Historic Turnaround

Chris Cooley awaits an option pass from Clinton Portis that resulted in a 17-yard touchdown, which gave the Redskins a 21-10 lead in the second quarter.
Chris Cooley awaits an option pass from Clinton Portis that resulted in a 17-yard touchdown, which gave the Redskins a 21-10 lead in the second quarter. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas from Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins.

If you feel that this team has given you a truly remarkable gift in the past two weeks, yet can't quite put your finger on the reasons why, here's some help. Last week, the Redskins beat the Cowboys by the largest margin in the history of their 46-year-old rivalry. Now, the very next week, these same Redskins have produced the biggest revenge rematch victory in franchise history. After losing 36-0 at New York on Oct. 30, they beat the stunned Giants soundly, 35-20, at FedEx Field on Christmas Eve. No Washington team has ever lost so badly, then, in the same season, turned the tables and beaten the same foe.

Think maybe Joe Gibbs is back in the building? Or is it just coincidence?

"I told our players last night that we don't win with X's and O's. Everybody up here does good stuff. All the coaches are good at what they do. It's the attitude [the players] come with" that matters, said Gibbs. "Last week, there was no reason for us to play that good against Dallas. I think it was attitude."

As for this inspired performance, in which Santana Moss caught three touchdown passes, Gibbs said: "Our players don't like to get beat. I think that [36-0 game] was the first time that we got manhandled by somebody in the regular season. I think our guys just took it upon themselves after they beat us so badly. It's to their credit."

Many years hence, these two weeks may still be remembered as a turning point in the Redskins' franchise even though other deeds in some future season might, narrowly measured, be more important. After all, these Redskins may not even make the playoffs. They hold their fate in their hands -- if they beat the Eagles on New Year's Day in Philadelphia, they are in the postseason. But that job's far from completed.

Nonetheless, nothing can diminish the impact of the Redskins' astonishingly unexpected performances the last two weeks, especially since those wins came against two of their oldest and most despised rivals. After 12 years spent almost entirely in the NFL wilderness, the Redskins are, once again, doing deeds worthy of the best in their long heritage. In 1954, the Redskins lost to the Steelers by 30 points, then came back to beat them by 10 later in the year. Until yesterday, that was the biggest turnabout -- from lopsided defeat to victory -- that any Redskins team had ever pulled off.

Measured another way, this swing from a 36-point loss to a 15-point win ties the biggest switch in fortunes in Redskins history. The Gibbs-coached '86 Redskins, who lost to Cowboys by 27 in Dallas, then whipped them by 24 back in Washington. Such grit, spitting in the eye of a team that has pummeled you, is usually the earmark of a fine team, or at least a radically improving one. For example, in '85, the Redskins missed the playoffs. That 51-point reversal against Dallas in '86 launched Washington to a trip to the NFC championship game. The next year, Washington won Super Bowl XXII. Will some form of Gibbs history repeat itself?

Attitude, confidence, swagger -- call it what you will -- that hard-to-define aura of controlled arrogance is often the difference between victory and defeat in a league that prides itself on parity and structures the entire sport so that few teams are significantly better than the rest. For the past dozen seasons, the Redskins and their fans have endured volumes of disappointment, bordering at times on mortification. Now, after clobbering the Cowboys and turning the tables on the Giants, the Redskins and their fans have a pair of victories worth hanging a hat, or a helmet, upon.

What a difference a month makes. At the end of November, the Redskins were 5-6 and looked utterly stunned after three straight last-minute defeats. Yet the team held together even though many around the NFL said, with obvious reason, "Same old Redskins, Gibbs or not." Soon the murmur may be, "Same old Redskins. Gibbs is back."

In the NFL no team is supposed to get crushed by five touchdowns in one meeting, then win the rematch by two touchdowns. But these Redskins just did it. And, perhaps, it should have been anticipated -- at least a little bit. In his first tenure with the Redskins, Gibbs's teams had an amazing ability to gain revenge in rematches against a team that had beaten them earlier in the same season. From '81 through '92, Washington was 13-7 in such games. In all of Gibbs's seasons in Washington, his teams have improved their scoring differential by an average of 17 points in 24 rematch games against a team that beat them.

The heart of this game was probably the superior quarterback play of Mark Brunell and, after he suffered a sprained knee, Patrick Ramsey over the mediocre (71.6 rating) play of heralded young Eli Manning of the Giants. Brunell was especially poised when rushed, rolling out of the pocket, scrambling and, once, improvising a shovel pass for a first down to Robert Royal. Ramsey, who was benched in the season's first game, was even more remarkable. After a pair of embarrassing formation mix-ups that forced the Redskins to waste a pair of timeouts, Ramsey hooked up with Moss for a 72-yard touchdown on the next play. Though Ramsey threw only seven passes, completing five for 104 yards, he can still hug his gaudy 153.3 passer rating on Christmas if he wants to feel warm and fuzzy.

Nobody knows who'll start at quarterback in Philadelphia, although veteran athletic trainer Bubba Tyer, who has seen it all (twice), seemed to feel that quarterbacks with knee injuries similar to Brunell's tend to recover and play. Regardless of whoever gets to throw the passes, they'll have the good luck to have Moss as a receiver. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound wide receiver has the quick feet and dazzling fakes that allow him to turn short passes and flanker screens into long gains, like a 17-yard score in this game. However, it is Moss's gift for adjusting to the flight of long passes, then making acrobatic catches, that separates him.

"There isn't anybody who has better long ball reactions than Santana. . . . It's just phenomenal," Gibbs said. Of Moss's second touchdown catch, a 59-yarder on a badly underthrown pass by Brunell, Gibbs said, "He turned around and snatched that thing from I don't know where."

The same could be said of this Redskins team. Four weeks ago, they were buried deep. Even two weeks ago, they merely seemed to have regained their dignity with often-sloppy wins in St. Louis and Arizona.

And now this, almost out of nowhere, a 28-point win over Dallas and a 51-point reversal of fortune against the Giants. Perhaps, inside the Redskins' locker room, some sense that this was possible was building. Maybe.

Wherever these two truly special performances came from, they're now visible to every eye -- especially those of the Redskins themselves. You can't put these two games back in the bottle. They were too exceptional. The genie is out in plain view. The Redskins now know what they can do. That realization is often the first step toward doing such deeds more often.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company