This was precisely what Joe Gibbs came back for. Or thought he did. After 11 seasons away from the NFL, this night, exactly this night, was what he craved. For this he forsook racecar dominance or the pleasure of grandchildren.
For some men perhaps "Monday Night Football" in Washington with 90,367 fans packed into FedEx Field might be enough. But Gibbs knew, from the moment he said yes to owner Daniel Snyder's pleas to restore the Redskins' tattered tradition, that he was going to get more, much more. The risk, and the excitement that goes with it, was going to be astronomical.
When you're already in the Hall of Fame, you don't come back for table stakes. It's got to be a no-limit game. The wager on the table -- composed not of stacks of chips but made up of piles of your own reputation -- has to be sufficient to make your hair feel like it's standing straight up. And that's what Gibbs got last night.
The Redskins' coach not only faced the Redskins' arch rival Dallas Cowboys last night but, in a twist so rich no one could have fathomed it a decade ago, Gibbs also confronted his personal nemesis as well, ex-Giants coach Bill Parcells.
However, in Gibbs's retirement fantasies, things worked out somewhat differently, we suspect. Not a great deal, mind you. Just three miserable points different: the gap between Dallas 21 and Washington 18.
"Our guys fought their guts out," said Gibbs after one of those rare defeats in which a coach can take at least as much pride as dejection. The Redskins didn't make a single turnover, but neither did the Cowboys. Quarterback Mark Brunell, after a brutally poor beginning, scrambled and battled to 25 completions in 43 attempts for 325 yards, including 10 completions to Rod Gardner for 167 yards. "I'm proud of 'em. . . . We got a lot of work to do. I think everybody knows that. We certainly do. . . . But we've been further down than 1-2. There are a lot of good 1-2 teams in this league right now."
Before too long, the Redskins may be one of them, though they're nor there yet. Clinton Portis, after two fumbles last week, redeemed himself with 94 yards rushing in 23 carries against the prestigious Cowboys defense. "We got our runner. I love Clinton Portis," said Gibbs. "There is nobody else I want but him."
While Gibbs may have been pleased with his team's gumption, there was plenty of grit left in his craw. No doubt, in his comeback fantasies, Gibbs didn't expect to have first and goal at the Dallas 1-yard line just before halftime, only to watch Parcells's defense stuff him on three straight plays for zero yards, forcing the Redskins to settle for a dispiriting field goal just before half and a 7-3 deficit. "That four points [we didn't get] was big," said Gibbs.
Surely he did not think that a gadget play, a sucker's trick, a Gibbs-like piece of deception, would put the Cowboys in charge 21-10 in the fourth quarter. Isn't it Gibbs's Redskins who are supposed to use something as exotic as a fullback pass thrown by a left-handed runner? When Richie Anderson -- who knew he was a southpaw? -- launched that perfect 26-yard scoring pass to Terry Glenn, surely it was Parcells's way of saying: "Welcome back to the league, Joe. By the way, that's seven times in a row I've beaten you."
Also, we can be sure that Gibbs did not guess that twice, on long Cowboys bombs that were perfectly covered by Redskins defenders, complete and unexpected disaster would strike his team. But for those two bizarre plays, the Redskins might have won this game. On the first bomb, Redskins cornerback Walt Harris was called for a 40-yard interference penalty on which, if anything, he was the victim of offensive interference by Glenn. Instead of being forced to punt, the Cowboys were given a first down at the Redskins 1-yard line. Washington, however, did not make a goal line stand, as Parcells's fellows did. Instead, they punched the ball across on just one play.
"All our [coaches] upstairs [looking at TV monitors] they thought the call should have gone the other way" as offensive interference, said Gibbs, who seldom questions a call, even indirectly.
On the second long, arcing spiral that betrayed the Redskins' hopes, cornerback Fred Smoot looked like he was the intended receiver for the heave by Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Smoot was actually deeper than wide receiver Antonio Bryant. But Smoot forgot the first rule of defense. Don't go for the interception until you're absolutely sure that the receiver isn't in the vicinity.
Just as Smoot was about to make a graceful in-stride snag, Bryant did what he's paid to do; he dove, ripped the ball away from the startled Smoot and hit the turf with a 48-yard gain. The Redskins' defense, stunned like a prizefighter after a surprise uppercut to the gut, let down its guard. Two quick Dallas passes later, the Cowboys were in the end zone for a 14-3 lead.
"We didn't turn the ball over and we cut our penalties back," said Parcells, whose team was outgained 384 yards to 287. "Had we not done either of those, I think we would have been in trouble tonight. . . . They're making progress and they are going to be a threat."
Hard as it is to believe, several thousand fans actually appeared to leave this game early -- if after midnight can be described as early. Perhaps they have no sense that this is the beginning of new drama between the teams of Gibbs and Parcells, rather than anything remotely determinative. The second Gibbs era is just beginning. Huge parts of his team are not at all what he wants and, in fact, are not even yet the minimum that he demands.
At the most fundamental position on the field -- quarterback -- the question is moot whether he has anyone who can do his offense justice. On basic rollouts, Brunell sometimes fails to summon the arm-strength expected of any major college quarterback. Far too many of his passes are batted back in his face rudely at the line. Sooner or later, disaster awaits those repeated deflections.
However, Brunell has veteran grit and, like all these Redskins, has the kind of ingrained competitive spirit that Gibbs expects, even if the polish is still missing. With 4 minutes 30 seconds to play and the Cowboys leading 21-10, Brunell launched a 49-yard pass up the left sideline to Rod Gardner to awaken the crowd. On the next play, Brunell used the play-action rolling pocket that Gibbs favored all night to avoid Parcells's blitzers. After ducking a tackler, Brunell threw his best fastball of the night, zinging a desperate 15-yard scoring bullet to Gardner in the back of the end zone.
After a successful two-point conversion, this night truly was just like old times. With more than four minutes to play, could the Redskins' defense hold and force a punt? Could the Gibbs offense, suddenly awakened after an inconsistent night, swarm down field to tie or win?
This was indeed the moment that tempted Gibbs into forsaking world cruises with the wife and sleeping late. For this, at 63, he decided he was willingly to sleep at Redskins Park on countless nights and study film with his old coaching mates until their eyes glaze over or the their midnight laughter revives them.
This time, the prize escaped. The Redskins used up one precious timeout on a failed challenge and, on the last play of the game, saw Gardner dragged down at the Dallas 21-yard line after a 46-yard catch as time expired. For the Redskins, so long dormant and at times almost disinterested, this was a defeat with a huge difference. This was a loss at the beginning of a long process, a defeat at, presumably, the beginning of becoming a Gibbs team.
By Dec. 26, how far will Gibbs's Redskins have progressed? Few who saw this night -- and the narrow margin, the freakish mistakes which constituted the difference -- will make too many plans for that date. Even if it is the day after Christmas. Sometimes, the best presents come late.