- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

In preparation for this season, Washington coach Joe Gibbs continually stressed to his Redskins that last year’s surprising playoff run didn’t guarantee them anything for 2006.

Gibbs proved prophetic as the Redskins have followed a winless preseason with a 5-9 record heading into today’s road finale at St. Louis (6-8). The Redskins end the season at home against the New York Giants (7-7).

However, what Gibbs didn’t say then is that how his non-playoff teams, such as this one, finish the season always has proved telling for the following year. And that’s one reason why the coach has been emphasizing the importance of playing well in the final weeks even though the Redskins were eliminated from postseason contention two weeks ago.

“I would sure like to finish it off,” Gibbs said. “All three years [since his return in 2004], we played our best football late.”

The Redskins have gone 9-4 in December and January the last three years, but 12-21 from September to November.

“Our goal is to finish strong with a good taste in our mouths going into the offseason,” said running back Ladell Betts, who needs just 67 yards — less than half his average of the past four games — to become the 10th Redskin to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. “Finishing strong says a lot about the coaches and the players. We’ve got a lot of good character guys around here. But the only thing that finishing strong will give you is a lot of confidence going into next year.”

That confidence gained from strong finishes certainly has played a part in how Gibbs’ teams have played the years after finishing out of the playoffs.

After starting 1981 with five straight losses, the Redskins concluded Gibbs’ debut season with a 3-0 December as a prelude to winning the Super Bowl the following season.

The Redskins lost longtime quarterback Joe Theismann for good in November 1985 but recovered for a 3-1 finish that helped propel them back to the NFC Championship Game in the 1986 season.

Gibbs’ only losing season of his initial 12-year Hall of Fame tenure came in 1988 when the Redskins went 1-2 in December to finish 7-9. Washington missed the playoffs again in 1989. A 4-0 December that season didn’t earn a playoff spot, but the Redskins built off that strong finish and returned to the postseason in 1990.

And of course, a 3-2 finish in 2004 was a factor in the 3-0 start that set the table for the first playoff berth in six years in 2005.

All told, Gibbs is 42-15 in regular season games in December and January.

Conversely, Washington in 2000 — under then coach Norv Turner — nosedived from a 6-2 start to an 8-8 finish in offensive tackle Chris Samuels’ rookie season. The Redskins went 1-3 that December, and followed up with an 0-5 start in 2001 under current San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer.

“I think finishing strong definitely carries over into the next season,” Samuels said. “It’s a momentum-booster.”

Wise old heads such as defensive end Phillip Daniels like to say that the Redskins play their best at the most critical times. That certainly was the case last year when Washington had to win its last five games to reach postseason.

But this year’s better efforts began when the Redskins were 3-7 and all but out of the race. Washington’s defense has had its two best games in upset victories over Carolina (Nov. 26) and New Orleans (Dec. 17) while the offense, particularly the running game, has been terrific, even in losses to Atlanta (Dec. 3) and Philadelphia (Dec. 10).

“Maybe it takes a lot of adversity to get us going,” fullback Mike Sellers said. “I don’t know why we’re so playing well, but I hope we don’t stop.”

The Redskins’ main goal today is to win a second straight game for the first time since they beat Houston and Jacksonville back-to-back in Weeks 3 and 4.

“A lot of teams, if they’re not going to make the playoffs, they can’t wait to get to the offseason, but we go out and take it to you every week,” Samuels said. “We take our jobs seriously. We’re going to fight to the end.”

Receiver Santana Moss said that one of the best developments during the improved play in recent weeks has been the increasing comfort level of 24-year-old quarterback Jason Campbell, who’ll start his sixth straight game today.

“I’m glad we’re going through the bumps and bruises with Jason now,” Moss said. “We’re seeing a lot of things now with Jason and this offense so that next year we won’t have to go backwards; we’ll be pretty much moving forward.”

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