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.
The Redskins had a relentless rushing attack down the stretch in 2005, running the ball at least 40 times in three of the final games. Then, as now, stalwart guard Randy Thomas was on injured reserve, but still Washington ran the ball 193 times in five games and threw just 114 passes. Portis was in peak form -- posting 105 yards or more in five straight games -- while then-starting quarterback Mark Brunell was ailing and slowing down. Brunell was largely ineffective in both playoff games that season.
The Redskins already have thrown for 759 yards in this three-game winning streak; Washington amassed 694 passing yards during the five-game streak in 2005. During the last three games, the Redskins have as many passes as runs -- 91 each -- and Portis has found other ways to contribute to the offense with receptions and, against Minnesota last Sunday, throwing a touchdown pass.
"It's all about keeping teams guessing now," Portis said. "It ain't just one dimension always trying to put teams away, and it's working. I feel good for where I'm at. I'm not getting 30 carries [per game], but I've still got enough carries this season. So whatever they ask, whatever they call upon, that's what I'll do."
"I think it's more of a team effort now," Washington said. "The offense is definitely big-time contributing right now. They hold the ball when we need them to and they're going down and scoring. They can throw the ball and run the football, a little bit of both, and we're just kind of riding this thing out as a defense. They're playing so good it's fun to just sit over there watching them."
Both clubs benefited from good fortune. In 2005, the Redskins faced marginal quarterbacks such as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mike McMahon -- neither of whom started a game again -- and an aging Drew Bledsoe. They have already defeated novice passers Tarvaris Jackson and Kyle Orton this season, with 39-year-old Cowboys backup Brad Johnson likely to play at least some of today's game.
But there was a certain air of overachievement in 2005, when the Redskins scored 31 points or more in three straight games to close the season. Reserve tailback Rock Cartwright ran nine times for 118 yards in a win at St. Louis, and the following week Brown had the unquestioned highlight of his brief career, cementing a win with a kick return for a touchdown. The week after that, tight end Chris Cooley had three touchdown catches against Dallas, then Moss had three against the Giants.
"It's similar as far as the pressure of having to win games at the end of the year," Cooley said. "But it feels different because the feeling on this team is we feel like we should be winning games and we feel like we should have been beating teams all along. I think we're a confident team right now. A couple of years ago, I think things just started to happen for us, whereas this year we felt like we finally just made it happen."
This season, save for Collins, the accolades have been more cumulative than individual. Many players are performing better now than they have all season, and, unlike in 2005, younger players have played well when veterans got injured. The Redskins have received strong contributions from Stephon Heyer, Lorenzo Alexander, Reed Doughty, LaRon Landry, Anthony Montgomery, Kedric Golston and H.B. Blades, none of whom was in the NFL two years ago.
"I would agree that we've got some good depth, I would say that," Williams said. "And I would say how we've managed that depth in giving them reps through the course of the year; we've done a better job in practice settings -- in those competition settings, too -- in preparing those guys to step in when somebody in front of them gets bounced or nicked."
The Redskins anticipate requiring that full complement of players today, ending this season against a bitter rival with ostensibly nothing to play for, just as they did in 2005.
This week, talk has been dominated about which Cowboys are unlikely to play, with wide receiver Terrell Owens out with an ankle injury, and quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten and running back Marion Barber likely to rest at least part of the game for a team that has already secured the NFC's top seed.
In 2005, the Redskins closed the season at Philadelphia, where the Eagles were already eliminated from the playoffs and were without Owens, Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb and star running back Brian Westbrook. Yet the Eagles led 20-17 in the fourth quarter, before an interception -- one of six Washington takeaways in the game -- set up Portis's go-ahead score.
"They fought hard," Marcus Washington said of the Eagles. "They fought really hard. No one here forgot about that game. In certain situations this week we've definitely talked about that game."
The big difference between 2005 and 2007, of course, has been the shooting death of Taylor late last month in what police said was a botched burglary of his Miami home.
"I think losing Sean has brought this team together," Daniels said. "We got some closure at the funeral and when we listened to his dad when he came in here [to Redskins Park], and different people saying, 'Win this for Sean, get in the playoffs for Sean, that's what he would want.' And I think it's brought focus and togetherness to this team, and it shows before we go out for games in the locker room. It shows at halftime, and everything that we do right now, it's all focused to get it done for him.
"Sean brought this team together in a lot of ways, and hopefully we can win this last game for him and finish the story. And if we lose this last game, it would be devastating not to do it for him. We have to play our best and get it done."