The diehards arrived at Redskins Park before 6 a.m. on the first day of training camp and sat for hours in the July sun just to get a glimpse of Joe Gibbs. Hope abounded that the beloved Hall of Fame coach, returning after an 11-year hiatus, would quickly lead a foundering Washington Redskins franchise back to glory.
As the Redskins' season came to a close yesterday, the unbridled expectations that surrounded Gibbs's return last year were tempered by 16 games full of harsh realities. Cavernous FedEx Field was about half-full at kickoff -- attendance eventually swelled a bit closer to capacity -- on an overcast afternoon during which the Redskins beat the Minnesota Vikings, 21-18, giving their fans a glimmer of hope yet leaving them with many questions.
Fans greet Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey as he leaves field after 21-18 victory over Minnesota.
(Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
The Redskins ended the season with a 6-10 record, a one-game improvement over last season. The defense shined once again, bedeviling one of the NFL's more potent offenses. And unlike most of the season there were occasions to cheer the offense, which met Gibbs's goal of three offensive touchdowns for just the second time this season. Even so, a season of shoddy offensive production, a preponderance of penalties and mistakes, and erratic special teams play had a sobering effect on Redskins fans who once expected miracles from Gibbs.
"I think it's going to take maybe two or three years to get back to the .500 realm -- but we'll be back," said Patrick Pierpoint, whose family has held season tickets since his grandfather started going to games. "Our defense is outstanding, but we need to work on the offense. Everyone's got to be patient, that's all. Everybody wants a winning season but it takes time to build a winning team."
While yesterday's victory was just Washington's second against a team with a winning record, the ledger from the 2004 campaign will note: The Redskins went the entire season without winning consecutive games, continue to struggle in their division -- they finished 1-5 in the NFC East and were again swept by their arch rival, the Dallas Cowboys -- and have not reached the playoffs since 1999.
There were no quick fixes, no landmark victories, no indelible moments. Gibbs, 64 -- who won three Super Bowls coaching the Redskins from 1981 to 1993 -- and his offensive coaching staff have much to improve upon after finishing near the bottom of the league in virtually every statistical category.
"If there's one thing you look for on a team, it's guys that have great character for 16 straight weeks. We lost games every way that you could lose them, but our guys just kept coming back," Gibbs said after the game, appearing more upbeat than earlier in the season when he frequently looked physically and emotionally drained after the team's losses.
Today, Gibbs plans to launch a week-long review of Redskins personnel to come up with a blueprint of the team's strengths and weaknesses that will help determine the club's offseason moves.
Gibbs said he has plans to take a vacation later this month, but has vowed to continue working his signature long days until he can restore luster to the Redskins franchise.
"I think to the outside world, they would look at it as very discouraging in a lot of ways," Gibbs said last week in an assessment of his first season back. "Maybe some people won't, but I think there's a lot of [positive] things about our football team. . . . In general, I think there's a lot of good things here, and it's mostly our players. I think we've got a core group of guys" to build around.
Indeed, when the team takes the field for training camp seven months from now, the parking spots around the team's Ashburn practice facility likely will overflow with cars again as thoughts of a return to the playoffs run rampant again.
"Coach Gibbs will have them straightened out," said season ticket holder Tom Tiver, who drives from Mount Laurel, N.J., for every home game. "I expect them to be in the playoffs next year. Joe's got them on the right track. I figured they'd be 8-8 at least this year, but it takes a few years to turn a team around. We know Joe will get the job done."
The Redskins have several fundamental problems to overcome. The team had 1,047 penalty yards this season, nine more than last season and second-most in franchise history. None of Gibbs's prior teams committed 1,000 yards in penalties. Washington scored just 240 points -- a meager average of 15 per game. The Redskins exceeded 20 points just three times and could not gain yards consistently through the air.
"We never could get people to respect our passing game," said running back Clinton Portis, who sat out the final game with a torn pectoral muscle.
Gibbs has said quarterback Patrick Ramsey will be the starter for 2005, though it remains to be seen whether the Redskins will resist bringing in a high-profile free agent. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has demonstrated that he is willing to spend lavishly to acquire players, though that is a strategy that has yielded one winning season since he bought the team in 1999.
After years of roster and coaching upheaval, however, stability is the buzzword around Redskins Park these days. That means another season with Gibbs at the helm, and another opportunity for him to capitalize on the goodwill of Redskins fans desperate to cheer on a winner.
"We have stability now. It's not like we have to search for a new coach again," said season ticket holder Ryan Devonis. "Now we have something to look forward to. We have some core players, and Joe knows what we need to improve on."