Now Joe Gibbs is really back. Not just back in the job, but back in the hunt. That's what Sunday night's win over the Eagles actually meant. The Redskins will be playing important games throughout November and probably December, too. That's why Gibbs returned, why the town went nuts when he did and why Redskins Park is humming.
However, until now, enthusiasm for the Redskins has been largely cheap happy talk, well intentioned but hollow. That's why Gibbs was wound so tightly late last week at practice and why he was so visibly relieved and revived after the Eagles win. Every coach acts like every game is the end of the world. But sometimes, at least in the locker-room world, it actually is.
"Now you've positioned yourself to play big games," Gibbs said. "This was huge for us, really a big deal."
NFL coaches are famous for motivational hyperbole, so there's a natural inclination to discount anything that anyone, even a man as straightforward as Gibbs, says in public, especially if it can be interpreted as a pep talk to players. But in the case of the Eagles game, the difference between the implications of a win and the consequences of a loss were almost ridiculously large.
Imagine if the Redskins had lost to an Eagles team playing without Terrell Owens. Washington would have fallen to 4-4 after a 3-0 start, squandering a huge September opportunity. The Redskins not only would have been last in the NFC East, they would have been viewed throughout the NFL as a team in trouble. The list of shortcomings would have read like a rap sheet. Can't bounce back after a 36-0 beating. Couldn't summon a proud effort for a national TV audience. Lost for an eighth straight time to a division rival that was being torn apart internally by Owens.
All that would have been visible would have been predictions of doom for a team with a tough schedule ahead and a franchise history of failure since Gibbs left in March 1993.
Even Gibbs conceded that if the Redskins had lost, they'd probably have spent the rest of the season playing games that all felt "like life and death." Instead, the Redskins are 5-3, and their whole universe seems so much better that it's almost comic.
First, that 36-0 defeat at the Meadowlands now means something radically different to the Redskins themselves. Before the Eagles game, that loss to the Giants said, "Maybe we stink." After the win over the Eagles, it said, "Maybe we don't quit."
All of the Redskins' previous games are now cast in a subtly different light. How good is their 5-3 record? Well, maybe quite good. Look at how tough Washington's schedule has been. The Redskins have played four division leaders -- New York (6-2), Seattle (6-2), Denver (6-2) and Chicago (5-3) -- and beaten two of them. Washington also split a pair of games on the road against solid 5-3 teams -- Dallas and Kansas City. That's good work. They just beat a 4-4 Eagles team that went to the Super Bowl last year. And, in their only opportunity to play a weak foe, the 2-6 49ers, Washington led 45-7 in the third quarter and, out of pity, ran plunges into the line for the last 20 or so minutes to avoid running up the score.
Every team, whether it realizes it consciously or not, has the "story" of its own season running through its head all year. Each game is a new chapter as the plot unfolds. What games are foreshadowing? What games are, in retrospect, seen as flukes -- mere diversions from the true narrative? The Eagles win now fits perfectly into a theme the Redskins can enjoy. Their gritty escape from a 13-0 fourth-quarter deficit at Dallas is now seen as an example of the same kind of resiliency -- let the "we have character" chorus kick in any time now -- that the Philadelphia victory simply underlined.
As for their lucky recovered fumbles on Sunday night, the Redskins now see them as part of a season that may be splashed with good fortune, just as every narrow defeat last season made them feel snakebitten. Did Seattle miss an end-of-regulation field goal that could have beaten the Redskins? Sure, but the breaks were bound to even out, weren't they?
If there is one fascinating subplot to this whole Redskins season, it has been the team's ability to build a 5-3 record against seven teams with records of .500 or better while having the second-worst turnover differential in the league. True NFL fans know that turnover differential is the great secret formula of pro football, the number of turnovers a team forces vs. the number it commits. To win against tough competition when yours is minus-nine isn't impossible, but it's highly unlikely. Only once in Gibbs's previous tenure did the Redskins have a terrible turnover differential -- a minus-24 in 1988. And it was the only time in his first Redskins administration that he ever had a losing season (7-9).
Suppose the Redskins reverse their turnover differential to plus-nine in the second half of the season -- a perfectly plausible possibility. What will their record be? Put it this way: Book your playoff reservations.
In the NFL, perception influences performance. The Redskins see themselves as a team that learned a bitter lesson last season -- turnovers, penalties and missed assignments can utterly undermine talent. "Most of the games at this level are close. The team that keeps fighting, doesn't make many mistakes and capitalizes on others' mistakes will find a way to win," quarterback Mark Brunell said on Sunday night. "We learned some tough lessons last year after some really difficult losses in tight games. This year, we are a better football team."
After the Eagles win, the benefit of the doubt now goes to the Redskins -- temporarily. For example, if Washington had lost to the Giants by a more reasonable score -- not 36-0 -- how would we see the Redskins now?
Probably the way they now see themselves. With much increased confidence but plenty of sensible restraint.
"We're not as good as we think we are. We're not as bad as we think we are," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "We've had some big wins. But we've given some big wins away. We need to continue to get better. And not get complacent."
When a legendary coach returns to his sport from retirement, whether it's Gibbs, Bill Parcells or Dick Vermeil, his mystique has a swiftly expiring half-life. He can't live off past glory indefinitely. At some point, he has to prove that his methods and motivation can work in a new time with a new team. Perhaps the first year is a honeymoon, but the second certainly isn't.
By whatever precarious route, the Redskins have reached 5-3. And, with each win, whether over Parcells in Dallas or Andy Reid on Sunday night, the 64-year-old Gibbs looks more and more like the old Gibbs -- you know, the young one.
Nothing removes wrinkles faster than victory.