By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006
PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 1 -- The futility that came to embody the Washington Redskins for so long ended amid the cold and utter jubilation on the visiting sideline of Lincoln Financial Field. And it ended when Joe Gibbs sealed it, somewhat uncharacteristically, with a kiss.
Whooping and hollering, the 65-year-old coach embraced Joe Salave'a the way he embraced Redskins who won important football games for him in winter more than a decade ago. He smiled broadly and planted one on the side of the hulking defensive lineman's right cheek, punctuating Washington's 31-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale before 67,700. The win not only ensured the franchise's first playoff berth since 1999 and a game in Tampa on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; it validated Gibbs's decision to risk his legacy in an attempt to repair the ailing franchise.
"I told him, 'I know this ain't your first rodeo but I'm glad we're getting you back to where you were before,' " Salave'a said, half-embarrassed by Gibbs's gesture. "I'm glad for Joe Gibbs. But I'm really glad for all the players and the people who had to go through the last five or six years wondering when things were going to change. Guess what? They've changed."
Indeed, the maddening years of expensive, marquee free agents producing no playoffs -- of coaching carousels and nary a postseason trip -- died when the Redskins came back from a 10-point first-half deficit. Washington won its fifth straight game for the first time since 1989 after falling to 5-6 and putting its playoff aspirations in serious jeopardy.
The Redskins, who went from 6-10 a year ago to 10-6 this season, did not take the lead for good until a scintillating defensive play. Linebacker Lemar Marshall batted and then intercepted a pass from Eagles quarterback Mike McMahon, giving the Redskins the ball at the Eagles 22-yard line.
On the next play, running back Clinton Portis squirted free and skittered toward the left pylon of the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown with more than 12 minutes left, a play in which he appeared stopped at the line of scrimmage before emerging from a scrum and breaking free.
The play pushed the Redskins ahead 24-20 and a defense that had given up big plays early in the game began to clamp down. With about 2 1/2 minutes to play, 290-pound Phillip Daniels used his meat hook of a right arm to dislodge the ball from Koy Detmer, the backup quarterback. Sean Taylor picked up that ball, sprinted and swan-dived into the end zone.
The Redskins were outgained in total yardage and managed to convert just 4 of 16 third-down plays. Playing with a sprained right knee, quarterback Mark Brunell had one of his least productive games of the season, managing only 141 yards on nine completions. But one strike before halftime proved important, a 41-yard floater to James Thrash with two minutes left in the half. The play came on a third and 11 with the Eagles holding the momentum and a 10-point lead. Brunell found Thrash on the left sideline, just beyond the grasp of a trio of Philly defenders. It led to a field goal that cut the Eagles' lead to 17-10.
Washington came into the game needing a victory or a loss by the Dallas Cowboys in a later game to clinch a playoff berth. At halftime, the players assessed their predicament.
"It was either go out and find a way to win or we were going to have to go in tomorrow and clean out our lockers," said Portis. "I wasn't ready to clean out my locker." Portis, often spectacular, put his head down and moved ahead like a beer truck with a broken parking brake. He rushed for more than 100 yards (112 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns) for the fifth straight game as the Redskins also ended the regular season with a winning record for the first time in six years.
"It's been real hard," said offensive tackle Jon Jansen, a veteran of the past five seasons. "There's been a lot of changes, a lot of turmoil, personally and professionally. So it's very gratifying to come out of all that."
Gibbs guided the Redskins to four Super Bowls and three championships between 1981-1992. His return to coaching two Januarys ago was met with great pageantry and greater expectation. Daniel M. Snyder, the owner, had tried four different head coaches. Between the often-moping Norv Turner, the intractable Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier, a free-wheeling Floridian without a day of NFL experience before he was hired, nothing compared to the latter-day patriarch of the franchise. After that one playoff berth in 1999, the Redskins went 28-36 the next four years.
The hiring of Gibbs was almost analogous to the traveling salesman coming home to a filthy house and the kids spoon-feeding the family mutt peanut butter. Order needed to be restored. Gibbs returned the way he left -- a stately, bespectacled grandfather, preaching unity, resolve and just plain good sense. He weathered the first prolonged criticism of his career last season, finishing a disappointing 6-10 and raising real doubt over whether a coach in his mid-60s had completely grasped the nuances of the modern game.
"I don't care whether you're a Hall of Fame coach or a guy who got his first NFL job, winning that first year is tough," Jansen said. "It just took time.
"There's been questions for five years about what we should do, who we should get, what we're not doing. We've been trying to put a Band-Aid on things for a long time. Now we're starting to really fix them."