- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

By the time Rock Cartwright blocked a Falcons punt yesterday to give the Redskins one last gasp of hope, there couldn’t have been more than 20,000 of the Best Fans In The NFL still in the stands.

The clock at FedEx Field showed 2:03 remaining, the ball was sitting at the Atlanta 27, but the Best Fans In The NFL couldn’t kid themselves any longer. The game — and, for all intents and purposes, the season — was over. The Redskins might have changed the color of their pants, but they weren’t going to suddenly change their spots.

“That’s kinda been the story of the team this season,” Chris Samuels said after the Redskins blew a 14-0 lead and lost to the free-falling Falcons 24-14. “We’ve just gotta learn to finish. We start fast in some games, and then we go flat. [Mike] Tyson in his prime, when he got you on the ropes, it was over with.”

When these Redskins get teams on the ropes, though, the fun is just beginning. They had the Jaguars down 24-14 in the fourth quarter in Week 4 … and were lucky to win in overtime. That should have served as a not-so-gentle reminder to keep their cleats firmly planted on the opposition’s windpipe, but two games later they went up 14-3 on the Titans … and let Tennessee steal it in the second half.

Then there was yesterday, a veritable self-inflicted knockout blow — touchdown drives of 69 and 70 yards on their first two possessions followed by … the sound of the Best Fans In The NFL beating a path to the exits in the final minutes, unable to watch any more.

“After those first two drives, it felt like it was going to be a great day for our offense to put some points up,” Jason Campbell said.

Don’t worry, folks, he’ll learn. A 14-0 lead over the Falcons — or any NFL team, for that matter — isn’t, after all, like a 14-0 lead over Vanderbilt. It just means you’ve got a good chance to win the first quarter. Besides, Atlanta has a quarterback who’s never anything less than dangerous, even when behind by two touchdowns on the road. Michael Vick, as every defensive coordinator knows, is a lit fuse. Sometimes he explodes and sometimes he backfires, but playing against him is as nerve-wracking as playing against Barry Sanders used to be.

As we’ve seen time and again, though, the Redskins have always been willing to take things for granted. All through training camp, for instance, they operated under the assumption that last season’s playoff berth was the Start of Something Big, even though their coach kept telling them “last year buys you nothing.” Even a 41-0 exhibition embarrassment in New England did little to rouse them from their stupor.

Then they dropped the first two games of the regular season, and they’ve never really recovered. Other Gibbs clubs have rebounded from 0-2, but not this one. Of course, as things disintegrate — the Snydermen are plumbing the depths of 4-8 now — this is looking less like a team and more like a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike.

The last few minutes of yesterday’s game, played against the backdrop of a mostly empty stadium, had a preseason feel — which is probably fitting. The Redskins, at this point, are essentially back in training camp, trying to develop a young quarterback and decide who’s going to make the club. Only it’s not this year’s club, it’s next year’s club.

Will there be a place, for example, for Brandon Lloyd — who, in the day’s most honest expression of emotion, heaved his helmet after Campbell’s second interception and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty? Don’t count on it.

It promises to be an interesting last month for the Redskins as they ride the waves with Campbell and attempt to avoid the NFC East cellar. The kid had One of Those Games yesterday, one of those games quarterbacks-in-training inevitably have. Not only was he more scatter-armed than he was in his first two starts, he also seemed more discombobulated by the rush. And in the third quarter, he reminded everybody that when you have the strength to fight off sacks, it can cut both ways. Against the Bucs, it enabled him to throw a touchdown pass; against the Falcons, it enabled him to throw an interception that set up the go-ahead TD. Like most kid QBs, No. 17 is still figuring out when discretion is the better part of valor.

But let’s face it, the Redskins shouldn’t be relying on a 24-year-old quarterback to win games for them. As well as they ran the ball yesterday — 177 yards’ worth, 155 by Ladell Betts — they should have been able to come away with a “W.” As Renaldo Wynn put it, “When you have a game like that, with our offensive line tearing apart their defense, we’ve gotta do our part [defensively].”

Soon enough, NFL Films will be putting together the team’s highlight film. If they’re looking for a title, I’ve got a suggestion:

“The 2006 Redskins: The Team That Couldn’t Handle Prosperity.”

The first scene could be from the Falcons game — 14-0, early second quarter, Redskins’ ball on their 48 after a fourth-and-inches stop …

How did they ever get from there to here?

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