The Washington Redskins stepped onto the field in San Francisco last night assured of their first playoff berth in seven seasons. They walked off it with a gutsy, 26-20 overtime victory over the 49ers and their first NFC East championship since 1992.
Coach Norv Turner sprinted onto the field to hug quarterback Brad Johnson, whose 33-yard touchdown pass to fullback Larry Centers capped a 16-point turnaround.
Washington (9-6) will at least host a playoff game, but it could even gain a first-round bye. If the Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at FedEx Field and Tampa Bay and Minnesota lose, Washington will skip the Jan. 8-9 opening round and host an NFC semifinal game on Jan. 15 or 16. Otherwise, the Redskins will host an undetermined wild-card team on Jan. 8 or 9.
The Redskins’ seven-year playoff drought ended before kickoff when both the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers lost, guaranteeing the Redskins at least the lowest wild-card berth. Pittsburgh beat Carolina 30-20 while Green Bay fell to Tampa Bay 29-10.
It has been a tumultuous year for a franchise once lauded for stability. NFL owners rejected one prospective buyer for the team in April, the name of the stadium was changed twice and longtime general manager Charley Casserly was forced out, along with nearly 50 employees.
New York real-estate developer Howard Milstein and minority partner Snyder paid a North American record $800 million for the team and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in a bidding war that ended Jan. 10. However, Milstein was unable to write the $150 million check for the down payment and, after a contentious three-month review, finally dropped his bid when he faced certain rejection by NFL owners.
Snyder, a little-known communications executive from Bethesda, Md., with a lifelong passion for his hometown team, quickly assumed Milstein’s bid in order to prevent several heavyweights from pushing the price near $1 billion. NFL owners unanimously approved Snyder May 25, and he assumed control July 14.
Team president John Kent Cooke quietly departed Redskin Park for Bermuda in June, leaving sailing magazines in his desk and the team apparently rudderless.
It was the end of the Cooke family’s control of the Redskins. Jack Kent Cooke bought the team in 1974 and netted three Super Bowl trophies before his death in April 1997. The team that once belonged to “The Squire” is now controlled by a 34-year-old who still has a Redskins belt buckle from his childhood.
Snyder communicated to his employees, in writing, that it was his “intent” to keep everyone on the payroll. Snyder then fired 24 employees in July, including nearly the entire public relations and marketing departments, days before training camp began. He then instituted a $2 million makeover of Redskin Park, ripping up the carpets and painting the building.
Casserly, after 22 years with the Redskins, was demoted to “consultant” on July 23. Casserly began as an unpaid intern to coach George Allen, slept at a YMCA and bought coaches ice cream during late night training camp meetings. He finally rose to general manager in 1990.
Casserly, who officially left on Sept. 4, was coming off his finest off-season. He traded for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, who made the Pro Bowl this season. His draft day trades garnered another first-round pick and rookie cornerback Champ Bailey, who appears to be the successor to cornerback Darrell Green as the cornerstone of the secondary. The Redskins now have three first-round picks in 2000.
Meanwhile, Turner endured another season of unending speculation about his job security. Snyder gave Turner a preseason ultimatum: Make the playoffs or lose your job. Indeed, Snyder twice sought to fire defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after poor efforts by the defense. And, Snyder began reviewing potential replacements for Turner in November, a move the owner has denied.
The pressure intensified after a 40-minute, closed-door locker room meeting between Snyder and Turner at Texas Stadium following an Oct. 24 loss to Dallas. On Dec. 10, Snyder met individually with four players, something some team insiders believed undermined the coach’s authority. Turner finally told team sources he would consider accepting a buyout of the final two years of his $1 million annual contract after the season, regardless of whether his team makes the playoffs. Turner’s fate will probably reflect his team’s postseason fate.