By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007
MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 23 -- Amid the rumble of a roaring Metrodome crowd, with a once despondent throng suddenly screaming over a potential Washington Redskins collapse, the coach who just weeks ago was considered too old, too out-of-touch for modern football made the call of his second coaching career. With a furious comeback underway, the Minnesota Vikings celebrated a fumble recovered, Joe Gibbs calmly threw a flag, challenging a call by officials.
The Vikings had too many men on the field, he said.
The referees huddled. They looked in the monitor on the sideline, installed in stadiums for just this purpose, and emerged nodding. Gibbs was right, they said. Too many men on the field. The play didn't count. No fumble after all.
And with this new life, the Redskins finished a 32-21 trampling of the Vikings on Sunday, silencing one of the league's loudest stadiums and putting themselves, at 8-7, on the brink of making the playoffs as a wild-card entry, something deemed nearly impossible three weeks ago. A win next week over Dallas or losses by the Vikings and New Orleans Saints would send Washington to a first-round playoff game in Seattle.
Whoever imagined it could come in here?
There may be no place in the NFL that revels in its ability to generate ear-splitting, opponent-rattling noise as much the Metrodome, where sound bounces off the gray Teflon-coated roof and reverberates.
And the place's hokum may be unrivaled as well.
It was probably a good idea Gibbs kept his team in the locker room as long as he did before the start of the game lest his players be overwhelmed by the site of two grown men in Vikings jerseys running inside 7-foot- clear plastic balls -- a traditional pregame activity known around here as "the hamster roll." And Gibbs, also spared his team the chilling spectacle of a gigantic inflatable Viking ship sailing into place near the tunnel. From deep inside, the Vikings players spilled, their procession led by a middle-aged, hair-challenged man on a motorcycle.
In the frenzy of this Minnesota night there was an honorary Viking, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, and an honorary captain, Bob McNamara, who once played football at the University of Minnesota. Mauer stood at the end of a 10-foot Viking horn that looked something like a crushed cigarette and blew into the end, creating a faint moaning kind of sound. McNamara, a man in his 70s, had Vikings logos painted on his face.
And, yes, Mauer and McNamara brought the noise Sunday night. They brought it like the exploding fireworks during the national anthem, the blowing up of a Redskins insignia on the huge stadium scoreboards and the blasting of Led Zeppelin through speakers that dangled precariously from the ceiling. They brought it from the kickoff, 63,634 howling like the icy wind that roared over the snowy streets outside, right into the Vikings' first possession on their own 34-yard line.
Then Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson lobbed a pass way over the head of his receiver and right into the arms of Washington cornerback Fred Smoot, who had been driven from this place after last year for lackluster play and his role in the renting of a boat for a party.
Smoot, as much a villain in these parts as anyone, caught the ball and raced down the sideline to the eight-yard line. And while the Redskins didn't score off his interception, they left the ball on the edge of the goal line for Minnesota, which promptly sent running back Tony Richardson into a line of Washington players. Richardson stumbled backward for a safety and things never got better for Minnesota.
The Redskins' next possession, a march from their 33, ended with quarterback Todd Collins lofting a pass into the hands of a wide-open tight end Chris Cooley, who jogged untouched into the end zone for a touchdown that made the score 9-0. And the pregame din had turned instead into a startled silence.
In an attempt to rev up the masses, the Vikings' team trainer appeared on the scoreboard cheerily talking about preventing dehydration. This on a night when the temperature outside hovered near 0 and was considered to feel significantly colder with the gusts of wind that slithered through the downtown streets.
The speech did little to perk up the crowd, which quickly turned on a team that had come into the game the winners of five straight and stood just a victory away from the final playoff spot in the NFC. On this night, however, the Vikings could do nothing right and the fans who braved slippery streets were not happy about it. Near the end of the first quarter Minnesota finally got its first, first down, a Jackson pass to Robert Ferguson. A field goal attempt a few moments later went wide to the left.
Things didn't go much better in the second quarter as Adrian Peterson, the top rookie in the NFL, found nowhere to go against Washington's swarming defense. The crowd grew anxious as the score mounted against the Vikings, booing the team off the field at halftime as it trailed 22-0.
And while brief third- and fourth-quarter runs roused the fans, their enthusiasm was drenched the moment Gibbs threw his replay flag. Minutes later, the Redskins scored the touchdown that put the game out of reach and the loudest stadium in the NFL quietly emptied during the game's waning moments.
In the end, there were no inflatable Viking ships, bursting fireworks or huge moaning horns -- just the Redskins in their white jerseys and their coach, who had taken a huge gamble and quieted the Metrodome once and for all.