The wait is over for the Washington Redskins and their fans. The storied franchise that won three Super Bowls in the 1980s and early '90s makes its return to the NFL postseason today, when the Redskins host the Detroit Lions in a first-round NFC playoff game at FedEx Field.
It has been a long and tormenting seven years for the Redskins and their followers since the team's last playoff game, a 20-13 loss at San Francisco on Jan. 9, 1993. That was Joe Gibbs's final game as coach, and the late Jack Kent Cooke still owned the franchise then.
The focus of this week's practice has been on the condition of tailback Stephen Davis, who missed the last 2 1/2 games of the regular season with a sprained left ankle.
Redskins Coach Norv Turner, making his first playoff appearance in his sixth season here, cannot be certain how much production he will get today from Davis, who limped around the practice field this week. Although the Redskins say they expect Davis to start, they are uncertain how long he will be able to play and how effective he will be. Veteran cornerback Darrell Green has bronchitis and didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
Still, a sellout crowd of more than 80,000 fans at three-year-old FedEx Field (formerly Jack Kent Cooke Stadium) will be on hand for the team's first home playoff game since Jan. 12, 1992, and first in the already eventful ownership tenure of Daniel M. Snyder.
"We've waited a long time for this," Redskins guard Tre Johnson said. "We have to make it worth the wait."
It's a game the Redskins, favored by 6 1/2 points, think they should win and one that would put them in a conference semifinal at Tampa Bay next Saturday. They won the NFC East title with a 10-6 record, while the Lions backed into the playoffs as an 8-8 wild-card team that lost its final four regular season games following a 33-17 triumph over the Redskins on Dec. 5 at the Silverdome. No .500 team ever has won an NFL playoff game, and the Lions have an 0-19 all-time record at Washington (including 0-2 in the postseason).
The Redskins have only seven starters on offense and defense with playoff experience. They have only four players on the roster (Green, running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell, tight end James Jenkins and linebacker Kurt Gouveia) with playoff experience as Redskins. The team looks at the NFC playoff bracket and likes its chances, but the Redskins can't be certain how a roster full of playoff novices will react under the bright spotlight.
"It's a whole new level," defensive end Marco Coleman said. "The season starts over. If you don't put up, you'll be out."
Said fullback Larry Centers: "I need to sound the horn and let guys know the intensity is going to be 10 times greater than in a regular season game."
The biggest unknown factor for the Redskins today is Lions quarterback Gus Frerotte. The former Redskin, who signed with Detroit after being released by Washington last spring, played mistake-free football in beating his former team last month. Back then, Frerotte found out on a Friday that he would be starting in place of the injured Charlie Batch on Sunday. This time, Frerotte knew on Monday he would be playing today.
The Redskins hope that means Frerotte will be more nervous and make more mistakes. Frerotte, however, said he likes things better this way.
"It's a different feeling," Frerotte said this week. "You can prepare all week. It's better for me [and] better for the receivers. The linemen get to hear your cadence in practice all week."
Asked what ran through his mind when he found out he would be facing the Redskins in the playoffs, Frerotte said: "I was saying to myself, 'You couldn't write a better script.' "
The Lions have a dangerous trio of wide receivers in Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton and Germane Crowell, but their running game disappeared when Barry Sanders retired last summer. The Lions rushed for only 31 yards against the Redskins last month and averaged 77.8 rushing yards this season. For the Redskins' defense, the key probably is to hit Frerotte early and often and not allow him to get comfortable in the pocket.
"Gus is a good friend of a lot of guys here," Redskins linebacker Shawn Barber said. "But we want to go and hit him just like you'd hit anybody else."
On offense, the Redskins would like to be able to use Davis's running to balance the passing of quarterback Brad Johnson. In the December game, the Redskins fell behind and had to pass, and were overwhelmed by the Lions' defensive line and the deafening crowd noise. The result was a 14-penalty, four-turnover performance. Johnson was sacked five times.
"The key for us getting on the right track in our passing game is our protection," Centers said. "Hopefully we can hit on all cylinders with all our guys back."
The Redskins hope rookie right tackle Jon Jansen can handle Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Porcher this time, and that veteran left tackle Andy Heck can contain end Tracy Scroggins. They'll have the crowd on their side this time--although Frerotte pointed out this week that FedEx Field has "a different atmosphere" than raucous, playoff-tested RFK Stadium--and they hope Davis can handle enough of a workload to make a difference.
"It takes some of the pressure off our passing game," Brad Johnson said. "He's a big part of our team, and it means a lot to have him back in the lineup."
Johnson, who is seeking his first postseason victory in the NFL as a starting quarterback, added: "This is what you work for. I'm not going to be satisfied until we win the whole thing."