- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

It has been a long time since the Washington Redskins played NFC East football the way they did Sunday night.

The Redskins lost 17-14 to one of the NFL’s premier teams, the Philadelphia Eagles, but in the process proved they could match the intensity of a division opponent — a chronic deficiency since Joe Gibbs’ first stint ended after the 1992 season.

Early yesterday morning, as the last Redskins trickled out of the FedEx Field locker room, cornerback Fred Smoot reflected on how Washington (4-9) showed it could be just a play or two away from the mighty Eagles (12-1) — and what that might mean in 2005 and beyond.

“They say that’s the best team in the NFC right now,” Smoot said. “We gave them a run for their money. Point-blank. We played Redskin football. We just came up one play short. But if we keep everything glued around here, we’re going to be special. Mark my words. We’re going to be real special.”

Sunday’s gutsy performance didn’t resonate nationally, not with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and the New England Patriots grabbing headlines. But the narrow loss could end up a milestone for an organization that hasn’t had a winning season since 1999. Annually dismantled and rebuilt under owner Dan Snyder, the Redskins finally seem to be building something.

“I don’t know if you see it, but there’s a chemistry being built,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “Guys are sticking together. These are hard, tough times, but guys are still sticking together, working hard, coming together for a common goal.”

The Redskins now have three winnable games — at San Francisco, at Dallas and vs. Minnesota — to validate their momentum. The Cowboys game will be particularly important for a team that has won just three of its past 14 NFC East games and just one of its past 14 meetings with Dallas.

The Cowboys, much more than the Eagles or New York Giants, have a history of beating Washington simply by bringing more intensity. Epitomizing the teams’ respective psyches was the sight, in 2000, of Cowboys defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban dragging Redskins quarterback Jeff George around the Texas Stadium turf by the collar.

But the Redskins have been a mess in pretty much all their NFC East games since Gibbs’ first retirement. During his 12-year first stint, Washington went 62-36 in division games; since, the club is 29-57-1.

Sunday’s game against the Eagles seemed headed for a rout late in the third quarter as Philadelphia drove quickly upfield and went ahead 17-7. Instead, Washington’s defense forced five three-and-outs in the fourth quarter. For the first time in a while, the Redskins absorbed a punch in the mouth from an NFC East opponent, then turned around and dished one out.

“I wholeheartedly agree with that,” quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “That’s kind of the attitude this team has taken on.”

Linebacker Antonio Pierce went further, frankly criticizing the Eagles’ mind-set.

“To be honest, I don’t think Philly really came out with the intensity,” Pierce said. “If you watch the game, you see their runners — you see them run out of bounds, you see them duck and hide. They didn’t want to make it a physical match. They didn’t even try to run the ball on us.

“[The outcome] just came down to us not executing [or] making the plays on defense that could have turned it around.”

Despite Pierce’s acceptance of blame, the execution problems generally remain on offense, where Gibbs’ scheme took a step back Sunday after hanging 31 points on the Giants a week earlier.

Twice in Sunday’s final seven minutes Washington was in Eagles territory, but in neither instance was the offense able to muster even a field goal. On the first drive, running back Clinton Portis was stuffed on third-and-1 and the Redskins punted; on the second, Ramsey threw an interception in the end zone with 1:46 to play.

The struggles came as little surprise for an offense that continues to rank 32nd in scoring. Perhaps with that in mind, many players rejected the idea of securing a “moral victory” in the Eagles game.

“A moral victory don’t mean anything,” Portis said. “We’ve got San Fran this week. We’ve got to find a way to go beat them.”

Still, it’s impossible to write off the resiliency and unity this club is showing — in a sharp contrast to Redskins teams that crumbled in 2000, 2002 and 2003. If Washington can keep playing NFC East opponents with the attitude it showed Sunday, in coming years it could be special indeed.

“I told our guys, ‘I’m not sure I’ve been a part of a team that’s had this much go against it yet fights the way it does,’” Gibbs said. “If I picked one thing for a team to have, that’s what it would be — heart and character. We have that. We just have to play better.”

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