LANDOVER — Selfie taken, a woman in the stands high-fived an usher on her way down the steps. Her giddiness was in line with the sudden pleasure that washed over previously booing fans at FedEx Field. The Washington Redskins had spent the first half playing embarrassing football. The third quarter, a season-long abomination, had become an unexpected 15 minutes of salvation.
The Redskins scored two touchdowns in the third quarter of a 31-30 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Those were the first of the season during that 15 minutes. Down 24-7 at halftime, they climbed to within 24-21. Cellphone cameras were put to work. Those who did not leave were relieved to applaud. The team asked for crowd noise. Finally, there was something to be pleased about.
Last week in New Jersey, the Redskins reached the pinnacle of third-quarter misery. After being outscored 17-0 by the New York Jets, another halftime lead was ripped away. Six games into the season, they had been outscored 46-3 in the third quarter.
Little pointed to a pending resurrection on Sunday against the Buccaneers. The Redskins had sped up delivery of the dismal, not bothering to wait until after halftime. At one point in the first half, they trailed, 24-0, following a strip of quarterback Kirk Cousins that was scooped up and returned for a touchdown. Left tackle Trent Williams remained on one knee where the line of scrimmage was. Tampa Bay players jumped around in the end zone. He could not believe the situation.
“It just brings you back to the lowest point,” Williams said. “You look up, and we’re down 24-0. There’s not enough pep talks in the world to try to overcome that.”
Williams contends the third quarter math was not a topic at halftime. He even suggested trailing 24-7 may have flipped the team’s previous halftime mentality, when it was involved in tight games at the break that slid away.
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“We don’t really have time to give the third quarter away again,” Williams said. “I don’t know if that had something to do with it. We honestly didn’t say anything about the third quarter at halftime. We was in a dog fight. It never really came up. We knew we played an abysmal first half and we had to come out there and right our wrongs.”
Tampa Bay started with the ball. It gained a first down, but had to punt on fourth-and-24 from its 20-yard line. Cousins and the Redskins took over at their 40-yard line, which, at that point, marked their best field position of the day. A 38-yard completion to Andre Roberts was bolstered by a lunkhead roughing-the-passer penalty from Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Tampa Bay added another roughing penalty during the drive. Ryan Grant ran a three-yard corner route, Cousins found him and the Redskins scored. The drive lasted just 1:44. Tampa Bay led by 10.
None of Grant’s 22 previous career catches were for touchdowns. Even so, he did not celebrate. Grant ran off, knowing the Redskins remained down 10 points.
“Man, if we were winning, I probably would have did a little something,” Grant said.
A gamble followed. Kicker Dustin Hopkins tried to stay steady on the sideline. He knew an onside kick was planned, and his job included several details. First, he had to look the part for the sell. That meant from head to feet, Hopkins had to make the kickoff appear like he was going to try to launch it out of the end zone. His facial expression was flat. His initial strides to the ball were long. Making sure the ball traveled 10 yards was crucial.
Film had shown the Redskins that the Buccaneers could be victims of an onside kick. Hopkins saw the proper alignment, stuck with the plan, and approached the ball with standard steps before changing to push it right. No team in the league had recovered an onside kick this season. Down 10 points, less than a half from a 2-5 record, the Redskins tried something that had failed 24 previous times across the league.
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“It seems extremely fast in the game,” Hopkins said. “In practice, I just remember watching the play develop. Out on the field, it was a blink. I know it wasn’t, but, to me, it just all happened so fast.”
Trenton Robinson recovered it. The sideline received a jolt. Those who left at halftime turned up their radios in the parking lot, realizing something was brewing. Cousins’ second touchdown of the quarter, a three-yard zing to tight end Jordan Reed on third-and-goal, confirmed the thoughts. Tampa Bay led, 24-21, with 6:56 to play in the quarter.
“It worked out perfectly,” Gruden said. “Great kick. Great kick by Hop and a big play — a big play in the game.”
Having Reed back helps any attempt to shift a football afternoon from lousy to bountiful. The talented tight end seems perpetually injured. He missed the previous two weeks as he recovered from a concussion. In previous weeks, he had a quadriceps injury that slowed him. He played 11 games last season and just nine as a rookie the season before that.
He was back on Sunday, a constant during desperate times. Reed caught a career-high 11 passes, including the game-winning touchdown pass with 24 seconds to play.
This Sunday, the third quarter worked as the starting point toward joy. Throughout the season, it had been a channel-changer or a reason to go home.
“Got into the second half, we got the mojo going,” defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois said. “As soon we got the mojo going, everything started clicking.”