Monday, October 11, 2004

As the ball slipped out of Mark Brunell’s hands and Ed Reed scampered into the end zone with it, you could almost feel the 2004 season slipping right out of the Washington Redskins’ hands.

About an hour later, it became official. The Redskins had lost their fourth straight game, this one a demoralizing 17-10 defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens that all but quashed any hopes Washington had of getting back into the thick of the NFC East race.

There are 11 games remaining on the Redskins’ schedule. But at 1-4, with an offense going nowhere fast, coach Joe Gibbs might soon have no choice but to declare 2004 a rebuilding year for a franchise that has been in perpetual rebuilding mode since Gibbs originally retired 12 years ago.

“I’ve been through this before. We have to make sure we stay together,” said Gibbs, who has lost four straight games for the first time since his 0-5 start as a rookie coach in 1981. “That is my central focus for all of us. It’s easy in a situation like this for someone to say, ‘Here’s the problem, there’s the problem.’ The biggest thing for all of us is just to hang tough.”

Gibbs could have a hard time keeping his entire roster together, with the Redskins’ inept offense hardly holding up its end of the bargain compared to its counterparts on defense. The same boisterous FedEx Field crowd of 90,287 that cheered a Washington defense that surrendered just three points also was left booing a lackluster offense that produced a piddling 107 total yards.

“It’s frustrating,” said Brunell (13 of 29 for 83 yards). “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to take a hard look at where we’re at, each player. And I’m at the top of the list.”

Brunell isn’t alone, though. Running back Clinton Portis continued to struggle, picking up just 53 yards on 25 carries, yet another head-scratching stat regarding the Redskins offense.

“We’re not pulling our weight,” tight end Walter Rasby said.

Amazing how quickly a game can turn. When the two teams took the field for the second half, the Redskins were in control, up 10-0 and outmuscling what figured to be a more-physical Ravens team.

But the game slipped away during a devastating, two-minute stretch in the third quarter, with Baltimore (3-2) coming up with two huge plays to turn a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead.

First, Brunell was blindsided by safety Reed, who punched the ball loose, scooped it up and ran untouched 22 yards for a game-altering touchdown. Gibbs elected to challenge the call, claiming Brunell’s arm was moving forward when he lost the ball (making it an incomplete pass). But for the third time in three weeks, the Hall of Fame coach lost a challenge — the touchdown stood, and the Redskins once again wasted a precious timeout.

Before the pro-Washington crowd even knew what hit them, the Ravens struck again, B.J. Sams fielded a Tom Tupa punt at his own 22, faked a reverse and then sprinted down the right sideline for a 78-yard touchdown. Sams’ second punt return for a touchdown in as many weeks put Baltimore ahead 14-10 and left FedEx Field in stunned silence.

When Brunell was picked off by none other than Deion Sanders late in the third quarter, the outcome was all but assured. Behind tailback Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 116 yards three days after pleading guilty to a federal drug charge in Atlanta, the Ravens marched down the field, kicked a 33-yard field goal and then clamped down on defense to put the game away.

“We have to find a way to win these type of games,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Good teams win close games, and right now we’re not winning them.”

This game was touted all week as a potential defensive slugfest, and it certainly lived up to the billing. Seven minutes into the second quarter, a whopping four first downs had been recorded, two by each team. To that point, the Ravens had produced 56 total yards of offense; the Redskins had 54.

But a Washington defense that to date had intercepted just one pass this season finally came up with a big play, though it came wrapped with a giant bow and ribbon from Daniel Wilcox. The Baltimore tight end took a Kyle Boller pass right off his hands, deflecting it straight into Smoot’s waiting arms.

The Redskins’ first interception since their season-opening win over Tampa Bay put them in prime scoring position at the Ravens’ 28. But the offense stalled at the 8, leaving Washington to settle for a 26-yard field goal from John Hall and a 3-0 lead.

Boller gave the Redskins another gift interception minutes later, when the second-year quarterback threw the ball right to cornerback Shawn Springs. Washington’s offense responded with another three-and-out.

There was nothing cheap about the Redskins’ third interception, though, with safety Todd Franz diving to the turf to pick off a Boller pass just before it hit the ground. This time, Washington made the most of the opportunity — Brunell ran a pretty play-action bootleg to the left and found H-back Chris Cooley in the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.

The Redskins retired to their locker room to resounding cheers from the massive home crowd, owners of a 10-0 lead and seemingly on their way to a season-saving victory.

A couple hours later, Washington’s inspiring first half was nothing but an afterthought, with a somber post-game locker room facing the prospect of long season ahead.

“It’s something you’ve just got to swallow and remember that this is what you do for a living,” guard Randy Thomas said. “You have to represent your organization as best you can.”

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