- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

After winning three of their first four games this season, the Washington Redskins were beginning to believe they belonged among the elite teams in the NFC.

Two weeks and two crushing losses later, it’s becoming clear they still have a long way to go.

The Redskins’ latest loss, a 35-13 trouncing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday, served as a harsh reminder of their true standing in the league. Having lost back-to-back games to two of the conference’s top opponents, Washington finds itself a pedestrian 3-3 heading to Buffalo on Sunday to begin a daunting stretch of games that could make or break this season.

After squandering a 13-7 third-quarter lead and allowing the Bucs to score 28 unanswered points, the Redskins sounded like a team near the point of desperation.

“This hurts,” veteran defensive end Bruce Smith said. “I mean, it hurts bad. To put this much work and effort into a ballgame and lose the way we did. … With the people we have in the locker room, this shouldn’t happen.”

Washington’s roster may be loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. But to anyone among the 85,490 who watched yesterday’s game at FedEx Field, the disparity between the two teams was painfully obvious.

“They kicked our tails,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “They’re a better team than we are. … They seemed to get stronger as the game went on, and we didn’t.”

A battered and exhausted Tampa Bay squad entered this game perhaps as vulnerable as the defending Super Bowl champs have looked in some time. Key players like Mike Alstott, Joe Jurevicius, Brian Kelly and Shelton Quarles were in street clothes on the sideline, and those who were healthy were still feeling the effects of last Monday’s collapse against Indianapolis.

For slightly more than two quarters, the worst fears of Bucs fans seemed to be justified. Fifteen minutes of dominating Tampa Bay football later, the only people with reason to be worried were stadium workers who had to avoid being trampled by the large number of Redskins fans who left early.

In a second-half collapse, Washington surrendered four straight touchdowns to the Bucs, the clincher a 44-yard interception return by linebacker Derrick Brooks that prematurely ended Patrick Ramsey’s afternoon.

Ramsey was benched by Spurrier following Brooks’ interception with 6:55 to play, the second-year quarterback was sacked four times and picked off twice by Tampa Bay’s ferocious defense. Not that the loss could be pinned on Ramsey alone; after statistically dominating Tampa Bay early on, the Redskins were outgained by Tampa Bay 295-112 in the second half.

“I’m speechless,” guard Randy Thomas said. “I don’t understand how all of a sudden it just switched like that.”

Washington led 13-7 five minutes into the third quarter, following a 51-yard field goal by John Hall. The Redskins’ defense proceeded to surrender consecutive drives of 80, 91 and 70 yards — all capped by Brad Johnson touchdown passes.

Facing his former team for the first time since his acrimonious departure after the 2000 season, Johnson torched the Redskins for 268 yards and four touchdowns.

“I thought he was stellar today,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. “For him to stand in there and show the grit, to lead our football team from an offensive standpoint, was impressive.”

The view from the other side of the field might not have been as complimentary. The Redskins’ pass defense had a trouble stopping Johnson’s attack, surrendering five plays of 18 or more yards in the second half.

Washington struggled equally as much stopping Tampa Bay’s short-passing game. The Bucs’ first three touchdowns all came on nearly identical play-action, bootleg passes from Johnson to unheralded tight ends: a 1-yarder and an 11-yarder to Todd Yoder and a 4-yarder to Will Heller. On all three plays, the Tampa Bay receiver was wide open.

“They pretty much seemed like the same play,” linebacker Jessie Armstead said. “Just quick, three step plays, and they were the money guys getting in the end zone.”

Johnson used his arm to produce the Bucs’ fourth touchdown. He found Keyshawn Johnson in a one-on-one mismatch with safety Matt Bowen and connected with his receiver for a 39-yard score.

Trailing 28-13 with 8:48 to play, the Redskins’ last hopes for a late rally (and their sixth straight game decided by three points or less) dwindled when Ramsey had his right arm hit by defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and his underthrown pass was intercepted by Brooks. The quarterback could only watch as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year race 44 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

His team down by 22 points and his quarterback in danger of more punishment, Spurrier sat Ramsey and called upon backup Rob Johnson to take over mop-up duties. Johnson completed all four of his pass attempts, but he was sacked twice, the final one Simeon Rice’s fourth of the game.

That final moment of ignominy served as one more reminder of the Redskins’ suddenly precarious season. Beginning next week in Buffalo, Washington plays four of its next five games on the road, all five against teams with winning records.

“I think there’s a sense of urgency for us to go out and get this next one,” said tackle Chris Samuels.

Or, as Thomas put it, “We’ve got to find out who we are.”

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