- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

Success in the NFL has a lot to do with control. On the team level, you have to control your division — lest you be consigned to Wild Card Hell. And on the individual level, you have to control yourself, avoid the excesses of emotion that tend to eviscerate a club.

The Redskins failed on both counts in yesterday’s 24-21 overtime loss to the Giants, and that’s why they’re in the position of having to play catch-up again in the NFC East. If you want to know why the Steve Spurrier Era is still on the launching pad in Washington, waiting to take off, look no further than his team’s division record. The Spurrierskins are 1-6 against the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys and — are you ready for this? — 8-4 against everybody else.

There’s probably been a club or two that has won a division title despite a lousy division record, but none comes immediately to mind. And being thrown into the wild-card pool — and having to sweat out the league’s byzantine tiebreaker system, well, we all know how that can go.

No, it usually starts in the NFL with taking care of your own backyard — and making sure you don’t take leave of your senses in the process. Which is exactly what the Redskins didn’t do yesterday at FedEx Field. They dug a 21-3 hole for themselves with a mixture of dumb penalties and indifferent play, and it ultimately undid them.

Beginning with a 15-yard taunting call against Darnerien McCants in the first series and ending with a 5-yard offside infraction against Bruce Smith in OT, the Redskins were guilty of 17 penalties, tying a franchise record set in 1948 against the Steelers — during the latter’s single-wing days. After McCants killed a scoring chance by flipping the ball at a Giants defender who drove him out of bounds, “it started a domino effect,” the second-year receiver said.

Indeed it did. On the next possession, normally steadfast Chris Samuels was caught holding, nullifying a 30-yard touchdown pass to Rod Gardner, and Redskins spent the rest of the first half trying — futilely, for the most part — to get out of their own way.

“I’ll be the first one to stand up and say I didn’t do the job,” Smith said. “I can’t have two offside penalties. That’s just not acceptable. That’s not up to my standards of play.”

And to what, oh wise one, would you attribute such a performance by the club?

“It’s a combination of everything — emotion, [being] anxious to make a play. But in situations like that we have to settle down.”

Maybe that’s the biggest problem. The Redskins simply haven’t had many games like this in recent years, games of such import. A victory over the Giants would have put them in good stead at 3-0, made the rest of the division chase after them for a change. But it was the Giants, who’ve had plenty of games like this in the past few seasons, who prevailed in the end, driving 83 yards in overtime for a chip-shot field goal.

Not that the New Yorkers didn’t make their share of mistakes. But except perhaps for Brian Mitchell — the beloved BMitch — running out of bounds with 2:08 left in regulation when he should have kept the clock running, none of their blunders really fell into the bonehead category. The Redskins must have had a half-dozen of those.

Spurrier sounded ready to do Whatever’s Necessary to put a stop to such behavior. “I guess we’ve gotta fine guys who do things like that,” he said. “I guess we’ve gotta fine ‘em hard.” This is all new to him, he admitted — “the taunting penalties, the holds.” At Florida, he could bench a wayward player or threaten to strip him of his scholarship, but in the pros his options are more limited. For one thing, he doesn’t have an 85-man roster. For another, there’s only so much the Players Association will stand for in the way of punishment.

What’s troubling is that, as Samuels pointed out, this was no isolated incident for the Redskins. Their first two games of the season were no works of art, either (nor did they lead the league in discipline last year). “We escaped the first two games despite our mistakes,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll realize now that good teams won’t let us get away with that.”

The game was hardly a total loss for the Redskins. For the second straight week, they rallied from a huge deficit — 17 points against Atlanta, 18 against the Giants. That speaks well for their collective spine … and for Patrick Ramsey’s ability to hold things together when the offense is misfiring (or worse, shooting itself in the foot). There shouldn’t be any panic on the Washington sideline now when the Redskins fall behind, none of the here-we-go-again mentality of the last few years. You can’t put a price on that.

But the Redskins had a chance to take control of the division yesterday — take control of it early — and didn’t take advantage of it. So now the Giants, who have the same 2-1 record, have the upper hand by virtue of their victory on the Redskins’ home turf. If the Redskins don’t return the favor Dec.7 at Giants Stadium, they’re going to have an awfully hard time winning the division.

“I’m pretty certain we’ll get yelled at a good bit tomorrow,” Samuels said.

That sounds about right.

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