When the game mattered most, a running back carried the ball more than a quarterback threw it. The third-quarter fumble evaporated quicker than last season's coach. And the menace of a defensive back, flying through the line, sent the sellout crowd past crazed celebration and toward outright delirium.
All that was left was for a 63-year-old man to tug on the bill of his game-day cap, the one with the gold "R" embroidered on it, and proclaim -- in that homespun, squeaky voice of his -- "I gotta tell ya . . . that was a hard-fought game."
Nothing changes -- except Joe Gibbs's age and his growing aura. The gobble-up-the-clock offense, the opportunistic defense, mistake-free football in the fourth quarter. And another win -- the 500th in the history of the franchise.
Twelve years after he last roamed the sidelines for the Washington Redskins, Gibbs directed a group of modern-day players to a grinding, 16-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday before a franchise home record crowd of 90,098 at rollicking FedEx Field.
In the National Football League opener for both teams, the coach who stunningly retired in 1993 won his first regular season game since his return to football as the Redskins overcame a disastrous third-quarter turnover, their own offensive liabilities and a Buccaneers defense that gave up 291 yards but only one touchdown.
Clinton Portis, the latest running back to benefit from Gibbs's run-first, pass-later offensive scheme, churned his legs 29 times for 148 yards and one breathtaking, 64-yard touchdown -- on the very first carry of his Redskins career.
Safety Matt Bowen sent the masses home satiated, charging through the Tampa Bay line with a little more than five minutes left in the game and driving Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson into the ground to seal the Redskins' victory.
The Redskins moved to 125-60 under Gibbs all-time, and to 1-0 with an icon who decided to dust off the cobwebs in January and return to guide the Redskins following a disastrous two years in which they foundered under the leadership of Steve Spurrier. Including yesterday, Gibbs has used parts of three decades to win a quarter of the franchise's games.
Gibbs first took the field to applause about 12:15 p.m., more than 45 minutes before kickoff. Not completely buying into the sentimentality of the day, he refused to bite when asked afterward, "Can you go home again?" He tried to heap praise upon his assistants and players, and even eschewed the cursory, 30-second halftime interview with the network sideline reporter, because he "only had 12 minutes to focus and didn't want to waste a second."
But he did allow that he spoke to his wife on Saturday, and even she sensed what winning meant to her husband after Gibbs had been away from the NFL for more than a decade.
"I had all the emotions going before the game," Gibbs said. "I was with Pat yesterday and she said, 'I don't know when you've ever wanted one like this.' For me personally, it was a big deal. I told the players that hopefully now all the attention will be on them."
Beyond Portis, the offense and Mark Brunell's quarterbacking left much to be desired. Brunell, who like Portis was acquired by Washington in the offseason, ended the day completing 13 of 24 passes for 125 yards and no touchdowns. But with the help of Portis, his offensive line and a late field goal by John Hall, Brunell managed to run out enough of the clock to send the Buccaneers south with many more questions than Washington.
A Redskins defensive line once thought to be the team's weakest link pressured Johnson all afternoon, and limited Tampa Bay running backs Mike Alstott and Charlie Garner to a scant 30 yards on 15 carries.
Still, Gibbs's homecoming victory was in jeopardy midway through the third quarter. The coach who guided the Redskins to three Super Bowl victories -- in the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons -- looked like just another frustrated successor to himself heading into the fourth period.
The Redskins were battering the Buccaneers statistically, but could only manage a 10-3 lead through more than two-and-a-half quarters. Then the unfamiliarity that bedevils new teammates took root. A botched handoff meant for Portis never made it to the running back because Brunell tripped over a lineman's feet, resulting in Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber scooping up the fumble and scoring with 4 minutes 44 seconds left in the third quarter.
After all the pageantry and promise prior to kickoff, the game was knotted at 10. A franchise with recent success relative to Washington -- the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2003 -- had seized the Redskins' first-half momentum.
The stalemate did not change until 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive tackle Jermaine Haley bore down on Johnson three minutes into the fourth quarter, and linebacker Antonio Pierce intercepted Johnson's throw a second later. Pierce returned it 16 yards to the Tampa Bay 39-yard line, and the Redskins moved it to the 12 before Hall converted a field goal.
From there, the Redskins did not founder. The story quickly moved from the ineptitude of a possible loss to the legendary coach whom Redskins owner Daniel Snyder managed to lure from his successful NASCAR business and back to the NFL.
Three hours before kickoff, several thousand fans had set up their grills and unwrapped their sausage and chili.
On one side of FedEx Field, two banners were hung, both reflecting a singular, unifying thought in what is usually a politically divided capital: "Joe Gibbs for President."
Never mind that the opener was not a National Football Conference championship game, where Gibbs's old teams were 4-1, or even a divisional playoff in January. Among the legions of Redskins fans, the game's importance was not lost on Shawn Adams, an usher in the nether reaches of FedEx Field -- "Section 401, right along the 50-yard-line," he said, proudly
"I think this is the biggest thing they've done since he's left," Adams said, referring to Gibbs's resignation in 1993. "My uncle started taking me to the games in '82 and I've 'bout seen everything with this team. To bring back the tradition like he did today, nothing more important has happened in 12 years."