ST. LOUIS — The men who play professional football will tell you it is the most emotional of sports. That's a byproduct of its physical nature and the machismo that inevitably accompanies that. This is the NFL, where the players are the biggest and fastest in the world. Fame and fortune only raise the stakes.
Players also will tell you the retaliator usually is the one penalized. When emotions boil over on the field, victory can be determined by poise and composure. When your opponent illegally hits you, how do you respond?
That was on Joshua Morgan's mind as he sat at his locker Sunday evening, towel wrapped around his waist, staring at his cellphone. For all the skirmishes that occurred during and after plays in the Washington Redskins' 31-28 loss to the St. Louis Rams, and for all the good and bad plays the Redskins made while staying within reach of victory, one truth mattered more than any other.
Morgan was the retaliator. And, of course, he was caught.
The Redskins wide receiver was penalized 15 yards for throwing the ball at Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan with 1:18 remaining in a 3-point game. It didn't matter that Finnegan shoved Morgan in the face as Morgan got up from the turf after a catch-and-run that advanced the Redskins to the Rams' 29-yard line, sufficient position to attempt a game-tying field goal.
No, this maligned crew of replacement officials did not recognize how Morgan was provoked. One referee saw the retaliation, though, and it cost the Redskins a chance to tie the game.
"The second man get caught," Morgan said softly. "Coach been telling me that all week. I should have just kept my cool."
The Redskins missed an opportunity to begin the season with back-to-back road victories for the first time since their first Super Bowl championship season in 1982. More importantly, the momentum from their scintillating Week 1 win at New Orleans, in which they outlasted the Saints by scoring 40 points, is gone after losing to a Rams team that won only two games last season.
To say Morgan cost the Redskins a win would be to overlook an extensive list of shortcomings, miscues and failures.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III was 20 of 29 for 206 yards, and he ran for two touchdowns and threw for another in his second game. But his interception just before halftime led to a St. Louis field goal.
Griffin threw off his back foot over the middle. The pass was behind the intended receiver, and Finnegan intercepted it.
"I was just trying to make a play when I shouldn't make a play," Griffin said. "It's what we talked about during the preseason. It's just a mistake I can't make. I'll learn from that."
On the other side of the ball, St. Louis proved its offense is reborn under new coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The Rams averaged more than 7.0 yards per play. Sam Bradford had 310 passing yards, and St. Louis amassed 151 rushing yards on 27 attempts.
The Redskins also gave up a blocked punt for the second straight game. That set up the decisive touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
All that was against the backdrop of unrestrained and unruly physicality, players said. Players on both teams repeatedly yelled at each other after plays, and the game was delayed several times to separate players in fights.
"This is the dirtiest game I've ever played in," Redskins fullback Darrel Young said. "Hitting after the play. A guy ripped my helmet off one time. I didn't know that was legal."
Said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan: "I have never been in a game like this."
Finnegan has a reputation for being a pest and an instigator. He lived up to that throughout the game and in one of the decisive moments with Morgan at the end.
"I definitely saw Cortland pushing on him and shoving him," Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "It probably should have been called both ways, but the second guy always gets caught."
That's so well known, yet Morgan still let his emotions overtake him.
"I never did nothing like that before," Morgan said. "It just came to point where you just get tired of it."
Instead of fourth and 1 and the Rams' 29, the Redskins had fourth and 16 from the 44. Billy Cundiff attempted a 62-yard field goal that was short the moment it left his foot.
After the ball bounced harmlessly in the end zone, and the delighted fans filed out of Edwards Jones Dome, Redskins players spoke of growing from the experience.
How else to heal such a painful sting?
"I'm excited because this is what every great team has to go through to be great," Young said. "We can't have the special teams mistakes; that's two weeks in a row. We can't have the false starts at the goal line. We can't have the missed block by me on the outside zone. It all adds up. We've got to learn as men to grow from that. We've got to learn we can't always hit guys back."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.