The roars from the crowd of 90,098 began when Coach Joe Gibbs trotted out of the tunnel for warmups, wearing a black Washington Redskins cap, sunglasses and a steely expression to hide his bubbling emotions at his first NFL regular season game after missing 11 seasons. Fans cheered wildly as the Redskins huddled near the end zone before stretching. They even applauded the coin flip.
By opening kickoff, FedEx Field was rocking with the largest crowd for a Redskins home game in its eight-year history, and the Redskins responded with a stirring 16-10 opening-day victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers behind a virtuoso performance by tailback Clinton Portis and the swarming, blitz-happy defense concocted by Gregg Williams.
"I'm absolutely thrilled. I don't think we could have fought any harder," Gibbs said afterward, his voice hoarse. "I gotta tell you, both teams were laying it out there as hard as they could. It was huge for me. I can tell you that. And I think it was for our players, too."
Yesterday's storybook ending -- or new beginning -- came with the run-heavy approach that Gibbs used to win three Super Bowls with the Redskins from 1981 to 1992. On 29 carries, Portis exhibited power-back moves despite his scatback physique to finish with 148 of Washington's 166 rushing yards. On his first carry, Portis darted 64 yards to open the scoring after the offensive line created a gaping hole.
"We're going to see if he's going to take us out to eat," said right guard Randy Thomas, alluding to the offensive line's strong play. "I hope it's not a buffet. I want to sit down."
Said Gibbs: "Portis is a tough guy. He's going to be a heck of a Redskin."
But after a fast start, Washington's offense sputtered and the Redskins needed John Hall's 30-yard field goal to snap a tie at 10 with 8 minutes 55 seconds left to take the lead for good.
The hard-fought victory was the 500th in Redskins franchise history, and Gibbs is responsible for exactly a quarter of them.
Williams -- Washington's assistant head coach-defense -- sent pressure from every angle to confound Tampa Bay veteran quarterback Brad Johnson. Washington's defense, led by safety Matt Bowen, allowed the Bucs only 169 total yards, including just 30 rushing yards. Bowen ended the game with two sacks. The Bucs were held without an offensive touchdown and didn't produce their initial first down until midway through the second quarter.
Fans started a rhythmic chant of "defense" moments after Tampa Bay elected to receive the opening kickoff. And the defensive unit responded, setting up two of Washington's three field goals with turnovers. "I can't take any of the credit for that," Gibbs said. "All I do is run down there and scream, 'Stop 'em.' "
Cornerback Fred Smoot, who sparkled yesterday, said: "We dictate to the offense. We don't wait to take punches."
The outcome wasn't decided until late in the fourth quarter, with the Redskins ahead 13-10. With 2:30 left, Washington had a third down on the Tampa Bay 28-yard line, needing one yard for a first down. Portis took the handoff, burst up the middle and suddenly shifted right to shake a defender before sliding for a six-yard gain.
Five plays later, Hall kicked a 34-yard field goal with 16 seconds left for the final score.
During training camp, Gibbs kept his offensive schemes under wraps, closing many of the team's practices and showing little during its five preseason games. That changed early in the game yesterday.
On the Redskins' first offensive series, with a first and 15 at their 36-yard line, they lined up in a formation they had not used in preseason. The Redskins stacked tight end Walter Rasby and receivers Rod Gardner and James Thrash on the right side of the offensive line. After taking the handoff, Portis leaned toward the left behind the line's blocking. But when Buccaneers defenders overpursued, Portis changed directions toward a big hole on the right and turned upfield. Tampa Bay safety Jermaine Phillips dove as a last-gasp attempt to stop Portis as he crossed the goal line after a 64-yard run that gave Washington a 7-0 lead. Portis faced the giddy crowd in the end zone, holding the ball high, while soaking in the adulation.
"I'm really exhausted. But I have time to recover now," said Portis, who extended his streak of at least 100 rushing yards to seven games, the previous six with the Denver Broncos. "I've got the night off. . . . Off the excitement alone, you could be tired."
While Tampa Bay faced an element of surprise against Gibbs's offense, there was no mystery to Washington's defense. Williams has developed a reputation as one of the NFL's best young defensive minds with an attacking philosophy in which he routinely blitzes the quarterback.
With Washington up 7-0, Tampa Bay had the ball on its 40-yard line for a second and 10. Bowen blitzed from the left side, zooming around fullback Mike Alstott to pounce on Johnson. Bowen stripped Johnson, allowing defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin to fall on the ball at the Tampa Bay 34-yard line. "Everything they ran, we had practiced," said cornerback Shawn Springs. "We were so well prepared."
On Washington's next series, the Redskins ran the ball seven consecutive times, punctuated by quarterback Mark Brunell's scramble to the Tampa Bay 2-yard line after he came under pressure. Brunell's one-yard run made it fourth and inches following a measurement. Gibbs played it safe, and Hall's 20-yard field goal gave Washington a 10-0 lead.
The Bucs were fortunate to be down 10-3 at halftime after a statistically dominating performance by Washington. The Redskins committed only two penalties, zero turnovers and possessed the ball for almost 18 minutes.
Tampa Bay's defense got the Bucs back in the game by the end of the third quarter. With about five minutes left in the period, Cory Raymer had replaced Lennie Friedman at center for the Redskins because of muffed exchanges with Brunell. But on second and seven from the Washington 14-yard line, Raymer accidentally stepped on Brunell's foot after a snap. Brunell lost his footing while handing off to Portis and the ball squirted loose. Cornerback Ronde Barber picked it up after a serendipitous bounce and scampered into the end zone.
The 10-10 score silenced the crowd, and Gibbs grimaced. But Brunell, who was steady if unspectacular yesterday, gathered the offensive players on the sideline and told them to stay calm. "That [fumble] would shake a normal person up," Gibbs said of his quarterback.
Early in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay had the ball on its 41-yard line for a second and six. Redskins defensive lineman Jermaine Haley applied pressure up the middle, causing a bad Johnson pass. Linebacker Antonio Pierce, who started for the injured Mike Barrow, leaped high for an interception in front of wideout Tim Brown and rambled 16 yards, giving Washington the ball on its 36-yard line. On the ensuing Redskins drive, Portis rushed three times and caught a seven-yard pass, setting up Hall's game-deciding field goal.