LANDOVER, Md. — The most important name inside FedEx Field on Sunday was Nestor. This was a tropical storm that roared from the Gulf of Mexico, across the south and close enough to Landover to drop hours of steady rain onto the turf, turning it into a sloppy plain of puddles and mud, robbing the San Francisco 49ers of their speed and skill.
For the Washington Redskins, Nestor should have been a literal gift from the heavens, bequeathing them a brilliant opportunity to steal victory from one of the best teams in the NFL. Instead, they squandered several chances to score, never taking advantage of San Francisco’s inability to rumble through their defense the way it has through everyone else’s.
Eventually, the Redskins lost, 9-0, giving the franchise’s former offensive coordinator and current 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan a revenge victory and leaving them watching the Niners players celebrate a 6-0 start by diving across the puddles. Washington, meanwhile, remains stuck in the mud at 1-6.
“We caught the rabbit eating carrots and we kicked him in the back, but we just couldn’t grab him to cook him up and eat him,” Washington linebacker Ryan Anderson said, in what seemed a perfect summation of what had happened on the field.
For more than a half, the Redskins outplayed the 49ers. Running back Adrian Peterson splashed through the San Francisco defenders’ attempts at tackles. Quarterback Case Keenum had more passing yards than the Niners Jimmy Garoppolo (which wasn’t hard to do, because Garoppolo only had 10 passing yards at halftime). They even stopped the 49ers’ feared three-man running attack. Yet, none of it did them any good.
The rain kept pouring down, swirling around the stadium’s half-filled tiers, and Washington struggled to take advantage.
How about this for a break not seized?
Peterson carried the ball on the game’s first seven plays, sloshing past the Niners tacklers who struggled to keep their feet, let alone grab hold of a 220-pound future Hall of Fame running back in a soaking wet uniform. He gained 36 yards on those first seven carries and wound up with 49 yards in total on the first drive as Washington got all the way to the 49ers’ 21 only to have a holding penalty push them back. The march killed, Interim Coach Bill Callahan sent out kicker Dustin Hopkins to attempt a 39-yard field goal from a puddle.
“It was one of those things where we say: ‘Let’s give it a try and hope for the best,’” Hopkins said.
He missed, by a lot.
“I just felt we’d be back in it and have another opportunity,” Callahan said.
And they did get another opportunity, late in the first half, when they got to the San Francisco 28 and didn’t dare attempt a field goal on a 4th-and-1 play, handing the ball to Peterson, who ran forward and got knocked backward for a 1-yard loss.
“A play we’ve gone to many times and not to get that executed was disappointing,” Callahan lamented.
But a quarter later they were there yet again, this time on the Niners’ 29 and surging toward the end zone. At the time, San Francisco was clutching to a 3-0 lead. Only 1:20 was left in the third quarter, it was first and 10 and Peterson cut right, was tackled and as he tumbled to the mud, the ball fell from his hands. Defensive tackle Jullian Taylor recovered it. The Niners players jumped in the air, while Peterson sat in the mud and slammed his fist into the slop.
That was the last of the Redskins’ great chances. Elated, the 49ers moved the ball better in the fourth quarter, holding onto the ball for all but 2:44 of the game’s final 15 minutes. They kicked two more field goals and Washington’s players were left to stand in the cold, hard rain and contemplate the chances that have slipped away for this entire dreary season.
Afterward, the Redskins locker room emptied quickly. There wasn’t much for them to say. Hopkins said he didn’t want to use the weather as an excuse for a missed kick, but he also shrugged because, of course the downpour had everything to do with why it went awry. Offensive tackle Donald Penn saw hope in nearly beating one of the NFL’s best teams, but then he shook his head, sighed about the missed chances and said: “We’ve got to learn that when we get people by the neck we have to choke them out.”
Standing in front of his locker, Peterson pulled on a shirt, saw a mob of approaching reporters and gagged a bit. At least it sounded like a gag. It might have been a gurgle, given the amount of water that had accumulated outside.
He had only run for 81 yards after his promising first drive. He smiled sadly and thought about the fumble that had left the Redskins last best opportunity sitting in the mud beside him.
“It hurts even more because the guy didn’t even punch it out,” he said about Niners linebacker Kwon Alexander, who knocked the ball from his hands.
Down the damp corridor from Washington’s locker room, Kyle Shanahan was standing before his players and dedicating the game ball to his father, Mike, the ex-Redskins Coach who was fired by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder after the 2013 season. Mike Shanahan wasn’t there to get the ball, but the message was delivered.
The delighted son had been able to avenge his father’s firing, while the Redskins suffered in a wet, cold misery of opportunities missed yet again.