As the Redskins poured back into their locker room after a bruising, grinding 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay in the kind of bludgeoning tests of wills that the team won so frequently in the long-ago era of Joe Gibbs, they were greeted at the door by their new head coach. And, lo and behold, the jubilant old guy, grabbing them each in turn, was the 63-year-old Gibbs himself.
"He was full of smiles, met every guy at the door with hugs," said Fred Smoot, grinning at the thought. "He makes you want to go out there and sell out for him."
Gibbs didn't just give out grins and grabs, but issued a game ball to every player, something he did only a couple of times in his first two seasons when his early Redskins teams won games of enormous symbolic value to him.
"It's been a long time since Joe did that," said Joe Bugel, his longtime assistant. "We needed a win just like this after [all the hitting] we've put them through. We're a pad football team. All the hard work won this ballgame. A soft football team can't beat those guys in the fourth quarter. They'll own you. We were tested. And we passed the test."
Everybody tries to doll up football because it's a multibillion dollar business and flash entertainment. But it's still the same old violent, brutal turf war it's always been, at least if you live in the world of Gibbs and his coaches. For them, strategy and game plans are great, but emotion, discipline and commitment to team usually carry the day when the game is late and close.
That's where the Redskins found themselves at the end of the third quarter yesterday at FedEx Field after a careless fumble near their own goal line gave the Bucs a gift touchdown and a 10-10 tie in a game Washington had dominated. Gibbs, who seldom gives in-game pep talks, met with his offense and made the situation simple.
"There is going to be some adversity in every game," Gibbs told the players, according to an account provided by Bugel. "And we're in it now."
Bugel, picking up the theme, jumped into the mix, barking at his linemen. "We're going to run 40-gut and 50-gut until they surrender."
The sideline fire spread. Running back Clinton Portis, who had already broken a 64-yard touchdown run the first time he touched the ball, got up in Gibbs's face, begging the coach to let him jam his 205-pound body into the center of the Tampa Bay defense. Giving away 50 pounds to the average Bucs defender, Portis pleaded for the job of human battering ram.
"Let's run downhill. Let's put a body on a body," Portis said, meaning plow straight ahead. "Let's make a statement."
Who was Gibbs to disagree?
"Clinton is bright-eyed, jumping in your face, saying, "Run this,' " Gibbs said after the game. "So, I say, 'Okay, we'll run it.' "
And they did.
From that juncture, the Bucs never crossed midfield in the face of a blitzing Washington defense that was exceptional all day. Meantime, the Redskins' offense managed two time-consuming drives to set up field goals, one of them after a momentum-turning interception by leaping linebacker Antonio Pierce. After the various circle-the-wagons pep talks at the end of that miserable third quarter, the Redskins outgained the Bucs with 63 yards in their last 15 plays to a meager six yards in 10 Bucs plays.
"I don't know when we've fought any harder," Gibbs said, as though his last game was last season rather than 11 years ago. "Everything felt like it was falling apart. . . . Then the guys stepped up. . . . It was huge for me. . . . Personally, it was a big deal."
For weeks, as Portis barely carried the ball in preseason games, saving his body, Bugel and the star running back teased each other. "You're going to love me in the regular season," Portis would tell Bugel. "Well, I'm trying to love you now," Bugel would answer. After watching Portis gain 148 yards on 29 carries and catch four passes, Bugel had his answer.
"He showed me he has a Riggo mentality. He's a tenacious inside runner," Bugel said. "I kissed him on the cheek [after the game] and said, 'You convinced me. I love you.' "
Gibbs's idea of heaven is a blue-ribbon defense, like those fielded by Richie Petitbon, complemented by stingy special teams, a mistake-free quarterback and a punishing running back working behind a huge offensive line. The current Redskins, after just one win, are still far from that ideal, though they're much improved from Steve Spurrier's amateur hour.
For example, last year's Redskins had 124 penalties (including 17 in one game), as well as 43 sacks and 28 turnovers -- a total of 195 conspicuous screw-ups or an average of a dozen a game. Those infamous mistakes, especially of the mental variety, were the centerpiece of six defeats by four points or less. Unnecessary blunders defined the team.
In Gibbs's opener, the Redskins had three penalties, one turnover and no sacks -- just four mistakes -- or less than in any Redskins game all of last season. What a shock! Yes, discipline can be coached. And it's only worth about four wins a year. This game may have been one of them. The Buccaneers are an extremely well-coached veteran team and their rigorous coach, Jon Gruden, was satisfied with their execution. Yet Tampa Bay had six penalties, yielded four sacks and two turnovers -- a dozen mistakes.
"They are going to be a handful for a lot of people," said Gruden of the Redskins, though he seemed more impressed by Gregg Williams's defense than by Gibbs's offense, which still doesn't run particularly smoothly in Mark Brunell's hands.
If the Redskins could execute the simplest play in football -- the center-quarterback exchange -- they might even be pretty good pretty soon. But either Brunell or backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey has butchered snaps in practices and in almost every preseason game. Yesterday, three more fumbles were caused by botched exchanges. Twice, Brunell fell on the ball after he and center Lennie Friedman missed connections. Once, after center Cory Raymer tripped Brunell by stepping on his foot, the bobbled ball ended up in the hands of cornerback Ronde Barber, who trotted nine yards to the Washington end zone.
"We have to eliminate that," Bugel said. "That's grade school."
The Redskins had plenty of other flaws and needn't be too gleeful over beating a team that went 7-9 last year. Nonetheless, this victory provided the most elemental sort of grounding that Gibbs and his staff had hoped to establish.
The pounding ground game is back. "Portis is a tough guy," Gibbs said. "He's going to be a heck of a Redskin."
The defense loves to gamble, just as many of Petitbon's best units did. Also, the team's commitment to error-free football may have taken a quantum leap. When you have the highest payroll in NFL history, that alone should ensure considerable improvement.
Most important, however, the Redskins may have begun the long process of reclaiming their old identity. In those bygone days, when the game was on the line, they smashed foes in the mouth then got a hug from Joe. For one day, they did it again.