- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

It began 16 weeks ago with an inspiring win at home and ended yesterday with an inspiring win at home.

In between, the Washington Redskins took their lumps. They struggled to score, they lost a host of key players to injuries and they failed to rise to the occasion when they still had a chance to make something out of this year.

The Redskins’ 2004 season, which came to an end yesterday with a 21-18 victory over the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings, won’t be remembered fondly. Few 6-10 seasons are.

But Joe Gibbs did learn a thing or two about this team in his first year back from retirement, and if the Hall of Fame coach can take those lessons and build on them, Washington may yet feel like this season was productive.

“We learned a lot about ourselves,” said Gibbs, who finished with the worst record of his coaching career. “I’m going to remember them because they refused to back off. …

“We’ve lost games almost every way you can lose them, and yet our guys kept coming back. It’s a tribute to their character. I told them, ‘I’m proud to be with you.’”

The Redskins did manage to keep themselves in every game this year. And once in awhile, they managed to parlay those efforts into a well-rounded victory, like yesterday’s over the Vikings (8-8).

With nothing tangible to play for and its two biggest stars (Clinton Portis and LaVar Arrington) sidelined with injuries, Washington came up with one of its best all-around performances of the season. And though they didn’t knock Minnesota out of the playoffs — the Vikings sneaked in the back door by virtue of Carolina’s loss — the Redskins took satisfaction in outplaying a supposedly superior opponent.

“We haven’t had a game or situation that we haven’t fought, and I think that’s the character this team has taken on,” quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “For that reason, I think everyone was going to come into this game ready to fight and do our best to win.”

Inside the Redskins locker room before the game, there were some doubts whether the Vikings would come in with the same enthusiasm. Gibbs told his players during a Saturday-night meeting that Minnesota coach Mike Tice was calling this game a playoff “warm-up” for his team.

That tidbit wasn’t entirely true. Gibbs apparently found a line from an item this week in the St. Paul Pioneer Press which stated the Redskins “could be the perfect postseason warm-up for the Vikings.” Tice never said it himself, but that didn’t stop Washington’s players from using it as bulletin-board material.

“He read the quote to us last night,” said running back Ladell Betts, who posted career-highs with 26 carries and 118 yards. “It’s kind of disrespectful in a way. At this level, you can’t take anybody lightly.”

From the start, it was obvious Washington had come to play. Antonio Brown returned the opening kickoff to the Minnesota 32, and eight plays later, Ramsey hit H-back Chris Cooley for a 6-yard touchdown pass.

The Redskins never let up. Ramsey (17-for-26, 216 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) connected with tight end Robert Royal on a 4-yard score late in the second quarter. The Vikings closed to within 14-10 in the third quarter on Randy Moss’ nifty 28-yard touchdown catch around safety Sean Taylor, but Washington put the game away with another scoring drive, this one capped by Betts’ 1-yard leap into the end zone.

Minnesota, which faces division rival Green Bay in next week’s NFC wild-card game, added a touchdown in garbage time to make the final score close. By then, the Redskins already had ensured victory and a one-game improvement over Steve Spurrier’s 5-11 squad of a year ago.

“They wanted to finish strong,” Gibbs said. “With nothing on the line there but pride, I was really proud of them.”

Though progress came slowly, Washington showed signs of improvement as the season played out. A moribund offense that failed to score more than 18 points in any of its first 11 games cracked the 20-point barrier three times in the final five weeks, winning each time.

Ramsey, who replaced ineffective veteran Mark Brunell at quarterback nine games into the season, began to grasp Gibbs’ offense and yesterday completed four passes of more than 20 yards. More importantly, the 25-year-old quarterback learned to rein himself in and trust his teammates to make plays.

“I don’t have to do it all,” Ramsey said. “I think in the past I have been a little bit of, ‘I’m going to go down there and make this happen.’ A lot of times it works, and a lot of times it doesn’t. We’ve sustained some long drives this year and … I believe that it’s been helpful for me.”

The Redskins defense managed to sustain a high level of play all season. Despite playing much of the year without Arrington, defensive end Phillip Daniels, linebacker Mike Barrow and safety Matt Bowen, coach Gregg Williams’ defense finished as the NFL’s third-best unit.

That’s reason for optimism among Washington’s players.

“This was a losing-record team, but not a losing team,” linebacker Antonio Pierce said. “Last year’s was a losing team, but not this year.”

The Redskins may not perceive themselves as a losing team, but the facts don’t lie. The team with the highest payroll in NFL history went 6-10, a far cry from the outcome most expected when Gibbs returned 12 months ago but one the legendary coach was prepared to accept.

“It was extremely hard,” Gibbs said. “You never know with something like this. I said I was starting all over again, and I really felt that way. Looking back on it, that’s probably a good way to put it.”

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