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After 12 uniformly boring, shabbily played games, the Redskins were one of only four teams in the NFL to have removed themselves from playoff contention. Taking into account that the no-account Tampans were also devoid of postseason possibilities, apathy could be construed as rational. My feelings were summed up in a locker-room comment made by Norv Turner after the loss to the Giants in response to a question about the significance of a victory over the Buccaneers: “2-11, 3-10, what’s the difference?”
For most of the week, the coach’s words made sense.
But as kickoff for this gutter bowl approached, the absence of ardor began to bother me. So what if the only positive thing about the team this year is Frank Wychek’s urine? I’ve been a faithful Redskins fan since pre-puberty, and abandoning them while they’re in such a sorry state seems a less than virtuous deed.
And speaking of sorry states, my inner turmoil struck me while I was in Nevada, which offers an over-the-counter remedy to my loyalty problem: legal wagering on pro football games.
I’d never made any bet for more than a few bucks in my entire life. I put $110 on the Redskins.
In my little world, Washington vs. Tampa Bay—2-10 vs. 3-9, Dookie vs. Dookie—had world championship implications. And for this most important game, lousiness had its own reward: Vegas was spotting the Redskins a two-and-a-half-point handicap. If Washington just stayed within two points of the Bucs—even if the Skins lost by no more than two—I’d win $100. If not, I’d lose all $110. (The casino’s advantage, or vigorish, in sports betting comes from the 10 percent premium losers must pay.)
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At the sports book at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, one of the largest and gaudiest betting parlors in town, it was embarrassingly clear that my hyper-intensified interest in the Redskins/Tampa game wasn’t contagious. The casino’s management televised three of the NFL’s four early games—Dallas/Philly, New England/N.Y. Jets, and even Cincinnati/Pittsburgh games—on monster-size monitors that hung from the ceiling. Guess which game was relegated to the secondary screens?
Two minutes into the game, I concluded that nothing short of a chemical imbalance or a bout of PMS could cause mood swings as pronounced as those of a rookie gambler.
When Brian Mitchell, the Redskins’ most valuable performer for 1994, fumbled on the opening kickoff after taking a brutal shot to the head, my thoughts were: “Who paid you off, Mitchell? How could his happen! I’m cursed! No, I’m stupid! This is the Redskins’ 13th game! And they suck! Of course they’re going to get blown out! How could I be so dumb?”
Just two plays later, Skins linebacker Andre Collins zigzagged his way downfield 92 yards with an interception for a touchdown, and I was thinking: “Of course the Redskins are going to win: This is Tampa Bay’s 13th game! The Bucs don’t have a chance! I should move to Vegas!”
Heath Shuler missed a sure touchdown by badly overthrowing a wide-open Tydus Winans during Washington’s first offensive series: “You suck, Shuler! Who’s paying you off?”
But on the next set of downs, the very same Shuler hit Desmond Howard in stride for an 81-yard touchdown. My analysis? “You’re the man, Heath! Gus sucks! Desmond rules! Charley Casserly is god!”
After Shuler nailed Olanda Truitt with a bomb at the end of the second quarter, my Skins were leading 21-17, but I was up 23 1/2-17. The halftime stat sheet showed Washington’s total rushing yards in the single digits, but it seemed like all was right with the world….
The Redskins, however, never scored again, and my supply of good vibes had pretty much run out by the game’s final two minutes, when the fatigued Washington defense mounted an excruciatingly long and painfully vain last stand.
Tampa was trailing 21-20, but there was an eerie air of inevitability about the on-field activity as the Bucs went on an 80-yard march. In between cursing various Redskins for their blunders on the drive—DE Tony Woods for jumping offsides on a third and long, FS Darryl Morrison for not intercepting a pass from Craig Erickson even though it hit him in the chest—the chorus to Beck’s college-radio staple kept ringing in my head: “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”
The Redskins’ chances of leaving town with a victory were all but lost with about a minute left, when yet another Errict Rhett run up the gut put Tampa inside the five, well in range for a chip-shot field goal. Bucs Coach Sam Wyche would have been perfectly willing to play it safe, let the clock run down to a final few seconds, send in his kicking team, and go for a 23-21 win.
I wouldn’t have minded.
I’d now reverted to my previous mind-set: I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the Redskins’ winning or losing. I was, however, excessively interested in how much they were going to lose by. I had souvenirs to buy, and Christmas is just around the corner! A score of 23-21, Tampa, would end my weekend in Vegas on a positive note. A positive C-note.
But Turner screwed everything up. Rather than surrender quietly, thereby showing that he really believes there is no difference between 2-11 and 3-10, he had his team call all three of its timeouts. The strategy only served to give Tampa three more plays from scrimmage, and therefore three more cracks to not only win the game, but also beat the spread. On the Buccaneers’ third and last chance from the 1-yard line, with just 32 seconds on the clock, that’s exactly what happened.
Having seen The Longest Yard many times, the touchdown was sort of anticlimactic. The Redskins were no more capable of stopping Tampa Bay than the jailyard guards were of stopping the Mean Machine. Erickson, just like the Burt Reynolds character, got the last yard himself. Final score: Tampa Bay 26, Me 23 1/2.
“I’m a loser, baby….”
I’ve related this tragic tale with the hope that other wayward Redskin rooters might learn from my mistake. Using the vigorish to invigorate loyalties to a crummy sports team, I now realize, is like having kids to save a troubled marriage. (Not that I care, but that seven-point cushion Vegas is giving the Skins for this weekend’s game against the 6-7 Arizona Cardinals does seem awfully generous.)
I’m already having to deal with some depressing fallout from my actions: I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that I’ll be at all fired up for another Redskins game this year. And nobody back home agrees that airplane peanuts make good souvenirs.