ST. LOUIS — Every time something bad has happened to the Washington Redskins in recent years, it’s cost them one way or another. A starter has gotten hurt — and there’s been nobody to replace him with. Or somebody has fumbled or thrown a pick or committed some other on-field blunder — and it’s crippled their chances to win a game. That’s the way it is with rebuilding teams, with bad teams. There’s no margin for error.
That seemed to be changing in Week 1 at New Orleans, when the Redskins had a punt blocked for a touchdown and lived to tell about it. But Sunday at St. Louis, it came back to bite them again. They had another punt blocked, this one leading to the go-ahead TD, and fell — hard — to the Rams 31-28.
The loss hit “hard” for all kinds of reasons. It hit hard because the Redskins blew a 15-point second-quarter lead after appearing headed for a 2-0 start on the road. It hit hard because St. Louis gave them all kinds of help — a fumble on the first play from scrimmage that was returned for a score by Josh Wilson, a fumble in the final three minutes with the Rams trying to run out the clock, among other transgressions — and still the Redskins couldn’t close the deal.
It hit hard, as much as anything, because it was a hard game, with lots of extracurricular activity and much, on the Washington side, to regret afterward. The biggest blunder was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Josh Morgan with 1:18 left that made Billy Cundiff’s potential game-tying field goal attempt a 62-yarder instead of a 47-yarder. (Not surprisingly, it was short.) Morgan was reacting to a post-play shove by St. Louis cornerback Cortland Finnegan — by tossing the ball at him — but it was a move reminiscent of Michael Westbrook ripping off his helmet in overtime against the New York Giants in 1997. (Sorry to have to exhume that awful memory.)
Yes, the replacement officials let matters get out of hand. Yes, it was a poor advertisement for pro football. But I’m not going to dwell on it. Why? Well, for starters, because, as Robert Griffin III said, “We’re men. We can handle ourselves out there.” But also because, for all the Rams’ physicality, the Redskins had more penalties (11-7) and more penalty yardage (96-60). Indeed, all five penalties in the fourth quarter, for a grand total of 50 yards, were called against Washington. That, right there, is a textbook illustration of How Not To Win a Game.
“We should have just controlled ourselves a little more,” Santana Moss said. “But it’s hard. You have to defend yourself [that is, look out for the best interests of the team] by not defending yourself.”
The 2012 Rams, if it makes you feel any better, bear little resemblance to the 2011 Rams. Those Rams — 17-10 losers to the Redskins in this very same building, Edward Jones Dome — were dead in the water. Those Rams were awful enough to “earn” the second pick in the draft, which they were nice enough to trade to Mike Shanahan so he could select RG3.
But these Rams, under new coach Jeff Fisher, have been instilled with some of the spunk and chippiness his Tennessee clubs were known for. And with two more of the Redskins’ first-round picks to spend, courtesy of the Griffin deal, they should only get tougher to beat.
But back to the game. Between penalty flags, it turned into a Big 12-style shootout between Griffin (Baylor) and Sam Bradford (Oklahoma). And really, who wasn’t dying to see Robert in that kind of situation — the kind where he feels like he has to score every time he gets the ball because, well, the other guy is going to score, too?
Thus did the scoreboard go from Redskins 21-6, to Rams 23-21, to Redskins 28-23 (after RG3’s second touchdown run, a 7-yarder) to Rams 31-28 (after Bradford’s second TD throw, a 1-yarder to Matthew Mulligan). It was the game within the game: Which Heisman Trophy winner is better? And it only added to it that the Rams could have had Griffin but opted to stick with Bradford (and take a boatload of selections instead). Folks figure to be debating that decision for the next decade.
On this day, the statistical comparison was pretty close. Bradford racked up 320 yards (310 passing, 10 running) and three scores (all throwing), and Griffin totaled 288 yards (206 passing, 82 running) and three scores (one with his arm, the others with his feet). But Sam’s club came away with the victory, so we’ll give him a slight edge.
As much as anything, this was the game that exposed the Redskins for what they are. Griffin’s many talents make them much more dangerous offensively; that’s increasingly obvious. But defensively, especially with Orakpo largely a spectator, Shanahan’s club isn’t going to scare anybody. The secondary is particularly suspect — as we expected it to be.
Most of the Redskins’ games the rest of the way probably will be like these first two. They’ll have to score — and keep scoring — because it’ll be hard to predict how many points they’ll need. That’s one of the things you have to keep in mind about the interception Griffin threw in the last minute of the first half, the one that cost three points (a 42-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal) and easily could have cost seven. The Redskins were ahead 21-13, sure, but they also had enough time to move into scoring position. And in their defense-challenged circumstances, you don’t want to be wasting any possessions.
You don’t want to be wasting any chances for victory, either, and this clearly was one. But the season is young and, just as important, so is RG3. On to Week 3 — and the Cincinnati Bengals.