By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007
When the most improbable run to a most unimaginable place was over yesterday, they filed off the field beneath a gold sign that said "Gibbsville." And the Washington Redskins players stopped before the FedEx Field tunnel on a misty evening with the roar still spilling all around them, soaking in a scene that four weeks ago they were certain they would not see.
From speakers above, the stadium announcer's voice boomed: "The Redskins are in the playoffs!" Linebacker London Fletcher held his helmet aloft, pointing to the Redskins insignia on the side. Wide receiver Santana Moss held his hands above his head -- thrusting his index, middle and pinkie fingers up in a "21" as a tribute to slain teammate Sean Taylor. And grown men in the stands all around pumped the air with their fists like teenagers.
Behind them the scoreboard said: Washington 27 Dallas 6, and maybe they all needed to keep looking at those numbers to believe it was really true. The Redskins are heading to the playoffs, and will open the postseason on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. when they travel to Seattle to play a first-round game against the Seahawks.
"Oh, man," Fletcher later said in the locker room, shaking his head. "I've been on two Super Bowl teams. But I've never been on a team where we lost a teammate and needed to win four straight games to get into the playoffs. This has been the most special to me, the most special run."
Then he laughed, much the way that at some point Sunday night they all laughed, simply because this was not supposed to happen. Four weeks ago, with Taylor yet to be buried, they stood on this very field and watched in horror as the Buffalo Bills moved down the field in the last frantic seconds of a game the Redskins had won and kicked the last-second field goal that stole away the victory. They were 5-7 at that moment and had to walk back into the locker room and stare at Taylor's locker, encased in Plexiglas, figuring they somehow had let him down.
In a hallway outside the locker room that day, Coach Joe Gibbs looked team owner Daniel Snyder in the eye and apologized for the loss. The playoffs seemed out of the question.
But something happened in those following weeks, something that culminated in Sunday's trampling of the Cowboys, in a victory so complete that Dallas had just one yard rushing. The players weren't sure exactly what it was. Certainly some of it came from quarterback Todd Collins, a 36-year-old career backup who replaced starting quarterback Jason Campbell when Campbell dislocated his kneecap in a game against Chicago three days after Taylor's funeral.
Yet there also was a memory many of them held Sunday night. It came at that empty, foggy time just after Taylor's death when the player's father, Pedro, flew up from Florida and spoke to them in the locker room. "Win these next five games and go to the playoffs for Sean," they remember him saying.
Then they immediately lost the first one, to Buffalo.
Still, Pedro Taylor's words resonated and several players said they kept coming back to them as the season wore down.
"I think Sean's family not only gave us permission but motivation to keep going," tackle Pete Kendall said.
In recent weeks players have talked about the strange circumstances that occurred -- a gale force wind in New York that blew a punt 20 extra yards, missed opponents field goals in which the wind blew the kicks wildly to one side, passes that seemed to hang in the air an extra second until Redskins could catch them -- and said they believed Taylor was at work for them.
Then as the demolition of the Cowboys, their hated rival began and the score grew from 7-0, to 10-3, to 20-3 and finally 27-6, the players noticed something strange in the numbers. Moss said something first, grabbing Fletcher's arm, imploring him to do the math: subtract 6 from 27 and you get 21. Taylor's number.
"We don't think it was by accident we won by 21," Gibbs said after the game.
Asked about this, Fletcher smiled.
"I don't believe in coincidences," he said.
It was hard to judge how seriously Dallas took Sunday's game knowing it had already clinched the top seed in the looming NFC playoffs. But the Cowboys did play their regular starters and appeared to be fighting to win a game they didn't need. Still, they appeared helpless against the frenzy of Washington's defense. Dallas was, after all, missing its best player in wide receiver Terrell Owens and that might have provided a bit of an explanation for the way the Redskins dominated.
Still, when asked after the game for a reason why his team had been overwhelmed, Cowboys Coach Wade Phillips said: "They were inspired. They were fired up and playing hard. They did some good things that way."
At that moment, down a FedEx Field hallway, Gibbs was still standing in front of his players in a locker room that many players described as euphoric. Rarely a man of many words in front of his players, Gibbs told them that Snyder, the coaches and Gibbs himself appreciated the players for letting them come along for this ride.
It was classic Gibbs: understated, deflecting the credit to someone else. And in a locker room where they nursed so many emotional wounds from a season with five losses that could have been wins, the words were welcomed like the looming six-hour flight to the Pacific Northwest.
Just four weeks before, at the end of the loss to Buffalo, Gibbs illegally called two timeouts in a row in an attempt to rattle Bills kicker Rian Lindell as he lined up for the winning field goal. The resulting penalty gave Lindell an easy kick and several Redskins players grumbled on the sideline about their 67-year-old coach the game had passed by.
On Sunday night, on that same sideline they laughed and clapped and danced. When the clock wound to zero, clinching the 9-7 record and the last playoff spot in the NFC, they ran joyously to the center of the field.
"It felt like this was our destiny," Fletcher said.
In a season they will never forget.