The Washington Redskins have been absent from the National Football League playoffs for seven years, but all of those winters of frustration were assuaged yesterday. In their place, memories of Redskins glories from the past three decades were reawakened by Washington's manhandling of Detroit, 27-13, in a first-round playoff game at FedEx Field.
The Redskins took command of the game so suddenly, converting their first four possessions for a 20-0 lead, that some unlucky fans missed the decisive plays of the game. Although every ticket had been sold in advance, an enormous traffic jam on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, caused by a man threatening to commit suicide, was the apparent reason for a few thousand empty seats at kickoff. By the time the stadium was completely packed, the Redskins had virtually wrapped up a trip to Tampa Saturday to meet the Buccaneers in a 4:15 p.m. National Football Conference semifinal playoff game.
"I'm annoyed and I'm late," said Gina McDowell of Woodbridge, who had been delayed more than an hour by that bridge snare.
Some fans arrived at 8 a.m.--eight hours before game time. Rob Bodine, who grew up a Redskins fan in Olney but now lives in Chicago, was content with just five hours to spare.
"I came here from Chicago. I have spent too much money," said Bodine, referring to his $659 plane ticket, "but I don't care because these are my Washington Redskins."
In a stadium decked with signs such as "Super Bowl Bound" and "We Are The Next Millennium," this lopsided victory evoked the best of the Redskins' illustrious past. Four previous times since 1972, the Redskins began the postseason with lopsided home wins by more than a dozen points. All four times, they went to the Super Bowl.
Just the mention of such an eventuality would have seemed farfetched for this team as recently as a month ago, when both a playoff berth and Coach Norv Turner's job were in jeopardy. On Dec. 5, the Lions trounced the Redskins, 33-17, at the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome. What a difference a month, a few key injuries to the Lions, a raucous home crowd and history--the Lions have lost 20 straight games at Washington--can make.
"We wanted to peak at this time of year," said Turner, who added that the first half was "as good as our team can play." Actually, Turner's specific date to peak is "around January 30th." That would be in Atlanta. At the Super Bowl.
The Redskins' defense was ranked among the very worst in the league all season, but the unit mounted its best all-around game to thwart former Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte. On the game's first play, linebacker Greg Jones sacked Frerotte, dislocating the little finger on his left hand. The Lions' offense was unable to score until a meaningless touchdown on the final play of the game. (Detroit's other touchdown came on a blocked field goal attempt.)
A half-dozen large bedsheet signs behind the Detroit bench might have distracted Frerotte, who in 1997 as a Redskin, after scoring a touchdown, butted the stadium wall with his head, spraining his neck. Each of yesterday's signs featured a bull's-eye in case Frerotte wanted to duplicate the move.
Throughout the late afternoon and evening, a new generation of Redskins stars used this game as a stage for their postseason coming of age. Stephen Davis, a questionable starter because of a sprained ankle, rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns--all before halftime--and the Redskins built a 27-0 lead. On just 15 carries, Davis showed that he had lost no speed, breaking long runs of 58 and 32 yards.
So dominant were the Redskins that when Davis, who set a team rushing record this season, sprained his right knee, he was able to sit out the second half without hurting the team. Davis said he'd play next week, something his teammates believe is essential if they hope to upset the Buccaneers (11-5).
"Like our T-shirts say, 'Believe in Stephen,' " quarterback Brad Johnson said. "I grew up watching John Riggins and the Hogs. That's what this game reminded me of. We just pounded 'em."
Johnson, who was battered by the Lions a month ago for five sacks, three fumbles and two interceptions, got a full measure of revenge. His 30-yard touchdown pass to Albert Connell in the second quarter gave Washington a 27-0 lead. In the third quarter, he might have gotten a sweeter payback against Robert Porcher, the Detroit lineman who bedeviled him the most last month.
After throwing an interception, his only major mistake of the game, Johnson got into a post-play fight with the 6-foot-3, 282-pound Porcher. Johnson got the better of the fracas, ending up on top of Porcher, and then, once he had returned to the safety of the sideline, first waved his arms to the crowd, then struck a wrestler's muscle-flexing pose as the sellout crowd laughed and whooped.
"They took a cheap shot [at me] when the play was 40 yards away. . . . They're notorious for it," said Johnson, who credited "the Four Horsemen and the World Wrestling Federation" for his neck-bowed pose. "I felt like I won [the battle with Porcher]. But I wouldn't want to face him again."
The outcome was decided so early that much of the game was a mixture of crowd celebration and accidental comedy. The Johnson-Porcher scuffle produced an enormous pile of humanity, but no injuries, although star guard Tre Johnson was ejected for making contact with an official in his haste to get in on the scrum.
Later in the third quarter, with the outcome a forgone conclusion, referee Bob McElwee's field microphone malfunctioned. For several minutes, everyone in the stadium could hear most of his on-field conversations, as well as some of the colorful comments directed at him by players.
"The switch is off," McElwee kept saying, as the crowd slapped its knees. Despite a few blue comments, McElwee escaped serious embarrassment, although he did once refer to Tre Johnson as "this clown."
A month ago, after their loss to these Lions, plenty of Redskins might have fit that description. This time, they looked anything but comical. Especially to those who might still have to face them this month.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Redskins running back Stephen Davis scores in the first quarter as quarterback Brad Johnson (14) signals the touchdown.
CAPTION: Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson (95) sacks former Redskin Gus Frerotte, helping Washington cruise into an NFC semifinal game at Tampa Bay next Saturday.