Interceptions turned into lost chances and mistakes stung them at the worst time. In other words, the Redskins played in typical fashion for more than three quarters. And a sixth straight loss was nearby. They wanted to give the game away. But there was a catch: Carolina did too. And the Redskins, finally, took it, beating visiting Carolina, 17-14, on Brett Conway's 23-yard field goal in overtime for their first win of the season.
They took it thanks to LaVar Arrington, who turned an errant pass into a 67-yard interception return for a touchdown. They took it thanks to Rod Gardner, who caught an 85-yard touchdown pass and set up the game-winning kick. And they took it thanks to Brett Conway, who shrugged off a missed 31-yarder to win the game in overtime.
''I didn't think it would take this long, but it did,'' Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer after his first win in Washington. ''We are growing. I'm more delighted for the players than for myself because they're the ones that had to endure the circumstances that unfolded in the game and they wouldn't give up.''
The players' joy was obvious: they piled on top of one another in the end zone, after they thought Gardner had scored a touchdown in overtime. Officials overruled the play, saying Gardner had been touched down at the 5-yard line for a 47-yard reception. No matter. On the next play Conway atoned for his miss with 35 seconds left in regulation and ended the game. And igniting another celebration, one that probably lasted all night.
''I felt like a daddy who had his first child,'' Redskins end Kenard Lang said. ''I was screaming, yelling and running. I ran and jumped on that pile.'' His teammates understood the feeling. ''It's a feeling we need to get used to,'' Redskins tackle Dan Wilkinson said. The Redskins won because they figured out how to score: give the ball to their defense. With 10:10 left in the game, Washington trailed 14-0 and Carolina was driving. But Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke threw too high to fullback Chris Hetherington in the right flat. The ball bounced off his fingertips and into Arrington's arms. He took the gift 67 yards for a touchdown. ''We're driving and about to get more points,'' Carolina safety Mike Minter said, ''and LaVar came up with a heck of a play. You have to give him credit for doing that and turning the game totally around.''
How much did the game change? In Carolina's last two full possessions of regulation, it managed a combined 10 yards--after accumulating 19 first downs before this point. ''The defense made a play and we fed off it,'' said Redskins running back Stephen Davis, who gained 99 yards on 26 carries but fumbled once in Carolina territory. Washington forced a punt on Carolina's ensuing series after the touchdown. Then, from the 15-yard line, Redskins quarterback Tony Banks hit receiver Rod Gardner wide open around the Carolina 45. He ran in for the score.
''I've never thrown a pass to someone that wide open,'' Banks said. ''A lot of people don't respect our passing game and in the second half we made them pay for that. It does a lot for the coaches belief in the passing game and for the receivers believing in me.'' Banks' play-action constantly froze Carolina's linebackers. The pass to Gardner was a perfect example. He faked a handoff to running back Stephen Davis, holding the linebackers. Because they held, the safeties were forced to come up to cover receivers who had gotten behind the linebackers. That left Gardner in man coverage against Doug Evans, with the safety late coming to help. It's the same formula Washington used to get Gardner deep for a 47-yard completion in overtime. And it's why Banks ended up with stellar numbers: 17 of 30 completions for 346 yards and one touchdown. His interception was lost amid the euphoria. It helped that he completed five of his last six passes for 205 yards.
''Over the last couple of weeks we've been able to develop the timing,'' Schottenheimer said. ''The first two deep balls Tony threw, he didn't have what we call enough elevation on them. He immediately did it and obviously did an outstanding job for us.'' Conway had an outstanding finish after blowing a 31-yarder in regulation. Conway raised his arms in celebration and Schottenheimer appeared stunned when the officials ruled it no good, saying it was just wide of the right upright. ''I've seen millions of kicks go like that that were good,'' Conway said. ''But it was my fault for not putting it right down the middle.'' But he got another chance early in overtime. ''I was probably the only Redskins fan who wanted Rod to be tagged down so I could try again,'' Conway said.
Yes, he probably was--though Schottenheimer admitted he was glad that Conway had another chance. The Redskins nearly looked out of chances after Carolina took a 14-0 lead. The Panthers scored in the first quarter on a two-yard pass to tight end Wesley Walls. Then they seemed to put the game out of reach with 12:58 remaining in the game when Tim Biakabutuka crashed through the Redskins for a 10-yard touchdown run.
Fans flocked to the exits. The Redskins' defense had tired. But, in truth, the Redskins aren't in this game if not for timely plays by their defense. Trailing 7-0, the Redskins avoided more trouble when safety David Terrell intercepted a pass, tipped by safety Sam Shade, intended for Donald Hayes at the Washington 18-yard line. The Panthers drove again in the second quarter, reaching the Redskins' 8. But Weinke, who had thrown a two-yard touchdown pass to Wesley Walls in the first quarter, made a rookie mistake. With linebacker Antonio Pierce wrapped around him, Weinke threw the ball to the middle. That's where Lang was and he intercepted the ball at the 7. Later in the quarter Weinke bailed out Washington again. On second and goal from the 1, he again was under pressure so he flipped another pass over the middle. Wilkinson batted the ball back behind the line of scrimmage, where end Otis Leverette intercepted it, with Lang right by as well.
''As soon as he caught it, I looked downfield and saw nobody,'' Lang said. ''I said, Oh my goodness. I'm happy for Otis. He's probably calling home and telling momma he got a pick. I want him to enjoy it.'' And the Redskins want to enjoy this win. Even if they endured a bizarre ending to secure it. ''I didn't expect anything else,'' Wilkinson said. ''The first win is always the hardest, especially when you struggle the way we have. We have to overcome ridiculous things like what happened today. That's been our luck all year. I hope we got that thing turned around.''