By Thomas Boswell
Friday, January 6, 2006
Few events in Washington sports remotely approach the buzz before a Redskins playoff game. When Joe Gibbs also happens to be the coach, that anticipation builds to a climax akin to the roar of a jet aircraft by game time.
If you think your heartbeat is a bit irregular during the next day, if your mind keeps flicking ahead to 4:30 p.m. in Tampa tomorrow instead of attending to matters at hand, then your odd behavior just means you have a keen sense of Redskins history.
Washington learned a long time ago never to underestimate any team that reaches the postseason if Gibbs coaches it, even in those years when the NFL barely has the Redskins on its radar screen. There are plenty of examples. Let's focus on one.
In 1987, the Redskins were a flawed team that needed December wins by four, four and three points to make the playoffs. Few expected much of them, despite an 11-4 record (a strike cut the regular season one game short). The 49ers (13-2) were the league power. You think the Colts are hot now? Frisco won its last three games by 124-7. Meanwhile, the Redskins played a dozen games decided by a touchdown or less.
Even worse, the Redskins were bereft of star power. Neither Jay Schroeder nor Doug Williams was as good as current Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell. Gary Clark was the only receiver with more than 630 yards in catches. Top running backs George Rogers (613 yards) and Kelvin Bryant (406) barely combined for 1,000 yards.
Those '87 Redskins never dreamed of record-setters such as Santana Moss (1,483 yards) or Clinton Portis (1,516) much less a proven playoff quarterback with mobility like Brunell. On that '87 squad, Chris Cooley's 71 catches would have led the team -- by 15. Those Redskins had a negative turnover differential and their most famous player, Art Monk, missed the last nine games with an injury. Even the defense was none too special, allowing 19 points per game -- a bit more than the current Redskins (18).
What chance did the Redskins have, starting the playoffs on the road against Mike Ditka's Bears who, over the three previous seasons, had gone 40-7? Of course, the Redskins won the Super Bowl -- by 32 points. A team with cohesion and character, but modest talent, became a champion.
Variations on this saga were the rule, not the exception, during Gibbs's first tour. The '82 Super Bowl champs had to win four postseason games. The '86 team was a wild card yet beat the 14-2 Bears in Chicago to reach the NFC title game. Both the '90 and '92 Redskins were only wild cards, yet won their first-round games on the road. Year after year, the Redskins improved in December, then went deeper than expected in January. Just five weeks ago, drawing parallels between Gibbs's past and Gibbs's present seemed Pollyannish. Now, failing to examine those parallels would be downright dopey. Are the old patterns returning?
If Gibbs is reading this story, by now he is shredding the newspaper into tiny pieces and setting them afire. Optimism, bah humbug! After Sunday's playoff-clinching win, Gibbs said: "Human nature being what it is, when you win a few games you feel better about yourself. People brag on you. Then you back off a little bit. Somewhere in there it leads to having real problems."
Compared to Gibbs teams of the past, the current Redskins haven't done much yet, though a five-game winning streak to reach the playoffs is certainly a good start. After the win over the Eagles, it was clear that many Redskins may not yet grasp what Gibbs and his staff consider "normal." They were pretty giddy over a fairly modest accomplishment. "It's an amazing feeling," said Lemar Marshall. "I am glad to be on a team that will get to know what the playoffs feel like," said Cory Raymer. "There are guys like LaVar [Arrington] who came a year after we went to the playoffs [in '99] and have not been there," said Jon Jansen. "They've worked hard and deserve all this."
On the outside, Gibbs is all self-deprecation. Of his 6-10 record in '04, he recently said, "To be quite truthful, I felt that there were a lot of first-year coaches who did a lot better job than I did."
First-year coaches? On the inside, however, nobody is more competitive than Gibbs or sets higher demands of those who want to be part of his football or NASCAR teams. If anybody thinks Gibbs's expectations, of himself and his team, have changed an iota since the '80s, they are badly fooled.
Though he'll never say it, Gibbs fully expects to go to Tampa and beat the Bucs. Why? Because for starters, the Bucs are not terribly good. The Bucs' strength is defense: No. 8 in points allowed. If that's their edge, it's not a big one. The Redskins were No. 9. More important to Gibbs is that the Bucs spent most of their season playing down to the level of an extremely weak schedule while the Redskins spent their year trying to play up to the level of a tough schedule.
The Bucs played seven games, nearly half their season, against teams that lost 12 or more games -- the worst patsies in the NFL. Yet they only outscored the league for the year by 26 points. For an 11-5 team, that's lame. The Bucs lost to the horrid 49ers and Jets, barely beat the lowly Packers by a point and the even worse Lions by four. Three weeks ago, New England undressed them, 28-0. Meantime, the Redskins played 10 games against teams with nine wins or more and outscored the league by a respectable 66 points. They also beat three division champions: Seattle (13-3), Chicago (12-4) and the Giants (11-5).
"We play in a division that is extremely tough. I don't know of a tougher division," said Gibbs. "You're battle-tested."
They're more battle-tested than the Bucs, that's for sure.
Few things please Gibbs more than preparing for a revenge game against a team that beat him earlier in the year. This season's turnabout against the Giants -- from an 0-36 loss to a 35-20 win -- is an extreme example. But throughout his 14 seasons, Gibbs's teams have improved by an average of 17 points in their rematches against teams that previously beat them. That's far beyond any normal statistical probability. The most obvious explanation is that Gibbs and his staff learn a whole lot more from studying the film how they lost that first game than you learn from studying how you beat them.
Within minutes of making the playoffs, Gibbs was employing his familiar motivational methods. "I thought we played one of our best games down there [in Tampa], but we couldn't win," he said of the 36-35 loss eight weeks ago. What he didn't say was that the Bucs probably played their second-best game of the season to win and needed a controversial last-minute call to boot.
Around the NFL, there's a consensus that the Redskins, while improving, aren't serious contenders yet. When the Redskins won recent road games in St. Louis, Phoenix and Philly, you could feel a generous impulse among players and media to pat the Redskins on the head for returning the franchise to respectability. However, anyone who thinks Gibbs has endured the aggravations of NFL life as a 65-year-old diabetic grandfather just so he can go "one and out" in the playoffs is mistaken.
After the Eagles victory, several Redskins prepared to douse Gibbs with Gatorade. Trainer Bubba Tyer, an old hand from the Gibbs I Era, contemptuously knocked the bucket over. First, don't give Joe pneumonia when he needs to work 20 hours a day. Second, get serious. If you play for Joe, you don't celebrate being in a three-way tie for the 11th best record in a 32-team league.
"We know we're going to have a tough road," Gibbs said of the coming playoffs, "but we're thrilled to be in."
Funny, he said "a tough road," not "a tough game." Does sneaky old Joe think he may visit more than one city this January?