Been There, Done That

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

In 2005, a previously pedestrian Redskins team found a way to reel off five straight wins to close the regular season, then defeat Tampa Bay in its playoff opener before losing a close second-round contest to Seattle. That surge was reminiscent of the Redskins under Coach Joe Gibbs during his Hall of Fame years, when Washington would finish seasons strong.

Today, Gibbs and the Redskins have an opportunity for a similar accomplishment with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, albeit under more emotionally gripping circumstances after the death last month of safety Sean Taylor.

A victory would clinch a postseason trip to Seattle -- where that 2005 season ended -- and cap an improbable four-game run. Washington is on its first three-game winning streak since finishing 5-0 in 2005, and echoes of that campaign have abounded this week. The roster has changed dramatically, but in the past few weeks Gibbs has used the achievements of the 2005 team as a rallying cry during his remarks to the players, and the Redskins are on the cusp of salvaging a season that appeared lost four weeks ago.

"Joe has said that a couple of times to them, and I mentioned it maybe a week or so ago, once," said Gregg Williams, the team's assistant head coach-defense. "We've got to go out and play our best this week before we can say it's very similar, because we've got to get there [to the playoffs] like we did a couple of years ago. But Coach has done that, yes. He's referenced that we've done it before, and we can do it again."

This team appears deeper, and certainly is younger than the 2005 version. It has overcome injuries to several key players and adopted a different style of play from two years ago.

In 2005, the Redskins ran the ball nearly two-thirds of the time during their final five games and feasted on takeaways -- 17 over that span. The past three games have been characterized by a greater balance between the run and pass on offense and far superior quarterback play compared with the tail end of 2005. The 2007 team has played similarly stout defense as its 2005 counterpart, but without the abundance of turnovers and sacks created two years ago.

Gibbs aspires for a longer playoff run this time around, admitting that he is "nervous" about today's game.

"We went one round [in 2005] and that was it," Gibbs said. "Those [December] games were hugely important because it gave us a chance, but we couldn't get it done. This would give us another chance to live a dream and see if you can get back to the playoffs, and then it would be up to us. . . . I'd say this is the biggest game we've played in four years, and I think our veteran guys that have been here for four years working hard know it."

The 2005 and 2007 seasons have many similarities. In 2005, the Redskins began 3-0, were 5-3 at the midpoint, got embarrassed, 36-0, by the New York Giants in late October, then fell into a three-game swoon in November that nearly eliminated them from playoff contention. This season, the Redskins began 2-0, were 5-3 as well, and then got hammered, 52-7, at New England in late October. They lost four in row starting in November, and, like the 2005 club, shared a proclivity for blowing second-half leads -- the 2007 Redskins have lost five games that they led at the half; the 2005 club lost three.

"It's definitely strange that both these seasons kind of link to each other," said starting defensive end Phillip Daniels. "It's crazy, man. We put ourselves in the same situation. We always have a period where we can't close games, and then we find ourselves in a tough predicament in the end, and that's where we are now. The only real difference in the two seasons is the death of Sean. It's odd to be right back with our backs against the wall. Maybe it's meant to be like this."

Daniels is one of just nine players who will start both the 2005 and 2007 season finales. Only four such players remain starters on defense -- cornerback Shawn Springs, linebacker Marcus Washington and tackle Cornelius Griffin are the others. The team has been remade at wide receiver, with starter Santana Moss and reserve James Thrash the only returning members from 2005, when Thrash was hurt and vagabonds Taylor Jacobs, Jimmy Farris and Antonio Brown rounded out a weak receiving corps that had much to do with the playoff loss to the Seahawks.

In 2005, tailback Clinton Portis was the unquestioned workhorse and focal point of the offense. He remains a linchpin, but journeyman quarterback Todd Collins has been the late-season offensive star, posting a gaudy 107 passer rating since replacing starter Jason Campbell when he dislocated his kneecap on Dec. 6.

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