- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Washington Redskins are five games below .500. They have three meaningless games left, starting with today’s against the hopeless San Francisco 49ers. And yet it feels as if the Redskins’ season is just beginning.

Sunday’s gritty performance against the Philadelphia Eagles capped a four-game stretch that began with Washington refocusing its goals and ended with the sense that, assuming there is continuity this offseason, something truly is being built for 2005.

Washington (4-9) could have been in tailspin mode this week as it prepared to play San Francisco (2-11) at Monster Park. Instead, the Redskins spoke as if they were just getting airborne.

“This team has a lot of heart, a lot of character,” defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. “Heart isn’t something you see when you sign a guy or draft him. A coach can’t coach it. It’s something you have to identify in yourself. You have to want to do it for your team and your organization. That’s what I see here. Guys want to win.”

The 49ers represent a welcome return to more modest competition for Washington, which faced the Eagles twice and the Pittsburgh Steelers once in the past four weeks. San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson is widely rumored to be on his way out, and injuries and stingy owner John York have left the active roster with sparse talent.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in contrast, are angling to join the 1984 49ers, 1985 Chicago Bears, 1998 Minnesota Vikings and possibly this year’s New England Patriots as the only 15-win teams in NFL history. And yet Washington lost just 16-7 at Pittsburgh and might have beaten the Eagles on Sunday if not for Patrick Ramsey’s last-minute interception in the end zone.

“I don’t know if I can really step back and look at it right now, but I know that we’ve grown, just based on how we’ve performed,” offensive lineman Ray Brown said. “We’ve taken some steps forward. It just hasn’t materialized in wins.”

To translate optimism into an actual victory today, the Redskins would like to return to the rhythmic, efficient play on offense that defined their Dec.5 win over the New York Giants. That day, Washington broke the 20-point barrier for the first time all season, Ramsey completed 19 of 22 passes and running back Clinton Portis rushed for 148 yards en route to a 31-7 victory.

The Redskins generated a solid 312 yards against the Eagles, but they couldn’t quite make enough plays to secure a victory. Ramsey took a step back, seeming less composed in the pocket and appearing to telegraph some of his passes. This week he revealed some details about his growth curve.

“I just feel a lot better about the way I’m seeing things, as far as our offense is concerned — not so much the field in general but seeing what we’re trying to do and seeing things open up for us,” Ramsey said. “What I want to continue to do is make good, quick reads and get the ball in [receivers’] hands.”

Permitting the offense to develop at a slower pace has been Washington’s defense, which ranks second in the NFL and is shooting to make up the 60 aggregate yards by which it trails top-ranked Pittsburgh over the final three games.

The Redskins should get some snaps today from Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington, who has missed the past 11 games with knee difficulties. However, the defining trait of the defense is its lack of star power — how all 11 players stick to their assignments and how anyone can step up and become the hero at any time.

“That’s what a team is, and that’s what this game used to be about,” defensive line coach Greg Blache said. “I use the analogy: Gladys Knight and the Pips can only take you so far. There is going to be a point where you need more than one star and a bunch of backup singers. It’s like the Temptations — everybody’s got to be able to grab the mike and be the lead singer.

“When you build that kind of team, you’re going to have success in the long run. Hopefully that’s what we are.”

The 49ers rank among the NFL’s worst offenses, but they showed progress in last week’s 31-28 win at Arizona. Quarterback Ken Dorsey threw the first three touchdown passes of his career. Substitute running back Maurice Hicks rushed for 139 yards in his first start.

“They got our attention,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “It hasn’t been very hard for our players to focus after what they saw in how [San Francisco] played the Cardinals.”

But Washington arguably hasn’t lost its focus all season, despite failing to approach the lofty expectations that accompanied coach Joe Gibbs’ return.

“We had a chance to [give up],” Griffin said. “But we still fight, build for next year, make a statement that we’re going to be that team in the NFC East. … We’re still having fun. These last few games, you’d never think we were 4-9.”

Notes — Rookie safety Sean Taylor was fined another $20,000 — $10,000 for striking Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens out of bounds (an unpenalized play that ended with Owens bowling over a Redskins cheerleader) and $10,000 for violating the NFL’s uniform policy.

The latter fine, which running back Clinton Portis also received, was for wearing red socks in the Eagles game. Taylor and Portis were fined $5,000 apiece last week for wearing red socks in the Dec.5 Giants game. Also last week, Taylor was fined $7,500 for a personal foul, bringing his two-week total to $32,500. …

Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson confirmed a tentative plan to have former Redskins return man Brian Mitchell retire with the club. Washington would sign Mitchell for one day, probably shortly after this season ends, and let him immediately retire. Mitchell could not be reached for comment.

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