- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Are you so sick of hearing about the Curse of the Bambino that you’d like to take a Louisville Slugger to it? Do you want to head-butt the Billy Goat Curse? Are you ready for something new and exciting in the world of sports mysticism and voodoo?

Then check out what’s happening to teams that play the Washington Redskins.

Not when they play the Redskins.

Before they play the Redskins.

It’s weird, it’s creepy. It looks like a hex. Or a jinx. Or, yes, a curse. Even the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who play the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field, were unable to ward off this pigskin poltergeist.

Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly, who tied for the league lead in interceptions last year, has never missed a game in six NFL seasons. This is the same Brian Kelly who is listed as “doubtful” for the Redskins game after suffering a torn pectoral muscle in the Bucs’ Monday night meltdown against Indianapolis. Even if he does play, he’ll be a wreck.

Fullback Mike Alstott, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, has played in 112 of a possible 116 regular-season games during his career. This is the same Mike Alstott who aggravated a neck injury against the Colts and is now on injured reserve, meaning he won’t play against the Redskins or anybody else for the rest of the season.

Keyshawn Johnson, the Bucs’ top receiver and a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is not just “questionable” for the game. Maybe some other week he would be merely that, but these are the Redskins. Bucs coach Jon Gruden called Johnson “very questionable.”

If he doesn’t play, Johnson will join Joe Jurevicius, the Bucs’ No. 3 receiver and Super Bowl star currently out with a knee injury, on the sideline. The Bucs’ top three wideouts then would be Keenan McCardell, Karl Williams and Reggie Barlow. The Bucs probably would try to run a lot, assuming tailback Michael Pittman makes it through today’s practice. This is not a given.

But no one should be surprised at this, least of all the Bucs. They should have known all about what’s been going down — namely key players for Redskins opponents.

You couldn’t blame the Atlanta Falcons for not knowing. When quarterback Mike Vick, a k a. “The League’s Most Exciting Player,” broke his leg during a preseason game, it was seen as a freakish and unfortunate occurrence. No one gave it supernatural overtones.

But then New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, who led the league in passing efficiency in 2002, suffered a broken wrist in the final preseason game. You know, the one right before the regular-season opener against the Redskins.

Playing against rusty Vinny Testaverde, Pennington’s backup, the Redskins barely beat the Jets. Then they fell behind the Falcons by 17 points the next week before rallying to win. With Vick watching from the sideline, backup Doug Johnson was horrible in the second half, abetting the Washington comeback. The Falcons also were missing No. 2 receiver Brian Finneran and both starting safeties, all hurt the week before.

Next up were the New York Giants, who played without defensive tackle Keith Hamilton, their best run defender. That was their only major injury, and they beat the Redskins in overtime. But what the Giants managed to avoid was heaped upon the New England Patriots, who came into FedEx Field with a sore-armed quarterback and nine starters missing. The Redskins won by three.

Then Philly. Already playing without Brian Dawkins, maybe the best safety in the game, and Pro Bowl cornerback Bobby Taylor, the Eagles lost cornerback Troy Vincent, an All-Pro last year, before the Washington game. This meant the Redskins faced a secondary that now started second-year players Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown and rookie Clinton Hart. Yet the Redskins fell way behind before staging a furious rally that fell just short in a two-point loss.

Despite catching almost every opponent at its most vulnerable, the Redskins are only 3-2. Said linebacker LaVar Arrington: “We’re not undefeated, so it’s not making that much of a difference.”

Really? Given the narrowness of their victories (by a combined eight points), a case can be made that if opponents were even close to full strength, the Redskins might be 0-5.

Players don’t like to talk about injuries, their own or the other team’s. Not only doesn’t anyone want to make excuses but, like the no-leap rule and Redskins false starts, they are simply part of the game.

“It happens,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, who is toughing it out every week with a sore wrist and shoulder. “It’s an unfortunate thing, but that’s the risk you take. I hope everybody can play injury-free the whole year and their whole career, but that’s not the nature of the game.”

Even without Alstott and Jurevicius and probably Kelly and maybe Keyshawn, Bailey said the Bucs are still formidable with the likes of linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, quarterback Brad Johnson and Pittman. “They’ve got weapons,” he said.

You can’t have football without violence, but injuries seem to be piling up more than ever, mainly due to the size and speed of the players. Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, who played in the NFL during the 1960s and ‘70s, has noticed a difference.

“There’s more injuries all around the league, it seems like,” he said. “You’d think the owners would expand the rosters.”

Curiously, however, while their opponents are limping or getting carried off the field, the Redskins remain remarkably healthy. Only two starters on offense, guard Dave Fiore and tight end Zeron Flemister, have missed any action, for a total of three games. And Flemister wasn’t even that good; he was cut this week.

On defense, starting tackle Jermaine Haley missed one game. But the Redskins have a bunch of defensive tackles anyway.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Haley said.

Maybe some of this has to do with Spurrier.

“We’ve had pretty healthy teams,” he said, hearkening back to his days at Florida. “I told one of my guys, teams I’ve coached over the years have not had a lot of injuries. I don’t know the exact reason. We’ve been very fortunate. We certainly don’t try to get any [injuries] in practice. We bump heads a little bit, but we’ve been very fortunate, and hopefully it will continue.”

Of the Redskins’ good health, Bailey said, “Man, that’s just a lucky thing. You can take care of yourselves as much as you want, but nothing can really prevent you from injury. That’s just a freak of the game. I mean, it’s just freaky. You get out there, anything can happen. You could trip over somebody on the ground. You could be in the best shape in the world and it doesn’t matter.”

What does seem to matter is who the Redskins play next.

Buffalo Bills, beware.

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