On the bus ride from the hotel to the stadium, Michael Westbrook asked the question we all wanted answered. What scenario, Westbrook asked, would put the Redskins in the playoffs? Who had to win, who had to lose? What were the permutations? Irving Fryar, the veteran receiver who has seen about everything a man can in the NFL, knew he only wanted to consider one scenario. "Irving screamed out, 'We don't care! Let's just win!' " Westbrook recounted. "And that was the only right answer. Even though I guess we had clinched a spot in the playoffs before the game began, we really needed to win this game. I mean, really, really needed to. For reasons that had nothing to do with the playoffs, it was a must-win."
And so the Washington Redskins played with the kind of urgency in the second half we often have not seen. Down 10 points in the fourth quarter, they tied the game. Norv Turner made a really difficult decision to play for overtime work to his team's advantage. And Brad Johnson reminded everybody why the club traded for him with a team-record passing performance in a stadium where, it seems, the modern passing game was perfected.
The Redskins played the fourth quarter like they played early in the season, with abandon. They attacked an attacking but vulnerable defense. "That last drive," Mitchell said of the 78-yard overtime march to win the game, "I wish we could do that for a whole game. . . ."
It was appropriate the Washington Redskins resurrected their playoff history here. After all, this is where the hiatus began seven years ago. They'd lost six straight games here, in the park formerly known as Candlestick, over the last 20 years--some of them to Joe Montana, some to Steve Young and Jerry Rice, some to Bill Walsh, some to George Seifert.
It wasn't a dominant victory, it wasn't artistic. And in some ways it was as if the Redskins beat a replacement team of 49ers, with Young sidelined and Rice playing somewhat of a ceremonial role in what might have been his last game here as a 49er, with the team that invented offense as we knew it in the '80s pathetically playing for field position and field goals.
Still, it all added up to a 26-20 victory and to a division title, the first in eight years. It all added up to at least one home playoff game for the Redskins, and a chance to compete for a Super Bowl in a year in which nobody is dominant or even a prohibitive favorite. Asked if it felt like six years since he'd been in the playoffs, Brian Mitchell said, "It felt like an eternity. . . . It's been a long, long time. And the good thing is, once you get there, you never know what's going to happen."
I usually don't pay much attention to the notion of "backing into the playoffs" because who remembers afterward how a team got to the postseason? But the Redskins did need to win this game, to gain some momentum after tough losses at Detroit and Indianapolis. And who better to lead them there than Brad Johnson, whose 471-yard passing performance exploited a weak 49ers defense. When the Redskins traded a first-, second- and third-round draft pick to get Johnson from Minnesota, I was skeptical. Okay, I was downright cynical in my criticism. Johnson had never stayed healthy over an entire season, so why would the Redskins bank on him to do it for them?
Well, he has. He's taken some huge shots and kept on throwing. His arm didn't look tired in completing 32 passes Sunday, did it? The idea to get Johnson was a great one for one reason: It has worked. To put together this performance in this stadium, no matter now sorry the 49ers have become, was just the exclamation point the Redskins needed.
And it was fitting.
The date was Jan. 9, 1993, the site was Candlestick Park, and Daniel Snyder can remember every detail as if happened seven days ago, instead of almost seven years. He had come to San Francisco as a fan to see the Redskins play the 49ers in an NFC playoff game. It had rained all week. Noah's Ark rain. The field was a mess, a muddy joke. Snyder sat near midfield, about 10 rows up. Sunday afternoon, under a dreamy blue California sky, Snyder found the exact seats where he, his close friend and his sister sat. They had to have been drenched. Snyder doesn't even remember getting wet. The Niners were heavily favored, the Redskins had gone 9-7 and they were threatening to win the game when Mark Rypien and Mitchell, stumbling in the mud, fumbled trying to complete a handoff in 49ers territory. Ballgame. Redskins lose, 20-13.
Little did we know at the time that would be the final game for Joe Gibbs as head coach of the Redskins. Little did we know that after 10 years of incredible prosperity that produced four trips to the Super Bowl, and three Super Bowl victories, a drought was about to arrive. Little did we know at the time that the team would be sentenced to six years out of the playoffs. Little did Snyder know that the next time he entered the stadium formerly known as Candlestick, he would own the Redskins.
Snyder liked the irony, saw it as a completion of the circle. Nearly seven years later, he stood on a dry grass field, just a few yards from that fumble. The Carolina Panthers had lost, the Green Bay Packers were losing. Who would have thought when the season began that Week 15 of the NFL season would find San Francisco in shambles, the Redskins already in the playoffs? Snyder thought about walking over to the very same seats and sitting in them. But just as he warmed to the thought, the fans started filing in. They have their own sentimental thoughts and meaningless end-of-season games to play here now, unimaginable as that has been here. Young ran the stairs three hours before the game. Rice caught passes early. Fans strained to get a look, a picture.
It was a strange juxtaposition. The Redskins were just relieved to be on the right side of the positioning. They were 4-12 under Richie Petitbon in 1993, 3-13 under Norv Turner in '94, followed by 6-10, 9-7, 8-7-1 and 6-10. Okay, so the current 9-6 ain't exactly the glory days of the Fun Bunch or the Smurfs, the Hogs or the Pearl Harbor Crew, Riggo Drills or 50-gut. The Redskins still have a long way to go. But you've got to start somewhere. This can't be a bad place.