CHARLOTTE, N.C. | When Clinton Portis capitalized on DeAngelo Hall’s interception by going up and over the Carolina Panthers’ defense into the end zone early in the third quarter Sunday, the Washington Redskins had achieved a first in Jim Zorn’s coaching tenure.
They led by 15 points.
At that moment, the tumult of the last seven days was forgotten, and the Redskins seemed to be on the cusp of the year’s first winning streak.
“We thought we had it won,” Hall said. “We thought we had put up enough points - 17 ought to get us a win.”
It ought to have been enough, but the Redskins again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. A dormant running game, a derailed passing game and the season’s worst bounce contributed to a 20-17 Carolina win, dropping the Redskins to 2-3 and into sole possession of last place in the NFC East.
Leading by five points early in the fourth quarter, the Redskins were ready to regain possession until John Baker’s punt hit Redskins blocker Byron Westbrook’s left foot at the 23-yard line. The Panthers recovered at the 12, and Jonathan Stewart’s 8-yard run two plays later provided the winning margin.
With speculation swirling on the pregame shows that Mike Shanahan is a lock to replace him next year, coach Jim Zorn was left to question how he’s supposed to make things work with a patchwork offensive line, how the Redskins were unable to hold a lead against the NFL’s worst rush defense and how his team struggled to come back without all of its timeouts, which were gone with 8:01 remaining.
“I feel sick myself because I know what our players do to prepare for a game and our coaches,” Zorn said. “I just have to discover within myself how to get this thing turned around.”
A week that started with Portis and Mike Sellers exchanging words in the locker room and included the hiring of offensive consultant Sherman Lewis, the self-muzzling of defensive coordinator Greg Blache and the surprise move to start tackle Mike Williams at right guard ended with the Redskins’ ninth loss in 13 games dating to last year.
“You have to stay positive,” said quarterback Jason Campbell, who was sacked five times. “I know it’s hard and it’s easier said than done, but at the same time, you have to keep fighting because you never know when things will change and start going our way. This one stings more because we were up 17-2.”
Receiver Santana Moss’ production was limited to four catches because Campbell, dealing with leaky pass protection caused by left tackle Chris Samuels’ injury on the opening series, was forced to throw quick passes. But Moss remained confident the right pieces to win will report to Redskin Park on Monday.
“What we have going on now, it can be done with the people here,” Moss said. “We can turn this thing around with everybody that we have here. Therefore, we just have to get to it. I don’t care about [what happens] down the road. All we have is next week.”
Next week brings 0-5 Kansas City to FedEx Field, but several players admitted the Carolina defeat will be tough to shed quickly because of the circumstances.
“To be honest, it’s embarrassing to me,” third-down back Ladell Betts said.
Said Moss: “This is a game won on inches, and you saw that today.”
A few inches provided Carolina with a chance to win.
Before Westbrook’s unfortunate bounce, the Redskins built their 15-point lead on Portis’ 10-yard touchdown catch (set up by Kedric Golston’s forced fumble on the first play from scrimmage), Shaun Suisham’s 38-yard field goal and Portis’ 1-yard run. Carolina’s only production had come when Portis was tackled in the end zone for a safety two plays after the Redskins completed four consecutive goal-line stops.
Carolina’s comeback started immediately after Portis’ second score when Kenneth Moore returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards. Four plays later, tight end Jeff King took advantage of man coverage against rookie Brian Orakpo and got open for a 17-yard touchdown catch.
Following Portis’ touchdown, the Redskins’ three offensive drives finished with a loss on downs and two punts. They managed only 74 yards rushing against a Carolina unit that entered allowing 182.7 a game.
“It’s going to be blocking,” Zorn said. “They stopped us. We knew we could run the ball on them, but they stopped us.”
The game swung in the Panthers’ favor for the first time moments after the Redskins forced another Carolina punt.
Westbrook was blocking Quinton Teal when Antwaan Randle El called a fair catch. The kick deflected off Westbrook an instant before he was blocked into Randle El.
“Because they were both engaged, then that’s why there wasn’t a foul or anything wrong with that play,” referee Walt Coleman told a pool reporter. “If the Washington player is stationary and just standing there and the Carolina player had come down there and had knocked him, then it would have been totally different.”
Said Westbrook: “It was just a freak play. I didn’t want to let my guy have a free hit on [Randle El], so I have to stay on my guy until I hear the referee blow the whistle.”
Zorn challenged that the ball didn’t hit Westbrook, but the call was upheld, costing the Redskins the second of their three timeouts.
“I don’t think we’re jinxed,” Zorn said. “I thought it was the right call to challenge. If I didn’t challenge, I would be kicking myself if it could have been in my favor.”
Randle El admitted he didn’t know the rule - he assumed the play was dead because Westbrook was pushed into him.
The Redskins drove to their own 49 before one last protection breakdown forced Campbell to scramble 5 yards short of the first down.
Carolina converted two third downs to run out the clock, which invited another week of outside speculation and inside examination for the Redskins.
“Everybody has their own opinion about the team, about me, about the coach,” Campbell said. “It’s something we can’t worry about because no matter what we do, it won’t please everyone. That’s not our motto. Our motto is to keep fighting, plug away and get some wins. This would have been a big start, so it definitely hurts a little more.”