The long pass was a thing of beauty, the football tracing an arc high above the grass at FedEx Field and landing in the arms of a turning Aldrick Robinson as he fell into the end zone.
For a moment the Washington Redskins thought they had the lead in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. For a moment they thought they would avoid a disastrous 0-3 start.
Instead, television replays showed the ball subtly dragged against the turf. The touchdown was overturned, the celebration halted and the Redskins' last, best hope extinguished in a 27-20 loss.
"That was our first time taking a shot to me this whole season," a disconsolate Robinson said. "I came down with it, but they took it away from us."
That painful reversal came just 3:23 and four offensive plays after another crucial blow when Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III tried to slide to avoid a hit following a 21-yard run and instead fumbled the football and killed a promising drive.
Griffin fell to the ground head-first and not feet-first, a crucial distinction. That meant that Griffin had not given himself up and any defensive player could hit him to ensure he was down. So when the ball came loose, it was free. Detroit recovered and went on to take a 20-17 lead.
"It can be a sucky rule, but it's still one of the NFL rules, and they said it's a fumble," Griffin said. "It's unfortunate. I've just got to make sure if I dive forward, hold onto the ball, and if I slide feet-first, it's not a fumble."
It's too simple to say those two plays spelled the difference. But they are certainly indicative of a season in which little has gone right for winless Washington.
Griffin in the second quarter had thrown an interception to halt a promising 11-play, 61-yard drive that reached the Detroit 19. That one hurt, too. It's a throw Griffin shouldn't have made, as he was being hauled to the ground by a Lions defender.
But with the game tied at 17 and 13:17 left, the Redskins had a chance to put themselves in position for a late lead. On second down from the Detroit 43, Griffin scrambled up the middle and found a seam. He ran 21 yards, but because there was enough space between himself and the oncoming defenders, Griffin decided to drop face-first.
Earlier in that drive, Lions strong safety Glover Quin was looming as Griffin scrambled toward the right sideline. Griffin slid for a 2-yard gain so he didn't take a pop to the head. He may have outsmarted himself later.
"But you can't really be out there thinking about that kind of stuff," Griffin said. "You've just got to do what happens when you react, and I've just got to hold onto the ball."
Griffin recalled a similar play in a game between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 21, 2010 when quarterback Eli Manning ran for a first down late in the fourth quarter with his team down 24-17. But he dropped to the ground untouched and the Eagles recovered the ensuing fumble in an eventual 27-17 victory.
The reversal on Robinson's touchdown stung, too. It came just four plays after Detroit had taken a 20-17 lead. Robinson pulled away from the Lions defensive back and turned his shoulder in perfect sync to catch Griffin's 57-yard throw at the goal line.
But while most of the crowd roared and Robinson began his celebration, he suddenly realized something was wrong. It didn't take the officials long to overturn the TD after seeing replays that showed the ball dragging along the ground.
"I'm not known for my calm demeanor," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "If that hadn't been overturned, I might have had a conniption, whatever that is. I think that one was pretty obvious."
Robinson insisted to anyone who would listen that he made the catch, that the ball was under his left hand while the camera was positioned to show only his right side. Teammates weren't so sure and the crowd murmured during the delay.
Robinson lobbied an on-field official, who only smiled and said he had nothing to do with judging the replay. A Times photographer, however, took frame-by-frame photos that showed the ball clearly hitting the turf.
The Redskins needed to shake off that setback. It was still second-and-10 at the 43. There was still time. But on the next snap Griffin bobbled the ball and recovered it for a loss of 10 yards.
"We went from a moment of having a lot of excitement to knowing that, 'Hey, we've got to go back on the field and do it again,'" Griffin said. "The one thing you try to make sure that doesn't happen in those situations is you have a negative play, and we had a negative play right afterwards and that can demoralize a team."
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