With all the frantic finishes the Washington Redskins have endured in this second season of the Joe Gibbs II era, there was at least one confidence-building constant on the players' minds this week as they prepared to face the Oakland Raiders today at FedEx Field.
The Redskins have won six of their last seven games at home, including 4-0 this year. That is the team's best home record this late in the season since the facility opened in 1997 as Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. Some of the team's veterans who have played with Washington for several years now firmly believe their home field finally is providing -- arguably for the first time in the stadium's history -- a decided advantage.
With the next two games being played at the league's largest stadium -- the Raiders today, the San Diego Chargers next Sunday -- they'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible.
"My first two years here, a lot of people weren't coming to the games, and there seemed like there were a lot of empty seats," said defensive end Renaldo Wynn, in his fourth season with Washington. "But now they're all there because it's worth it to them. When you win, it makes a big difference. You give fans hope and belief, and they know they can make a difference."
Statistics bear that out. At home this season, the Redskins hold an advantage in time of possession by almost 32 minutes. On the road, they are ahead by two minutes. At home, they have 27 more first downs as opposed to 17 more on the road. The Redskins have rushed for more yards than each of their four opponents at home. On the road they've been out-rushed twice in four losses. At home, Washington has lost three fumbles and had two passes intercepted. Away, the Redskins have lost nine fumbles, including two last week in Tampa, and had four passes intercepted.
"It's louder now than it's ever been since I've been here," Wynn said, "and I think it can get even louder. It really makes a difference for that 12th man to be making as much noise as they can. Believe me, we've noticed."
So has the opposition. In the Redskins' season-opening 9-7 victory over Chicago, the Bears were penalized for three consecutive false starts in the fourth quarter due in large part to the roar of the crowd. The victory was sealed when Redskins defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin smacked into Bears rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, making his first NFL start. Griffin knocked the ball out of Orton's hands and recovered the fumble as the decibel level soared.
"That was FedEx Field the way I remember it," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said, perhaps actually remembering the sound and fury from his glory days at old RFK Stadium, one of the toughest venues in the league for any visiting team during Gibbs's first dozen years in Washington. "I really appreciate it, and I want to say thanks to the fans. It was a big deal. We needed everything we could get today to win this game."
Their next home victory came against Seattle three weeks later, and again the crowd helped play a role in disrupting the Seahawks' high-powered offense. That game went down to the final play as well, first in regulation when Seattle kicker Josh Brown's 47-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright, and then in overtime, when rookie Nick Novak nailed a 39-yard field goal to win it for the Redskins.
On Oct. 23, the Redskins rewarded their fans with a 52-17 triumph over San Francisco -- the most points scored by the home team at FedEx Field -- in a game that was essentially over by halftime with Washington ahead, 35-7.
Two weeks ago, the Redskins held on, 17-10, against Philadelphia. Safety Ryan Clark's interception in the final minute sealed the win on a night when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and his teammates had difficulty hearing the signals over the crowd noise as they tried to tie the score late in the fourth quarter. Again, cheers cascaded down as quarterback Mark Brunell knelt at his 12-yard line on the final play of the game.
The road has been far more difficult. With the exception of a 36-0 loss to the New York Giants at the Meadowlands, the Redskins' margin of defeat in three of their four road losses has been by two points at Denver, seven at Kansas City and one point last week against Tampa Bay. Each of those defeats came down to the last play of the game. In those three losses, the Redskins dominated time of possession, first downs and total yardage.
During Gibbs's first tenure from 1981 to 1992, his teams went to four Super Bowls and won three. Over those four Super Bowl years, the Redskins were 24-5 on the road in the regular season -- 5-0 in 1982, 7-1 in 1983, 5-3 in 1987 and 7-1 in 1991. At RFK Stadium, they were 23-4 in the regular season, losing only one home game in each of those seasons.
The Redskins' four victories at home this year have allowed them to improve the franchise's record at FedEx Field to 38-29-1 since the team opened the stadium with a 19-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 14, 1997. In the stadium's first eight years, the Redskins have had two winning home records -- 5-2-1 that first year and 6-2 two years later in a '99 season that marked the team's only playoff appearance since 1992. Three times the Redskins were 4-4 at home, and each of the last two seasons they were 3-5.
"This year, the atmosphere has improved dramatically," said former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker, who played his entire Redskins career at RFK and has purchased season tickets on the stadium's club level since FedEx Field opened.
"I think it has a lot to do with the product. At RFK, the product didn't matter. They went to the Super Bowl in 1972, but the team was not one of the top winning programs until Joe got there. But RFK still always had great spirit, and it had the best fans because they didn't have to win championships to get the people going."
FedEx Field will never be RFK Stadium, according to one former Redskins offensive lineman. "It will never give them the advantage we had at RFK," said Mark May, now an ESPN broadcaster. "For one, the seats are so far away from the field. It's just too much of a sterile environment. There's not that same intimacy. Now they need gimmicks to get the crowd into the game, all the yelling on the PA system. We never needed that because people knew when to get loud. It's a different kind of fan now at FedEx. It's more corporate than blue-collar because the seats cost so much, and it's getting like that all over the league. Now it's a place a lot of people go just to be seen. Before, you just wanted to be there to cheer for your team. It will never be the same."
In the 1970s, George Allen, before every home game, would make a weekly plea to the fans to give his team standing ovations when it took the field and to raise the volume whenever the opposing offense had the ball. Gibbs has been following a similar cheerleading script this year, saying earlier this week: "Our answer is our fans. They understand football, and they always do their part."
Oakland Coach Norv Turner, who coached the Redskins both at RFK Stadium and FedEx Field, remembers coming to Washington as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys in 1991 and being stunned by the ear-shattering noise.
"It was the loudest I'd ever heard," he said. "The atmosphere, the excitement, the stands rocking, it was hard to duplicate. But we also had some great experiences at FedEx. Beating Detroit there in the playoffs [in 1999] was a great night for me and my family. It's a great stadium. It's big, and we know it will be loud" today.
Walker, who does radio and TV broadcasts at college and NFL games every weekend, has been in each of the NFL's 32 stadiums and believes FedEx Field is definitely closing the gap in rivaling Lambeau Field in Green Bay, McAfee Coliseum in Oakland or Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
"As a season ticket holder in the gold seat [club] section, [FedEx Field] still doesn't have what RFK had," he said. "But when I talk to the players now, they all feel unbelievable there. I never heard that before this year.
"All the guys I've talked to, they all want to get back home. The crowd is getting there early now. You don't see many jerseys from the teams they're playing in the stands like you used to."
On the road, every NFL team faces a far more hostile environment. The Redskins know full well that's one of the reasons they've had some difficulty away from FedEx Field this year, going 1-4, including last week's 36-35 loss at Tampa Bay. This year, 13 of the team's 18 turnovers have occurred on the road. Other problems can arise as well.
Gibbs said that last Sunday in Tampa: "There was a whistle blown, and our guys kind of quit on the play. But the whistle was in the stands. It's an example of what can happen to you on the road."
Offensive lineman Ray Brown, 42, who has played for the team both at RFK Stadium and FedEx Field, says he can start to feel the newer stadium "becoming special because the players are all talking about it. We're starting to believe it's special.
"For me, [FedEx Field] was just a cavernous place. I didn't like the locker room, I didn't like the drive over to Maryland. I liked RFK. I liked driving down Constitution and coming across the Potomac to come to the football game. Now [FedEx Field] is a little different. It is a little more sterile. But that place has become special. We've got some good fans. We're playing relatively well, and the fans know it. We can't trick our fans. They know when we're a good football team."