Welcome to the arid wasteland that has been the Washington Football Team’s 21st century postseason history.
“Man, that is surprising,” said Santana Moss, who spent 10 of his 14 NFL seasons as a wide receiver on this team in this town. “Look, you don’t understand what it has been [like] for us to be players with this organization with all these ups and downs. Y’all don’t even know. I’m talking about grinding it out. All those games I played in for those 10 years, we only had three playoff appearances and won one game.”
That one game was 15 years ago Thursday, and it happened to be against the same opponent Washington will host Saturday night — albeit at Tampa Bay, rather than at FedEx Field this week. The coach was Joe Gibbs. The starting quarterback was Mark Brunell. The head personnel man was Vinny Cerrato. The right outside linebacker was LaVar Arrington. The free safety was Sean Taylor, rest his soul.
And the running back was Clinton Portis.
“It felt like a beginning,” Portis said by phone this week. “Just the camaraderie that we had, I think that was our closest team, that 2005 team. Just the bond we had amongst each other, guys holding each other accountable, guys overachieving, guys leaving it all on the field.
“That was our DNA: Play hard, play tough, play physical. You know it’s going to be a Joe Gibbs game. That’s what you’re starting to see now with this team.”
Before making any comparisons between this team and that one — which we will get to — it’s useful to transport yourself back in time to that 2005 season. Though Daniel Snyder was in just his seventh season as the franchise’s owner, he already was on his fifth coach. But the feeling in Ashburn and around town was that Gibbs — in his second season of his second tenure, with the franchise’s three Super Bowl titles to his credit — had a combination of personality and credibility that could keep the owner at bay in a way no one before could.
Much like this 2020 version, though, that team didn’t sail into the playoffs. An overtime loss to San Diego to close November left Washington 5-6, on the outside of the NFC race. But to hear Moss and Portis tell it, even at that low point, that group had three important qualities: a belief, an identity and a bond.
“That team was so tight,” Moss said by phone. “Everybody bonded. You’re going to always have those locker rooms where certain groups don’t hang around with each other. They do what they do. You can’t make everybody be friends. You have work associates, but maybe you don’t hang out outside work. That’s fine.
“But our locker room, I remember, even if I didn’t kick it with the O-linemen, they still offered me a beer. Sometimes you have those cliques. That year, everyone clicked.”
The reasons? They’re hard to pin down. But Portis has this memory: Southeast Jerome and all the characters who came after. For fans of the current team, this might seem some combination of anachronistic and silly, the star running back wearing elaborate costumes and assuming bizarre personas for his weekly Thursday sessions with reporters. For fans of this team at that time, Portis’s get-ups are indelible.
“When the morale was low and the team was down, all of a sudden my characters came about,” Portis said. “We needed something to smile about. By the second week, teammates couldn’t stand it. But then the entire team kind of participated in the shenanigans. It was kind of like — this is actually working, and we’re actually having fun. We had too much talent not to be having fun.”
Hindsight isn’t always 20/20. The game after Southeast Jerome — huge sunglasses, long black cape, gold teeth, Zorro mask — made his debut just before Halloween, Washington was waxed, 36-0, by the New York Giants. But the characters kept coming. Southeast Jerome was replaced by Dr. I Don’t Know, who was followed by Coach Janky Spanky, Dollar Bill, Sheriff Gonna Getcha and all the rest.
“All of a sudden, Casey Rabach [the starting center] was like, ‘What [messed]-up character are you going to be today?’” Portis said. “And then he’s like, ‘Hey, my wife or kid said wear this.’ That was the icebreaker.”
Whether there was a correlation between Portis’s hijinks and the team’s level of play, it’s undeniable that the group opened December by beating St. Louis — and then ran the table, five straight wins that led to a 10-6 record and a wild card berth in the NFC playoffs. The draw: Tampa Bay, the same Bucs team that had beaten Washington in a wild 36-35 decision in November, a game decided on Mike Alstott’s two-point conversion with 58 seconds left. It set a tone for the rematch.
“That game was chippy the entire time,” Portis said. “I was looking forward to it.”
Washington, at that point, could look forward to it. It had a simple formula offensively: run Portis relentlessly, find Moss on screens and outs and use tight end Chris Cooley on security curls. On defense, a young Taylor had taken over for Arrington as the leader, and players such as linebackers Marcus Washington and Lemar Marshall had career years. What the players on both sides had in common: attitude and toughness.
“Coach Gibbs used to tell us: ‘What I want from you guys is effort,’” Moss said. “And he almost hated to say this, but he’d say, ‘If we don’t win, you make sure our opponent felt it. They better be beat up the next day.’ He used to look in the newspaper the next day and see how many guys they had in the training room.”
And so in a physical rematch with Tampa Bay, his players were ready. Portis scored a first-quarter touchdown. After Marcus Washington stripped the Buccaneers’ Cadillac Williams of the ball, then scooped up the fumble and fumbled himself, here came Taylor, dashing 51 yards for the touchdown that made it 14-0.
Brunell completed just 7 of 15 passes for 41 yards, and Washington gained only 120 on the day. Taylor was ejected for spitting at Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman. But the defense held Jon Gruden’s Bucs to just 243 yards, sacked quarterback Chris Simms three times and forced three turnovers.
Final: Washington 17, Tampa Bay 10.
Portis sees second-year wide receiver Terry McLaurin as this year’s Moss, suddenly reliable tight end Logan Thomas as this year’s Cooley and rookie running back Antonio Gibson as this year’s version of himself. On defense, rookie end Chase Young is the emotional leader, just as Taylor, in just his second season, was for the 2005 group. Plus, he sees the defense on the sideline encouraging the offense and vice versa — just like it was back then.
“It’s just the craziness about that season as a whole,” Moss said. “We never felt like we didn’t have a chance. When you think back now, that’s what I appreciate about the Washington team this year. They always felt like there was an opportunity to win — even if no one else did.”
“You know what it was?” Portis said. “We were counted out — just like this team was counted out.”
Fifteen years, zero playoff wins. Only seven other NFL teams can say the same, though Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Buffalo all have opportunities to end their skids this weekend.
As does Washington. Its most recent playoff win came a couple of football generations ago. The opportunities have been infrequent, but there are parallels between the team that last won a postseason game and the team that could win one Saturday. They are teams with an identity and a toughness, just hoping this is the beginning of something more.