- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2011

Did the end of Sunday’s game cost you a few fingernails, Washington Redskins fans? Did you find yourself wondering: Is any lead safe anymore in the NFL - even a 17-point, fourth-quarter edge against the winless St. Louis Rams, who, at times, have trouble getting the ball snapped?

Well, you’re not alone. Look at what happened in Week 4 in the wild-and-crazy NFC East:

* The Dallas Cowboys, at home, were up by 24 against Detroit in the third quarter - and lost, 34-30.

*The Philadelphia Eagles, also at home, were up by 20 against San Francisco in the third quarter - and lost, 24-23.

*The New York Giants, on the road, were down by 10 to Arizona with 5:16 left - and scored two touchdowns in 58 seconds to steal a 31-27 win.

*And the Redskins, not that you need to be reminded, had to come up with a defensive stop at their 19-yard line in the final minutes to escape with a 17-10 victory in St. Louis.

That’s three games in which a significant lead was blown - the Cowboys have never blown a bigger one - and another in which a significant lead almost was blown. And we’re just talking about one Sunday, folks. What on earth is going on here?

What’s going on, among other things, is that clubs are getting better at running these empty-backfield, no-huddle, spread offenses - not just in desperate times, but as part of their regular attack. So when they fall behind by two or three touchdowns in the second half, there isn’t quite the panic there used to be. They just play fast-break football the rest of the way and try their darnedest to catch up (or at least give their opponent palpitations).

Of course, it helps to have a 6-foot-5 behemoth like Calvin Johnson to throw to, as the Lions do. Johnson rallied Detroit with a pair of fourth-quarter scores, including the game-winner with 1:39 to go, and now has two TD catches in each of his first four games (an NFL first).

But the 49ers, Giants and Rams, I’ll just point out, don’t have somebody like Johnson to throw to. On top of that, none of the four quarterbacks involved - Matt Stafford, Alex Smith, Eli Manning and Sam Bradford - is thought of as elite (though a couple may eventually achieve that status). Yet there they were, moving their teams up and down the field.

It’s scary. It’s especially scary for defensive coordinators. In Philadelphia on Monday, Eagles coach Andy Reid felt compelled to give a vote of confidence to D-coordinator Juan Castillo. Let’s face it, defenses still are figuring out how to deal these run-and-gun offenses. Blitzing, obviously, is one option, but it carries risks, especially with the quarterback getting rid of the ball so quickly. Dropping and covering is another alternative, but how many clubs have four or five defensive backs who possess those skills? You’re lucky if you have two or three.

So teams sweat it out, pray that they don’t run out of breath before the opposition runs out of time. And, too often, their own offenses contribute to the problem by turning the ball over and not milking the clock enough.

That certainly was the situation with the Redskins. Two Rex Grossman interceptions and two three-and-outs quickly turned a 17-0 game into a white knuckler. The Cowboys, meanwhile, were undone by three Tony Romo INTs, two of which were returned for scores.

Which raises another question: Have offenses forgotten how to kill the clock?

Actually, it’s more a reflection of how the game has changed. The NFL has never been more of a passing league than it is today. Clubs pass to get ahead, and they pass to stay ahead. They still run the ball, sure, but they’re generally better in the air than on the ground - and that goes for the blockers as well as the skill-position players.

So when they’re in front 21-0, as New England was against Buffalo in Week 3, what do they do? They keep throwing. Trouble is, sometimes when you throw the ball, the other team ends up with it. On this day, the Bills picked off the great Tom Brady four times and came back to stun the Patriots 34-31.

It happens to everybody sooner or later, even the Pats. It’s just the way of the pro football world. Leads are built. Leads are overcome. Teeth are gnashed. Hair grows gray. In fact, given how the Cowboys, in their opener, also squandered a 14-point, fourth-quarter cushion against the New York Jets, blown leads - large ones - may ultimately decide who wins the NFC East.

Don’t be surprised, in other words, if this subject comes up again this season. In the NFL these days, seconds can seem like months and minutes like millennia - even when you’re up by three touchdowns.



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