadium scoreboard.

The Redskins, of course, have been playing games like this all season. They’ve had two one-pointers, one two-pointer and another that went into overtime. They could easily be 6-3 right now. They could also be 3-6. Almost every week has come down to one or two plays, one or two officiating decisions, one or two twists of fate.

But this loss stung more than the others, and not just because the Redskins are convinced Alstott was down before the ball reputedly crossed the goal line with 58 seconds left. It stung more than the others because the Giants had already been upset by the Vikings in improbable fashion — Minnesota’s three TDs came on returns — and the Redskins missed a chance to tie them for first in the division. It stung more than the others because the Bucs could be one of the clubs the Redskins are competing with for a postseason berth … and now hold the tiebreaker edge over them.

The biggest sting, though, came from the knowledge that the Redskins brought this on themselves, that they never should have allowed the game to come down to a two-point conversion. The Bucs had no business putting up 30-plus points, not with young Chris Simms at quarterback and little semblance of a running game. But the Snydermen got the Tampa Bay offense going in the first half by committing three turnovers, two of which led to touchdowns. Without those acts of charity, we wouldn’t even be talking about two-point conversions.

And we still wouldn’t be talking about two-point conversions if the Redskins hadn’t presented Jon Gruden with that option. The Bucs coach had decided, sanely, to go for the tie after Edell Shepherd’s 30-yard touchdown catch in the final minute, but then the left side of the Washington line was offsides on the point-after attempt — egregiously offside — and Gruden chose, somewhat less sanely, to go for the win from three feet away.

Actually, you couldn’t blame him. His Rigginsesque fullback had been unstoppable around the goal line, soaring over Washington defenders for two scores. The way Gruden looked at it, “I wouldn’t have been able to wake up [this morning] not knowing what we would have done with Alstott.”

He also might not have been able to wake up this morning if Alstott had been denied. But the officials said No. 40 got across with his last desperate lunge. The Redskins, naturally, begged to differ, though they were careful not to make spectacles of themselves. “I don’t want to tell you what I really think,” Randy Thomas said, “because I don’t want to get fined.”

There was, as Joe Gibbs put it, “a lot of emotion” in the Washington locker room about the call. “All of our guys thought he was on the ground before he got in,” he said. “That’s what instant replay’s for.” But the players also understood that, to a certain extent, the defeat was self-inflicted.

“On defense,” Renaldo Wynn said, “we feel there’s no way they should have scored that many points. But that kid [Simms] showed a lot of poise in the pocket. … We never should have let it come down to [the two-point try].”

So it has gone this season for the Redskins. And there’s no indication the next seven weeks will be any different. The playoff contenders are too equal in ability — and, as we were reminded yesterday, there’s no telling what the camera will see and what it won’t see.

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