- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

On one sideline, the Washington Redskins were banding together and finishing strong despite a season-long run of frustration and at times even embarrassment. On the other, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss was strolling to the locker room with teammates playing out the final seconds.

Not to make too fine a point here, but only one team showed up at FedEx Field yesterday. If the Redskins take nothing else from coach Joe Gibbs’ first season back (and admittedly, it’s like playing five-finger discount in a Soviet-era supermarket), it’s that they grew up and grew into a group with a future.

And so Volume II, Chapter I of Gibbs’ story ends. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant ride. Heck, the Monday Morning Quarterback would sooner relive puberty. But with the Redskins themselves having emerged from their zit-popping and voice-cracking stage, the Quarterback assesses what’s next.

Q: A real win over a real team. We’d rather have a playoff berth or a win over Dallas, but we’ll take what we can get. Is there any lasting significance to beating the Vikes?

A: The Redskins upended a team that had everything to play for and was jilted on the doorstep of the playoffs just a year ago. That the Vikings didn’t hang 50 on Washington is a testament to their lacking desire and a great Redskins defense.

Gibbs’ club needed a good note to end the season after a bona fide upchuck at Dallas. The team got it.

Q: Where were these guys all year? Washington lost to the Giants, Browns and Cowboys. What gives?

A: If another season started today, the Redskins would play .500 ball and perhaps better. They still need a shrink for the Cowboys series and fortunately now get several months to sort out their problematic offense. But simply establishing an identity and a network of trust is a big step. Washington has those things.

Q: Sometimes we think Gibbs is taking you into the woods and chanting under a full moon. Unity is great, but what we really want is points. When do they come?

A: Provided Gibbs is serious about changing anything this offseason (he’s told associates he absolutely is), the Redskins’ offense should return to the middle of the pack. His schemes are in serious need of updating, and his roster needs a playmaking wide receiver and a couple of interior linemen.

Q: The schemes bit we get. But what do you call Laveranues Coles and Randy Thomas? Aren’t they a “play-making wide receiver” and the highest-paid guard in the league?

A: Coles is tough as all get-out, but he needs to come to grips with his two-year toe injury and undergo surgery. He’s not a $35million wideout at 10 yards a catch.

Thomas is an enigma. At times he looks great rolling out in space and leading a sweep. But he’s not a leader and has been undone by shaky play around him.

Q: What about Rod Gardner? We guess he’s just gone.

A: Gardner never got his act together during four seasons here. He’ll go somewhere else and gripe about the coaching changes and not getting enough balls. Both are reasonable points.

But the truth is, he was drafted to be a No.1 target or at least a dominant possession receiver. Plagued by drops and questionable route-running, he turned out to be neither.

Q: Once he recovers his SUV, maybe he’ll give Fred Smoot a lift out of town. What happened to Smoot? Wasn’t he one of Gibbs’ “core Redskins?”

A: To a certain extent, he is. But you can only pay so many people on one side of the ball, and Gregg Williams has proved (with five projected starters finishing the season on injured reserve) he can make it go with or without the stars.

Smoot’s a good guy and most people would like him back. But Williams’ performance this year gives the team tremendous leverage in contract talks.

Q: How did Walt Harris hold up? Is he every bit as good as Smoot?

A: Harris has been good but not great all year, and that pretty much characterized his start in place of injured Smoot.

On a naked screen to Nate Burleson, Harris got stiff-armed and gave up 13 yards. (Incidentally, Burleson’s play was one Gardner failed to make a dozen times this year).

But Harris didn’t give up any huge plays to a fearsome offense. And whoever plays corner next year will get a huge boost from the maturation of game-changing safety Sean Taylor.

Q: Will the Redskins be big spenders again this spring?

A: Although there will be some shuffling at key positions, Washington’s biggest priorities have little to do with splashy signings.

On defense, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce must return. He is the glue that held that unit together.

On offense, Gibbs needs to counteract creative blitzes and figure out legitimate roles for James Thrash and Taylor Jacobs. Both are potential 30-catch guys; instead, they combined for just 25 prior to yesterday.

Q: Never too early for a prediction. How much progress did Washington make over the last 12 months and what’s their record in 2005?

A: Gibbs has taken fire on many fronts in recent weeks, much of it legitimate. But so too is the growing maturity and character of this team. Washington is 10 points a game away from 10-6. The guess here is that Gibbs will find a touchdown or so and get the Redskins to 8-8.

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