Not until Rob Jackson wrapped his hands around another Tony Romo “oops” Sunday night could Washington Redskins fans begin to savor the moment. This was with three minutes left and the home team trying to protect a teetering 21-18 lead. Thirty years earlier, in an NFC title game at RFK Stadium, it was another secondary figure, defensive tackle Darryl Grant, who had launched a Redskins era with a clinching interception against the Dallas Cowboys. The honors on this occasion went to Jackson, the Linebacker Who Replaced Brian Orakpo. Somehow, it seemed right.
Lurking in the left flat, he picked off an underthrown pass intended for DeMarco Murray, and that was essentially that. Six plays and 25 yards later, Alfred Morris banged over for his third touchdown in a Rigginsesque 200-yard evening to make it 28-18, and the serious whooping-it-up started. Shrieks, whistles, sign-waving, hosannas for Morris and Robert Griffin III — the crowd of 82,845 let it all out, all the frustration that has built up over the decades, since the last time the franchise’s future looked this glorious.
Meanwhile, in bowels of FedEx Field, a TV commentator who looked an awful lot like Andrea Mitchell turned to a former Federal Reserve chairman who looked an awful lot like Alan Greenspan and said, happily, “Home-field advantage.” Yes, that no doubt had something to do with it, too.
The Redskins had won their first NFC East championship since 1999, and they’d beaten Dallas, their bitterest rivals, to do it — ending the Cowboys‘ own postseason hopes in the process. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that around here. But that wasn’t the half of it. Of even greater significance is that on a clear day in Redskinsland, you can see forever. The quarterback is a rookie, the running back is a rookie, and the club’s streak of seven straight wins to secure the division crown is merely Act One. There’s so much more to come.
Beginning Sunday, of course, when the Seattle Seahawks come to Washington for a first-round elimination bout. But let’s stay in the here-and-now, shall we? After all, there’s so much else to talk about, so much else about this watershed victory to relive.
Watching Morris, on the national stage, puncture hole after hole in the Dallas defense — and set a Redskins season rushing record of 1,613 yards while doing it — it was hard not to think of something Kyle Shanahan said before the season. He was talking about rookie quarterbacks and what it takes for them to be succeed, and the way he looked at it, “they either had a top-five defense or a real good running game. They had to play well, but they were successful because they weren’t asked to do everything. If you ask a young guy to do everything, it’s a matter of time before it’s too much.”
Obviously, the Redskins have leaned heavily on Griffin this season to lead them out of the wilderness. But it was never RG3 Against the World, never that much of a one-man show, not with Morris pounding away — often for 100 yards or more — week after week. And in the win-or-pack-it-in game against the Cowboys, the Redskins never needed Alfred more, because Robert wasn’t the Force of Nature he’d been in the first meeting with Dallas, not after spraining his knee in Week 14.
As Mike Shanahan put it, “You could see he was [still] hurt a little bit, even though he won’t admit that to me. … He was probably 4.5 speed instead of 4.3 speed today. That didn’t seem too bad.”
Actually, Griffin, wearing a brace on the still-healing knee, might have been a little more limited than that. And on a cold winter night, his laser-like accuracy was missing, and he completed just 9 of 18 passes for 100 yards and no touchdowns. That left him with a rating of 66.9, his lowest of the season.
But the Redskins are a more complete team now than they were earlier, when they were losing six of their first nine. With the playoffs on the line against the Cowboys, Morris had the biggest game of his brief career and the defense intercepted Romo three times. That, as it turned out, was enough.
“I knew our running game had the potential to really bust out tonight,” Kory Lichtensteiger said. “We rushed the ball pretty well the first time we played them, but I still felt like we left a lot of yards on the field. … Tonight we did a good job of sticking with it.”
Heck, the Redskins did a good job of sticking with this entire season. Plenty of 3-6 clubs are never heard from again; they get caught in the undertow and can’t pull themselves out of it. But the Giants, after a 6-2 start, opened the door by coming back to the pack, and the Redskins stormed through it.
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” Griffin said. “Not just this year but in the future.”
That was the true meaning of Sunday night — and of this improbable 2012 season. In 1937, a quarterback from Texas named Sammy Baugh came to Washington and, in the next nine years, led the Redskins to two titles and five championship games. Seventy-five seasons later, another quarterback from Texas has descended on Washington and, in his first attempt, taken a floundering franchise to the playoffs.
What the next decade holds is anyone’s guess. Lots can happen in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football. But the view from here looks pretty sweet.