Toward the end of training camp, Coach Joe Gibbs asked Joe Theismann and several other former Washington Redskins to attend a team meeting and address the players. Gibbs asked the men who had played for him to put into words what it meant to have won Super Bowls for one of the NFL's most storied franchises.
"He wanted those of us who have had some history here to talk about the pride we felt when we put the uniform on," Theismann said this week. "I also told them it was time to turn their home field to an advantage, and that the only way to do that was to care about each other and to think about defending FedEx Field the way you'd defend your own home if somebody was trying to start a fire there or break in.
"I told them that 'you are a Washington Redskin' and that is something special and it can be special for them, too, but they had to make it that way. Nobody was going to hand them anything. For too many years, this team has been a way station for too many players. I told them it was time to make it a destination."
Theismann said he could tell just by looking into all the wide eyes in front of him that perhaps his message, and similar talks by past Redskins who joined him that day -- Joe Jacoby, Gary Clark, Don Warren and Pat Fischer -- were being taken to heart by the team. Only three players on the current roster -- tackle Jon Jansen, center Cory Raymer and wide receiver James Thrash -- were on the last Redskins team to have a winning record in 1999.
Three weeks into the regular season and coming off a bye week, the Redskins hardly have arrived at any destination. But the team is 2-0 and in first place in the NFC East. They beat the Chicago Bears at FedEx field in the season opener, then ended an odious streak of not having won in Dallas since 1995 with a fourth-quarter rally Sept. 19.
The Seattle Seahawks (2-1) will come into FedEx Field at 1 p.m. today against a Washington team that hasn't won its first three games since 1991, the last time the Redskins won the Super Bowl for the third time in Gibbs's 12-year tenure that ended after the '92 season. In '91, with a stout defense and quarterback Mark Rypien throwing deep almost at will, the Redskins ran off 11 straight victories, finished 14-2 and beat the Buffalo Bills, 37-24, in Super Bowl XXVI at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Most of the current Redskins have no idea what it's like to enjoy that sort of success in a town that bleeds burgundy and gold even through the bad years. Since that last Super Bowl triumph, the franchise has gone through the very worst of times, with only two more playoff appearances (1992 under Gibbs and '99 with Norv Turner) and losing seasons each of the last three years, preceded by two mediocre 8-8 seasons.
And yet, despite the losing, despite four head coaches in six years, FedEx is a perennial sellout and a dominant TV draw. The victory over the Bears had a 48 share of the Washington market audience, meaning that 48 percent of the sets in use that Sunday were tuned in to the football game. Monday night's victory against Dallas drew a 48 local share and both games were the No. 1 rated show in the market that week, just as every game of the Redskins' 6-10 season last year was No. 1 in the local market every week.
"I've told LaVar Arrington many times that if you enjoy success in Washington, you'll see a city like no other place in the NFL," said Jeff Bostic, the center on all three of Gibbs's Super Bowl championship teams. "Fifteen years ago, we didn't have baseball, nobody cared about the NBA or hockey.
"During football season, really all year round, we were the kings, and now you've got a city that is starving for the team to get back to the playoffs. You've got 92,000 people coming to watch them play, and I know that many people can make more noise than the 55,000 who saw us [at RFK Stadium]. It should be so loud out there the offensive tackles should never be able to hear the snap count. That's hasn't happened a lot in the last few years, but that's what home-field advantage is really all about."
Former Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon also remembers the good times when RFK literally rocked and the bleachers rolled from the thunderous ovations and stamping feet the defense regularly received in the 1980s and early '90s.
"All I know is RFK was the perfect place to play, and nothing will ever take its place," he said. "It was the perfect size and it kept the noise right in there on top of you. These people in Washington are the greatest fans in the world, they really are. When we first started winning, even going back to when I played for George Allen [in the early 1970s], these people were so hungry for a winner. They were unbelievable. You had a lot of drinks on the house, a lot of dinner tabs picked up for you. You'd get stopped by a traffic cop, and if they knew you played for the Redskins, they'd just let you keep on going."
When the Redskins are losing, Theismann said: "People avoid you and have no questions for you. When you win, people want to find you and congratulate you. In this city, if the Redskins are losing, people don't want to talk about the team. If you're winning, you're the topic of every conversation, up on the Hill, around the water cooler, at the grocery store.
"I bought gas yesterday and went inside to pay and a guy says to me, 'We're not scoring a lot.' The guy next to him jumps in and says 'They're scoring enough.' That's what I mean. When the Redskins are winning, everybody is talking about them."
Charlie Brotman, a Washington sports publicist for more than 50 years, has seen the town's love affair with the Redskins most of his life.
"When they win, it unifies everything," he said. "It makes friends out of strangers and everyone feels like part of the family because we're all rooting for the same people. No one wants to be associated with a loser."
Longtime broadcasting executive Andy Ockershausen, now with Comcast SportsNet and a native Washingtonian, also pointed out that Redskins mania began long before Gibbs (in 1981) or even Allen arrived in town in 1971. The team's original owner, George Preston Marshall, was a master at promoting and marketing the team and always said he wanted to make a Redskins game a family affair. With that in mind, he started the NFL's first marching band, commissioned the "Hail to the Redskins" fight song and often offered up entertaining pregame and halftime shows.
"I can remember 10,000 people getting on a train with the marching band and going up to New York to see them play the Giants," Ockershausen said. "I think if this team can do something this year, it'll be wild around here, especially with the younger people. It's just been so long since they had any success. I thought there was some euphoria when the Capitals made it to the Stanley Cup finals [in 1998], but no one really understood hockey.
"Nothing in this town ever matched the excitement when the Redskins were winning."
Other than several members of Gibbs's staff, only one of the Redskins' current players remains on the active roster from that '91 Super Bowl team.
Ray Brown, now 42 and a reserve lineman, was on injured reserve with an elbow problem that year. "I remember that old stadium was just howling," Brown said this week. "Anywhere you'd go around town, people would pat you on the back, even if you weren't playing. I think the guys here now understand what it can be like. Right now, we're in first place, and there's nothing bad about that.
"But we also have to respond to that challenge."
Chris Samuels, who arrived here in 2000, has never played on a winning Washington team, but knows how fans will react when the Redskins start having significant success.
"It's an unbelievable city," he said. "They love us when we lose. Right now everybody is excited. I can be riding around in the car and people will wave at you. Just this week, a lot of people have been coming up to me and saying, 'Thanks, thanks for beating Dallas.' "
Redskins Notes: With starting cornerback Walt Harris and safety Pierson Prioleau expected to miss today's game against Seattle with injuries, the Redskins activated defensive back Dimitri Patterson from the practice squad yesterday. The team had been carrying only three healthy cornerbacks.
Patterson, 22, played at Tuskegee. To make room for Patterson on the active roster, the club released rookie linebacker Zak Keasey, who made the team as an undrafted free agent and played on special teams in Week 1.
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.