- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

It was the largest regular-season crowd in Redskins history, and maybe the loudest. Buoyed by the return of coach Joe Gibbs, an announced crowd of 90,098 at FedEx Field pumped up the volume as the Redskins beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16-10 yesterday in the season opener.

“This town is so anxious for a winner, man,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said on the sidelines after the Redskins made Gibbs a winner again after an absence of 11 seasons.

The coach’s glory years, which included three Super Bowl titles, were 1981 through 1992 and took place at traditionally rowdy RFK Stadium. The folks at FedEx Field yesterday would have made their RFK Stadium brethren proud.

The crowd exploded when Gibbs ran onto the turf for the first time. And it was even louder when Clinton Portis, acquired in a big trade with Denver, burst through the line for a 64-yard touchdown run the first time he handled the ball.

The noise abated when the Redskins stalled and the Buccaneers tied the game at 10, but it picked up again in the fourth quarter, preceding a big turnover by the defense, leading to John Hall’s tiebreaking field goal with 8:55 left. More defensive pressure and another field goal maintained the frenzy until the end.

“The crowd was huge today,” said reserve middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who had an interception and did an admirable job filling in for injured starter Michael Barrow. “I’ve been here for years, and it was by far the loudest. They were by far the 12th man today.”

Even Fred Smoot, the loquacious cornerback whose voice rarely gets drowned out, was impressed by the fan participation.

“That did it all. That did it all,” he said. “They got the adrenaline pumping to the players. They got [Tampa Bay] intimidated. I think they called three timeouts every time they couldn’t hear. With 90,000, that’s how it’s supposed to be. It was unlike I’ve ever seen FedEx Field. It was electrifying out there.”

Most of the electricity crackled around Gibbs. His return to coaching in January almost immediately was anointed the biggest story in the NFL this season, while Gibbs himself was anointed the savior of Redskins football. Famously focused, almost maniacally intense, Gibbs after the game noted that his wife, Pat, told him the other day she couldn’t remember him wanting to win a game more. This to a man who has coached in four Super Bowls, winning three.

“I had all the emotions going on before the game,” Gibbs said, still wearing his coaching shades, standing on a winning podium for the first time since Jan. 2, 1993. “It was huge for me. I think it was for our players, too.”

It was.

“You don’t want to work this hard, as we did since March, and not be able to win close games,” said fifth-year safety Matt Bowen, who had the first two sacks of his career.

It was the 500th regular-season win for the Redskins and the 125th for Gibbs, who said he hopes more attention will be focused on his team and not himself. But there is little chance of that happening, especially if the Redskins continue to win.

“I’m so glad Joe Gibbs is back,” a woman wearing a headdress said before the game. “It makes me feel 20 years younger. The life is back.”

The woman, Roberta Orr, was sitting with her husband, Bob, in the parking lot an hour before kickoff. Some bratwurst and potatoes cooked on the grill between them. Beans simmered in a pot. The Orrs, who live in Fairfax, said they were stuck on the season-ticket waiting list 17 years before something opened up. No doubt, the great migration of ticket holders that occurred during the ill-fated, two-year coaching reign of Gibbs’ predecessor, Steve Spurrier, had something to do with that.

“We’re thankful that they bailed,” Roberta Orr said.

“We’re very optimistic,” her husband said. “It can’t be worse than last year.”

The Redskins went 5-11 under Spurrier in 2003. It was the team’s worst record since they were 3-13 in 1994.

Roberta said she expects “10-6 at the very least, maybe 11-5,” from the Redskins this season. “But do you know what I really enjoy?” she said. “I don’t see Dan Snyder’s name anywhere. Fans want to hear about the team, not the owner.”

As pleased as most fans are with the Redskins, some were less enthusiastic about their view of the game, such as it was, behind concrete pillars. The matter has generated some controversy. The Redskins say proper notice was given and fans could have asked for a different location; the fans say they were left uninformed. What’s indisputable is that these are bad seats, the TV monitors notwithstanding.

“This is ridiculous,” said Norma Hadnot of Mitchellville. “We might as well be at home.”

It would have been much quieter there.

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