The Washington Redskins are 1-2, but they could just as easily be 3-0 at this point. They've lost two heart-breakers on failed final drives from Robert Griffin III and the offense. And on both occasions, they've had plenty of reason to say, "What if...?"
I know a lot of you hate playing this game, but George Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And George Santayana has never steered me wrong.
Trailing by seven in the third quarter, the Redskins used timeouts on back-to-back plays.
In the first scenario, it was a first-and-goal on the six-yard line. The 'Skins had already conducted eight plays on the drive and were coming off a six-yard run from Alfred Morris up the middle. Yet, inexplicably, Griffin broke the huddle with only 12 seconds left on the play clock. In other words, it had taken the offense nearly 30 seconds to huddle up and call the next play.
These things happen from time to time, but twice in as many plays?
Coming out of that original timeout, Griffin ran what appeared to be a designed keeper, which is very likely exactly what he would have done had he been forced to call a play on his own. He was a little shaken up after the run and didn't get to his feet until 10 seconds had run off the play clock. But, that still gave him 15 seconds to get the play and another 15 to relay it and set it up.
But there wasn't enough of a sense of urgency, and Griffin was left barking with only five seconds.
They'd score an the ensuing play and enter the fourth quarter tied but with only one timeout. And that's where they really screwed up.
The 'Skins had a fourth-and-one on the Cincinnati 44 early in the fourth, and Shanahan made the decision to go for it. Fine. I've got no qualms with an aggressive call like that, but I wouldn't have been dismayed by a punt in that spot either. But the point is that a decision was made, and then Shanahan changed his mind after a Cincinnati timeout.
The ensuing punt resulted in a touchback, meaning the 'Skins only netted 24 yards. It was, however, touched (stupidly) by Terence Newman before trickling out of bounds at the four-yard line. It appeared in replays as though that was moot because the ball hit the goal line for a touchback before Newman made contact, but Shanahan risked his final challenge and timeout by throwing the flag anyway.
Had the Redskins recovered after Newman's gaffe, I'd understand the challenge. But in this case, it would have only netted Shanahan 16 yards, and it seemed fairly obvious that the ball hit the chalk.
Now, the butterfly effect indicates that things might have been severely altered had those timeouts not been used. Maybe Griffin would have fumbled instead of picking up three yards after the first timeout or maybe he would have thrown a pick on the play that followed the second one.
But regardless, the odds favored the Redskins scoring six points on that timeout-riddled possession, and things wouldn't have changed at all had Shanahan not challenged the touchback.
So assuming things remained on course, the 'Skins would have taken over down seven points on their own two-yard line with 1:47 on the clock...but with all three timeouts instead of zero.
That would have given them the ability to stop the clock at 1:41 after an 11-yard completion to Josh Morgan.
Next play: Aldrick Robinson was taken down in bounds after a 12-yard catch. They could have used their final timeout here, leaving them 1:21 on the clock at the point of the next snap.
Instead, they only had 38 seconds to work with from the 38-yard line.
Griffin scrambled for 19 yards on the next play and got out of bounds. Had the same sequence unfolded, Washington would have been inside the red zone with 1:12 on the clock rather than 29 seconds. That is literally the difference between having to worry about the clock and not having to worry about it.
And for a rookie quarterback, that's massive.
The Redskins were forced to think end zone and sideline routes, and Griffin panicked in the face of heavy pressure, taking a huge loss on that next play. That may or may not have happened under our bizarro alternate scenario, but we'll never know.
Washington entered a tailspin from there, taking back-to-back penalties and resorting to a Hail Mary. I'd like to believe that, in the timeout-rich scenario, they would have benefited from the ability to run shorter routes, use the middle of the field and even throw the Bengals' defense off with a surprise running play.
At the time, those timeouts didn't feel like big sacrifices, but that's the problem. Coaches and quarterbacks continue to underestimate their importance. Careless game management and a failure to value timeouts probably cost the 'Skins a very good chance to go to overtime Sunday. And with such little room for error with the chips stacked against them in the NFC East, those nonchalant third-quarter decisions can alter the course of an entire season.