Win goes fumbling just out of reach

JOHN EISENBERG

January 10, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Redskins will wish they hadn't made it so close. They will wish Steve Young hadn't started fumbling the ball all over the field, that the 49ers had just gone and finished off the complete and utter strumming that was the first 35 minutes.

It would have been so much easier on the soul. So much easier to reconcile. No what-ifs. No living forever with the knowledge that they had the Niners in big trouble, huge trouble, and literally fumbled away their chance.

But they're always going to wonder. That's the ending. Months from now, even years, when they see 20-13 listed in a record book or mentioned on TV, the Redskins always will wonder whether it should have been different. They always will remember that they were suddenly so close on a soggy afternoon at Candlestick Park . . .

. . . always wonder what would have happened if Mark Rypien and Brian Mitchell had just managed a simple handoff early in the fourth quarter, at the Niners 23, with the Redskins on the verge of an improbable lead.

A handoff did them in. Can a loss be any more frustrating?

It shouldn't have come to that, of course. Never. The Redskins deserved to be down three touchdowns by then. Mark Rypien had passed most of the day throwing his familiar split-fingered fastballs, low and in the dirt. The Niners offense had skipped upfield time and again. Not once in the first 35 minutes had the Redskins stopped the Niners on downs. It was a mismatch.

But there was a problem: The Niners just couldn't put it away. The Redskins would have you believe their comeback was about heart and not giving up and all those other warm, fuzzy coats in the cliche closet, but the real lesson in the game was this: Don't drop the ball, dummy!

Young dropped it three times, and also threw an interception. The turnovers kept it reasonably close. The Niners were up 14 in the middle of the third quarter, driving for a valedictory touchdown, when Young fumbled at the Redskins 13. The Redskins turned that into a field goal. Then Young dropped the ball on his 15 as he tried to pass, and the Redskins recovered and scored a touchdown.

Suddenly, the all-afternoon blowout was a four-point game with 14 minutes left. Suddenly, the Niners were as flat as the field. Those open pass routes closed. Those sharp blocks dulled. The Niners punted after three tepid downs, and the Redskins came humming upfield again, looking for the lead. Rypien passed to Gary Clark for 22 yards. To Ricky Sanders for 9. To Clark for 14.

The Niners were stunned, reeling. This could happen to the Oilers on the road, maybe even the Saints at home, but not the 49ers at home. Yet there it was: First down at the Niners 23, the stadium silent in a light rain, so silent you could almost hear the rustling of the raincoats. Rypien took the snap and started to hand off to Mitchell, who was heading for a hole up the middle. The ball bounced free.

"I think there was some mud on the ball," said coach Joe Gibbs. "Ryp didn't have a good grip. It hit Mitch a little high."

Said Rypien: "We've run that play so many times. It's kind of the way our whole season went. What can you say? The ball just came out. And the worst part was that there was a hole there."

Said Mitchell: "I don't know if I would have scored, but I would have gotten a first down."

And there the game was lost. Almost won, then instantly lost. The Niners drove to a field goal and shut down the Redskins' last shot. Score it a seven-point win with one huge, angry, unanswerable question: What would have happened if there had been no bungled handoff? What if?

"I feel pretty numb right now," the Redskins' Charles Mann said. ". . . . It's a very tough loss to take."

It would have been so much easier if Young had never fumbled, if the Niners hadn't stopped themselves three times in sight of points, if they'd just gone on and finished off the blowout. No one would have been surprised. The Niners have won five more games than the Redskins this season. They were a higher cut of cloth.

But this, this, this isn't going to be any picnic of a memory. The Redskins were there, so close to the upset that they could touch it. No one knows what would have happened had they not bungled the handoff, but the point is they think they know, and they're probably right. The Niners would have been down. Sweating. In big trouble.

But then it didn't matter. One handoff, one fumble, ballgame. A frustrating season ends with the greatest frustration of all. What would be easier to live with, 35-10 or this? Which one would keep you up at night? Huh, which one?

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