Are the Redskins the least opportunistic team in NFL history?

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When the Washington Redskins’ offense needed field position or the team needed a touchdown late last season, the defense would deliver. There were five takeaways, including a touchdown, in a playoff-clinching win at Philadelphia, followed by two turnovers and another touchdown in the wild-card win at Tampa Bay.

The opportunities would come on a tipped pass or a botched handoff or a strip of the running back, and the Redskins would be right there to pounce and switch the momentum.

But this year? The defense that finished 2005 so strong has turned into a unit whose inability to create takeaways has reached record-setting proportions.

The Redskins (4-9) have only 10 takeaways this season, putting them on pace to set an NFL record for the fewest in a 16-game season. Should the Redskins fail to force another turnover this season, they would break the overall record of 11 set by the winless Baltimore Colts during the nine-game, strike-shortened season of 1982.

“Tough to explain,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said yesterday at Redskin Park. “It’s something we always work on in practice, and it’s the one thing that’s different from last year to this year.”

Be it bad hands, bad luck or bad positioning, the Redskins haven’t been able to turn games around with key takeaways like they did last season. The Redskins finished 4-3 in games decided by three or fewer points last season. They are 1-4 in those games this year, including Sunday’s 21-19 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that officially eliminated the Redskins (4-9) from playoff contention.

“We had a lot of close games last year, and I felt turnovers were the key to a lot of our wins,” Wynn said. “Whether it was a takeaway that we returned for a score or a takeaway that put the offense in great field position, we did our part on defense and won games. We’ve lost those games this year, and that’s definitely a big stake in why.”

The Philadelphia game was a microcosm of the problem. Rogers dropped what should have been interception on the opening play, and linebacker Marcus Washington bobbled, then dropped the ball on what should have been another pick in the third quarter.

“It was unfortunate, and that’s been our story this year,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. “We got two, three opportunities where we got our hands on the ball, and we don’t want to slip those chances by.”

The Eagles, meanwhile, capitalized on those chances. They intercepted Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell twice, turning those takeaways into 14 points.

“Those were certainly factors in the game that allowed them to gain momentum, and unfortunately those came back to haunt us,” defensive end Andre Carter said.

The lack of ball-hawking defensive players represents another problem the Redskins need to fix in the offseason, via the draft and free agency.

But coach Joe Gibbs said, “We’ve got to find a way to get them with who we have here. It’s a matter of making the plays when we get the chances.”

A year after producing 28 takeaways on defense and special teams, the Redskins have been wretched this season:

• Including those by the special teams, the Redskins have 10 takeaways. They are in danger of setting an NFL record for the fewest in a 16-game season. The Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams share the current mark of 15 set by both in 2004. The Redskins are almost assured of setting a franchise low. The current mark is 21 in 1998.

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