In the End, It's Just Beginning

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, January 15, 2006

SEATTLE -- The sky was a low, dismal gray and under it, the Washington Redskins looked limited. Dulled by the weather, they lost their supernatural glow. You could say their mystique got washed away, or you could say that their loss to Seattle Seahawks was simply an accurate reflection of who they really are. The question now is who they will become.

For six weeks, the Redskins played beyond all expectations, scraping out a half-dozen improbable wins, and covering up for their deficiencies with sheer energy and belief. But against the Seahawks, energy wasn't enough. What they needed was substance. If you can't win a playoff game when a team hands you three fumbles and loses the league's MVP to an injury in the first quarter, then you simply don't deserve it. The Redskins just didn't have all the pieces. They got every break in the world and still lost convincingly, 20-10.

"They stuffed us," quarterback Mark Brunell said, succinctly.

The game revealed who they are, and it also revealed who they aren't yet. In the end, the Redskins were a team that fought constantly to break stalemates. Their strengths were continually neutralized by their weaknesses. Coach Joe Gibbs has done a marvelous job transforming the Redskins from a 6-10 last year to 10-6 this season. But after all was said and done, they were 1-1 in the playoffs, and Gibbs's record as their coach is 17-17.

Where will the Redskins be a year from now, and what kind of team will they look like? Will this be a springboard -- or will they be a one-year wonder?

"We certainly accomplished a lot this year," Gibbs said. "Last year we were 6-10, the facts speak for themselves. . . . Our goal is to keep everybody together. We have a lot to do here to try and get ready for next year and continue to add to our football team and to continue to build something.

"I know that we have the right kind of character and the right kind of players to build around."

But will they show as much improvement next season as they did in this one? On the plus side, the Redskins could point to the fact that their offense was somewhat better than last season, and the defense was superb for a second straight season under Gregg Williams. They could also congratulate themselves on a remarkable display of character, turning around a mediocre season with sheer will. "There was no quit all year," Brunell said. If the Redskins demonstrated one quality that they had previously lacked, it was fight. They fought their hearts and guts out all season, never more so than when they were written off at 5-6.

"Sitting there at 5-6 our guys could have given up," Clinton Portis said. "There was a determination not to be losers, to rebuild this back to a winning organization. Nobody expected us to be here but us."

Gibbs was obviously grateful for that quality in his locker room, and he took pains to say that he would like to keep this team together. But when the emotion of their great run wears off and the Redskins take a cool, hard look at themselves, they will also have to confront the fact that character wasn't enough. Character in the end couldn't trump some personnel issues.

The problem, as Seattle proved, is that no amount of fight, mystique or noble determination could overcome the Redskins' lack of offense. In their last three games, they converted just 13 of 58 third downs. That's the stat that undid them, and if it doesn't improve considerably next season, it's liable to demoralize the entire organization. How long can a ninth-ranked defense continue to pour its heart out, force desperate turnovers and sacrifice bodies all over the field, with no real recompense from the offense in return?

Quarterback Brunell justified Gibbs's faith in him with a phoenix-like season, but he didn't get enough done when it counted. Portis was a courageous runner all season, but he also hit a wall. And when you stop Santana Moss as well you stop the whole offense.

The bitterly frustrating stalemate in the first half against the Seahawks, in which the sides combined for nine straight three-and-outs, was a microcosm of their season. It was as if the Redskins were penned in by the hash marks; the only time they got out of their territory was when the Seahawks fumbled.

Everything should have been going the Redskins' way. The best running back in the league, Shaun Alexander, left on just the third possession of the game because of a concussion. The Seahawks' Pro Bowl quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, was playing in a panic under the Redskins' rush. For most of the first half he looked like a large flapping bird, he spun and wheeled, desperate and disoriented. And twice the Seahawks put the ball on the ground. And for all of that, the Redskins still trailed 7-3 at the half.

Their only real flare came late, on Brunell's somewhat fortunate 20-yard scoring pass to Moss with 11:59 to go in the game. Brunell threw late and low, and the ball caromed off of Andre Dyson straight into Moss's gut.

"Just not being able to get enough plays when we needed plays," Gibbs said. "They were laying it on the line out there, they just couldn't get it done."

This offseason, Gibbs will make the personnel moves that determine the Redskins' long-term future, and perhaps his legacy as well. In the past, the Redskins would have dealt with a loss with a wholesale overhaul of personnel. That won't happen under Gibbs. Instead, he will attempt to perform a very delicate trick. Given the Redskins' salary cap limitations, can he keep that defense together, while significantly upgrading the offense, without tearing up the good parts of the roster he's built?

The Redskins can congratulate themselves for developing a team that has perseverance, and resolve. "Our football team's got a lot to it," Gibbs insisted. Now they've just got to get a few more players.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company