- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The stomach-turning pattern is all too familiar for the Washington Redskins.

In 1996, the Redskins raced to a 7-1 record only to lose six of their final eight games and miss the playoffs.

After a 6-2 start in 2000, a 1-4 slump down the stretch cost coach Norv Turner his job.

There were leads blown in the final minutes of three straight games in 1994, and there were leads lost in the fourth quarter of three straight games in November 2003.

But never have the Redskins seen anything quite like the current three-game skid that might just be the most agonizing in team history.

The Redskins lost to Tampa Bay 36-35 on a controversial two-point conversion with 58 seconds to go, to Oakland 16-13 on a field goal with 1:08 left and to San Diego 23-17 in overtime after blowing what seemed like a sure-fire setup for a game-winning field goal in the final minute of regulation.

Context makes the current tailspin hurt the most.

The 1994 Redskins had a rookie coach and rookie quarterbacks and were 2-10 before suffering that series of close losses. The 2003 team, led by struggling second-year coach Steve Spurrier, had lost four of its previous five games before their trio of narrow losses began.

This collapse, however, is happening on the watch of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs and three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell. Earlier, the Redskins beat probable playoff teams like the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys. They were a solid 5-3 and holding a playoff spot before the trio of close defeats.

Gibbs said he had a long talk with owner Dan Snyder after Sunday’s game and said Snyder concurred with his judgment about the team’s tremendous heart and character.

“I love our team,” Gibbs said. “Why would this happen to us? I don’t know. We need to find a way to finish games. That’s three of the tougher weeks that I’ve been a part of coaching. Can a team go through three tough losses like that and bounce back … and play a great game against St. Louis? That’s what’s going to be answered.”

The losses at home to the Raiders and Chargers hurt in particular. The Redskins would be tied atop the NFC East with the Cowboys and New York Giants if they had just held leads in the fourth quarter.

“We have to finish teams off — that’s what playoff teams do,” said safety Matt Bowen, who played on such teams in St. Louis and Green Bay. “We’ve got to make crucial plays on third down. We haven’t turned that point where we put a dagger through someone’s heart and say, ‘You’re going home with a loss.’ ”

Center Cory Raymer is the only current Redskin who also played on the teams that collapsed in 1996 and 2000. In addition, Raymer played on the 2002 Chargers, the last NFL team to lose three in a row in the last 70 seconds of regulation or in overtime.

“Those teams weren’t as good as this one,” Raymer said. “In ‘96, we were a young team that didn’t know how to win yet. On paper, the 2000 team shouldn’t have lost a game, but everybody was doing his own thing. This team is sticking together. No one’s pointing fingers.”

H-back Mike Sellers said the 2000 Redskins included “a lot of people that pretty much gave up and said the season was done. We don’t have people like that now. The locker room wasn’t depressed after [the San Diego] game. It was angry.”

Receiver James Thrash, another member of the 2000 Redskins, agreed the locker room is a different place now.

“After it started going downhill [in 2000], it was almost like we would go into games expecting something to go wrong. And when it did, we were like, ‘Well, there it is,’ ” Thrash said. “This team is totally different. Everyone’s fighting to the end.”

The end, of course, is precisely what has been killing these Redskins. They have outscored opponents in only two fourth quarters, on the pair of Brunell to Santana Moss touchdown bombs in Week 2 at Dallas and three weeks later when they almost forced overtime at Denver.

“In the fourth quarter, I thought we were going to win for sure, and I believe all of us thought that way,” Bowen said of Sunday’s loss. “You can’t be like, ‘Woe is me.’ There are still five games left. The only game that really matters is this week.”

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