- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was the Washington Redskins’ worst nightmare: getting beaten by ex-teammate Stephen Davis on the play of the game.

And, no, the play in question wasn’t Davis’ “did-he-or-didn’t-he” touchdown with 1:09 to go in yesterday’s game at Ericsson Stadium.

To be sure, Davis’ 3-yard touchdown run — in which officials ruled he crossed the plane of the goal line before fumbling the ball — represented the game-winning score in the Redskins’ 20-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

But as Washington defensive end Renaldo Wynn put it, “We shouldn’t have even been in that situation in the first place.”

No, if Davis hadn’t come through earlier in the drive with a huge catch on fourth-and-1, the Redskins would have been talking about resurrecting their once-lost season instead of trudging home with yet another disappointing loss.

Washington (4-6) was one defensive stop away from turning its season of turmoil and doubt into one of resiliency and hope. Down late on the road to one of the NFL’s best teams, the Redskins rallied to take a 17-13 lead on Patrick Ramsey’s 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver Patrick Johnson. Almost as quickly they gave the lead back.

“It was a game we had a chance to win,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “But give Carolina credit. They’ve seemed to come from behind and win about every time they get in that position. They did it again, made the fourth-and-1, and went on down and scored. Give ‘em credit, they’re a good team.”

After Ramsey’s touchdown pass and three solid defensive plays, the Redskins seemingly had the Panthers beat. The Panthers faced a fourth-and-1 at their 38 and only 2:50 showing on the clock.

That’s when the wheels fell off.

First, Washington was forced to call a timeout when it realized it had only 10 defenders on the field. Once things resumed, the Redskins surrendered one of their biggest plays of the season.

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme ran a play-action fake to Davis, the former Redskins great making his first regular-season appearance against his old team. The quarterback scanned the field from left-to-right looking for open receivers, only to find every man covered. Then, just as the entire Washington defensive line appeared ready to engulf him, Delhomme spotted Davis alone in the right flat and threw to him.

Davis made the catch, turned and raced 25 yards before he was knocked out of bounds at the Redskins 37.

The Panthers (8-2) had new life. And the Redskins had nothing but stunned looks on their faces.

“I’m wondering the same thing you were wondering,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “How did he get wide open like that?”

No one inside Washington’s locker room seemed to have a clear answer to that question. The consensus was someone misread the play and rushed Delhomme instead of staying with Davis.

“I think it was man-coverage,” Spurrier said. “One of our linebackers, he faked to him, and I guess he lost him somewhere in the play-action. That’s what happened.”

Davis, though, said middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter should have been the defender covering him.

“I saw [Trotter] out of the corner of my eye, and he was going to get caught up in the line,” said Davis, who finished with 132 total yards. “I thought that if I could get out, then I would be wide open. I got out, and Jake made a great throw, and it was wide open. I am probably the last option on that play.”

The Panthers’ last option proved to be their best. Reinvigorated by Davis’ big play, they finished off the game-winning drive with authority. Delhomme hit a leaping Steve Smith for a 30-yard gain to set up first-and-goal. Two plays later, Davis burst through the left side of the line and kept pushing until the ball narrowly crossed the plane of the goal line just before Redskins safety Matt Bowen knocked it loose.

Officials reviewed the play to see whether Davis was down before the final push or if he fumbled the ball before reaching the end zone. They couldn’t find conclusive evidence to overturn the play. Carolina had a 20-17 lead, and after four straight incomplete passes by Ramsey, Washington had its fifth loss in six games.

“It’s the height of frustration, as far as football is concerned, when you have opportunities to win football games,” Ramsey said. “It’s one thing when a team comes in and beats you. And in no way would I take anything away from their performance today. But we had a lot of opportunities to win, so to me it’s the height of frustration because we know we should have won the game, had a good opportunity to do so and didn’t.”

The Redskins had plenty of opportunities to take control early. An inspired defense forced three first-half turnovers, and another early in the fourth quarter. Washington, though, converted those four takeaways into only three points.

With Spurrier handing over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson for the second straight week, the Redskins stumbled their way to 181 yards of total offense and only 54 on the ground.

A rushing attack that looked strong last week against Seattle was rendered ineffective by the Panthers’ imposing front seven. Trung Canidate (10 carries, 18 yards) and Rock Cartwright (9 for 32) were shut down. Cartwright committed the costliest offensive play of the game when, in the first quarter, he fumbled away the ball on third-and-goal at the 2.

Washington’s defense, though generally effective against Carolina’s vaunted running game, lost the game through the air. Delhomme threw for 317 yards, 189 to receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

The Redskins, of course, would have gladly let Delhomme throw for 500 yards if only they could stop him from completing one 25-yard pass to an old friend with the game on the line.

“I thought it was a good defensive effort,” Bowen said. “But when it came down to it, our offense scored, gave us a chance to win, and we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.”

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