Do Or Die On a pivotal weekend for three NFC contenders, the moribund Redskins effectively buried their playoff dreams, while the Bucs and the Rams showed strong vital signs

December 18, 2000

They can condemn their deposed coach, snicker at their despotic
owner and bicker over who deserves the bulk of the blame. But if
the Washington Redskins want to end their nightmare, they'll
have to start assessing the inadequacies inside their own
uniforms. As their 2000 season wheezes to a dismal conclusion,
it's clear the Redskins have many worthy scapegoats not named
Dan Snyder or Norv Turner--45, to be exact, assuming the zombies
wearing those crimson-and-gold jerseys at Texas Stadium on
Sunday were in fact the men who collectively draw the league's
heftiest paycheck.

Given a chance for renewal and redemption, Washington, the trendy
preseason Super Bowl pick, lost everything--its fire, its
composure, its pride and, for all practical purposes, any chance
of sneaking into the playoffs--in falling so disgracefully to the
Dallas Cowboys. While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the St. Louis
Rams, the other two NFC division favorites who are fighting for
their postseason lives (pages 116 and 118), were making strong
statements last week, the Skins were losing 32-13. This much is
obvious: There indeed is a constitutional crisis in the nation's
capital, with no quick remedy in sight. For the Redskins' faulty
fortitude is something neither stirring speeches nor fat signing
bonuses nor quarterback switches can assuage, and the
motivational magic of interim coach Terry Robiskie turned out to
be a mirage.

"It's sick, just as disgusting as can be, and we have no one to
blame but ourselves," cornerback Deion Sanders said after the
Skins' seventh consecutive defeat by their NFC East archrivals.
"Forget losing to the Cowboys--the sickest thing is that we felt
we laid down on Terry and made him look bad. We had a great week
of practice, but something happened to us between the locker room
and the field, and I can't begin to tell you what it was."

There will be another eight months' worth of speculation as to
what went wrong, much of it by Snyder, Washington's young, brash
and free-spending owner whose national popularity ranks
somewhere below that of the NFL's blackout policy. Despite the
Redskins' having lost five of their last six games to fall to
7-7, Snyder won't get a ton of sympathy, although six days after
he rocked the Skins' universe by firing Turner and promoting
Robiskie, he abandoned his usual bravado and gave some himself.
"I feel bad for Terry, because he deserved better," Snyder said
after Sunday's defeat. "I'm rooting for him--I really am. The
players let him down."

Robiskie commendably assumed responsibility for Washington's
meltdown against the Cowboys, who came into the game with a 4-9
record and scored all but six of their 32 points while being
quarterbacked by a second-year player named Anthony Wright.
Anthony Wright? Damn right! He threw only five passes and
completed three for a grand total of 73 yards.

If you didn't see this blowout coming, you weren't alone. All
week, Washington touted the jolt of energy being provided by
former passing game coordinator Robiskie, whose blunt, passionate
banter during his seven years as an assistant made him a locker
room favorite. On Dec. 4, in his first speech as a head coach,
Robiskie, 46, told his players how much the opportunity meant to
him and what would be required to make it last more than a
fortnight.

"I'm ready to go to war," Robiskie bellowed. "You know me--I'm
going to Dallas, and if you ain't gonna bring your balls with
you, I'm gonna cut 'em off and send you back where you came from.
I'll go up to each and every one of you in the locker room before
the game and shake your hand, and if your hand is trembling, I
don't want you with me."

Robiskie might have been better advised to have grabbed his
players' wrists to check if any of them had a pulse, for the
Skins were moribund from the start. Having replaced special teams
coach LeCharls McDaniel with tight ends coach Pat Flaherty,
Robiskie expected immediate improvement in that department. What
he got was David Terrell's penalty for an illegal block above the
waist on the opening kickoff, which forced the Washington offense
to begin on its own six-yard line, and a pair of first-quarter
punt returns by Dallas's Wane McGarity that totaled 60 yards and
set up two short field goals by Tim Seder.

Just before the second of those kicks gave the Cowboys a 6-0
lead, Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, the No. 2 pick in the
2000 draft, did what many teammates have accused him of doing far
too infrequently--he made a play. With Dallas having
third-and-goal at the Washington one, Arlington chased veteran
quarterback Troy Aikman to the sideline and slammed him to the
turf as Aikman released an incomplete pass. The blow caused
Aikman's fourth concussion in the past 21 games, ending his
afternoon and, perhaps, his glorious career.

If so, the record will show that Aikman's teammate and fellow
future Hall of Famer, running back Emmitt Smith, marked the
occasion by summoning a flashback of his brilliance from the
Cowboys' three championship seasons between 1992 and '95. In
joining Walter Payton and Barry Sanders as the only backs to
exceed 15,000 career yards, Smith exploited a Redskins' defense
missing its best run stopper, flu-stricken tackle Dana
Stubblefield, for 150 yards on 23 carries. Stubblefield spent the
afternoon on a table in the visitors' locker room, vomiting while
receiving intravenous fluids. Had he been able to stagger to the
sideline to view Washington's performance, he might have gotten
really nauseated.

Prime Time certainly looked past his prime: On his first pass of
the game, Wright, a free agent from South Carolina, went right at
Sanders, burning him on a 46-yard strike to James McKnight down
the left sideline. Later in the second quarter, on an identical
play, Sanders bumped McKnight and was nailed for a 28-yard
pass-interference penalty.

Offensively the Skins were unwatchable. Mindful that some players
believed Turner's formation-happy system had stifled a
potentially explosive attack, Robiskie vowed to simplify the game
plan. But while doing so, he also unveiled a five-wideout set
that left quarterback Jeff George, a Snyder favorite starting in
place of the demoted Brad Johnson, vulnerable to an energized
Dallas defensive line. With the interior of the Washington
offensive line decimated by injuries, George, who didn't complete
his first pass until more than three minutes into the second
quarter, took a brutal beating. He was sacked five times and
frequently smacked around, at one point getting dragged backward
several yards by defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban.

That not one Redskins lineman said, "Bah, humbug!" to Ebenezer,
let alone rushed to George's defense, was the source of postgame
strife. Complained one offensive player, "Our quarterback was
getting killed, and our line wasn't even helping him up, much
less defending him. What is that? If you're gonna get kicked out,
get kicked out for your quarterback."

The latter statement was a reference to the actions of Skins
right guard Jay Leeuwenburg, who was ejected, along with Cowboys
defensive end Alonzo Spellman, following a one-sided brawl (in
Spellman's favor) with 9:44 remaining. That wasn't even
Washington's worst misstep. That dishonor belonged to All-Pro
halfback Stephen Davis, who after gaining 30 yards on four
consecutive carries late in the third quarter threw the ball at
linebacker Darren Hambrick, who had been in on the tackle that
brought Davis down, to earn a drive-destroying 15-yard penalty.
"Coach came in here after the game and said it right--we played
like high schoolers," wideout Albert Connell said. Later, without
singling out anyone, Connell added, "There's a lot of pressure
here, and some guys can't handle it."

If that statement seemed to point back to Snyder, who spent a
reported $100 million in signing bonuses and guaranteed salaries
to load his roster in the off-season, it's no surprise. Snyder, a
marketing and advertising mogul, is an easy target, even in his
own locker room. There was much laughter among Redskins players
recently after a veteran defender, having been summoned to
Snyder's office, told teammates that he'd seen the book Football
for Dummies on the boss's desk. Had Snyder followed through on a
Dec. 3 middle-of-the-night inspiration to replace Turner with
68-year-old Pepper Rodgers, a 1970s-era college coach with no NFL
experience, Snyder would have become the laughingstock of the
league.

To his credit, after offering the coaching job to defensive
coordinator Ray Rhodes, who turned it down, and mulling
possibilities ranging from Rodgers (who was instead hired as the
vice president of football operations) to former Washington coach
Joe Gibbs, Snyder finally picked Robiskie, who seemed to
represent the best chance of salvaging the season. Now Snyder
must delay until next year his fervent quest to turn the Redskins
into a winner. "We'll get it right, over time," he said after the
locker room had nearly emptied.

Doing so will be a challenge. The Redskins will have to absorb
salary-cap hits, and Rhodes, who helped turn a defense that
ranked 30th last season into the league's fourth-ranked unit this
season, has told players he's leaning toward leaving after the
season. Though Washington's roster is filled with decorated
players, its talent level has been vastly overrated.

In reality Snyder purchased a team in April 1999 whose foundation
was cracked. He erred by siding with Turner over general manager
Charley Casserly in an intramural battle that resulted in
personnel expert Casserly's removal. Snyder also was overly
enamored of an eventual division winner that wasn't nearly as
close to being a Super Bowl contender as he and a lot of others
had believed. It's one thing to add high-priced veterans to a
proud, self-motivated group--like the '94 San Francisco 49ers,
whose acquisition of Sanders and others produced a Super Bowl
title--but, as Snyder is learning, when the car is a lemon, all
the luxury features in the world won't propel it into victory
lane.

"Come on, man, be realistic," said Sanders, the last man left in
the locker room on Sunday night. "The Redskins went to the
playoffs last year, but they did it by winning a terrible
conference. They beat the Detroit Lions! That's why they went out
and got all of us."

Prime Time's cell phone rang, and he headed into the stadium
tunnel, where a shiny black SUV awaited him. A few feet away,
Snyder stared down at his shiny black loafers, plotting his next
move. It was so quiet, you could almost hear the other shoe
drop.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Fall guy Davis, here being bowled over by Cowboy Michael Myers, was held to 57 yards rushing.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Prime crimes While George was being sacked five times, Sanders (21) committed gaffes like pass interference against McKnight. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Brutal, by George Playing behind an injury-riddled line, George needed more than a consoling pat on the back from his teammates.

Given a chance for renewal and redemption, Washington, the
trendy preseason favorite, lost everything.

This much is obvious: There is indeed a constitutional crisis in
the nation's capital, with no quick remedy in sight.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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