To become great, teams desperately need defining moments that help them figure out who they are. What makes us tick? What makes us special? Why should other teams fear us? In tight spots, why should we believe in ourselves?
The Redskins may not turn that corner this month. They may lack the talent or the experience to be more than a good team this season. But on Saturday, they had two defining moments that hinted at important future achievements. Luckily, both involved the team's two most important players: Stephen Davis and Brad Johnson.
Just four months ago, no one knew, and few even imagined, that Davis might set a new Redskins rushing record, surpassing Terry Allen, John Riggins, Larry Brown and everybody else back to Cliff Battles. Not many thought Johnson would pass for more than 4,000 yards and establish himself immediately at the same level as Joe Theismann, Billy Kilmer and Mark Rypien in their best seasons.
Now, almost before we can grasp it, Davis and Johnson are set to start the next period in Redskins history. Saturday's 27-13 playoff win over Detroit illustrated it. In the first quarter, Davis bounced off left tackle, saw a seam, burst past three Lions who underestimated his acceleration, then dashed 58 yards before he could be angled out of bounds. Can 79,411 people all say "Wow" at the same instant? This guy had a sprained ankle and could barely practice on Wednesday?
Instead, you thought exactly what crossed Brad Johnson's mind: "I grew up watching John Riggins and the Hogs. That's what this game reminded me of. We just pounded 'em."
All of Davis's 119 yards rushing--coming in less than two quarters because of a sprained knee that knocked him out of the game and could sideline him this week--were gained without calling attention to himself. Like his 1,405 yards this season, Davis's true stature sneaks up on you. In a crisis, and in pain, his deeds spoke. No one could praise Davis as eloquently as his performance did.
Johnson's moment was more unexpected, a pure bonus. All superior quarterbacks are leaders. But each does it his own way. A style that isn't spontaneous, that isn't born out of the moment, is a fraud.
All season, the Redskins have marveled at Johnson's athleticism. He played basketball at Florida State and once bowled a 278. Name it, he can do it. He's 6 feet 5 and can throw the ball a mile or stiff-arm a tackler. In the pocket, his evasive side-steps are so subtle he may not know he's making them. In other words, he's got magic. But leadership requires more. Deep down, who is this guy?
Not many NFL quarterbacks answer that question by winning a fight with a 282-pound defensive end. But then, not many would even survive it. When Robert Porcher tried to cheap shot him as a play was ending 40 yards away, Johnson didn't back off. Instead, he slugged Porcher in the head, locked up with him, flipped him to the ground and ended up on top in the ensuing pileup.
That, however, wasn't The Moment. With much of the game still left to play and more meetings with Porcher in his future, Johnson had the brass to gloat about his takedown. He waved to the crowd and whipped them up. With everybody looking at him, including the Lions, he struck a WWF neck-bowed flex pose on the sideline.
That's the priceless split second when the real Brad Johnson revealed himself. Playing quarterback for the Redskins: The Exterminator. Would even Terry Bradshaw or Brett Favre have had that much gall?
On the next series, Porcher almost got a sack. Johnson was right back in his face again, yacking. Want another piece of me, big fella?
"That's the best thing I've seen all year," said Redskins defensive end Ndukwe Kalu. "When I saw [Brad] get that body-slam . . . that got me so hyper I wanted to go out there and body slam someone else. I've always respected Brad; he's always been my favorite quarterback. But after he did that . . . that was awesome. He has a defensive lineman's mentality."
The day may come when Johnson wishes he hadn't red-flagged himself as a target for tough guys. On the sideline, Norv Turner, smiling, gave Johnson a bemused chew-out along the general lines of, "Have you lost your mind?"
It's more likely the Redskins have found an identity, at least for whatever's left of this season. A superior team needs to rally around its core people. That's why many Redskins wore "Believe in Stephen" T-shirts at practice last week. And that's why Johnson's sideline WWF pose was all the buzz in the postgame locker room. Suddenly, the Redskins think they know who they are.
Quaint as it seems, they fancy themselves the reincarnation of the old Redskins, circa the 1980s with the Riggo Drill, the Hogs and that ultra-cocky, in-your-face quarterback Theismann volunteering to return kicks or replace an injured punter. Once again, the Redskins are a big, tough intimidating team that runs the ball straight down your throat with Davis, then hits you with the deep strike by Johnson.
Even the Redskins' defense may have caught the mood. Okay, that's a big maybe. They've blitzed more and gambled on man-to-man coverage on the corners, trusting their one strength--team speed. Since their front seven is smallish, they've embraced more risk, putting their young linebackers in position to play with more abandon. Give up some big plays? What's to lose? They were giving them up in gobs already. At least dish out some punishment and cause some turnovers. A top quarterback may eat this defense alive. But look who's up next: the Bucs with a rookie quarterback, Shaun King.
How will the Redskins' offense, No. 2 in the NFL in points, fare against Tampa Bay's No. 1 ranked defense? Assuming guard Tre Johnson is merely fined, not suspended, for accidentally bopping an official during the Porcher melee, it should be quite the cage match.
"The Bucs' defense is very aggressive. They're quick, tenacious and have the smartest linebackers in the league," said Brad Johnson. "They know their weak links and cover for them very well."
Brad, where's that body-slam attitude? Don't you have any pointed words you want to whisper in the ears of Warren Sapp and Hardy Nickerson?
"In Minnesota, we faced the Bucs a lot. I know them very well. I've played against them four or five times," said Johnson.
What happened? Do tell.
"I've had some of the best games of my career against them."