- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

The ball, the game and Joe Gibbs’ first victory in 12 years were slipping away.

Mark Brunell just fumbled an exchange with Clinton Portis, Ronde Barber recovered and scored a touchdown. What, to that point, looked like a certain win for the Washington Redskins turned into a close game.

The record crowd of 90,098 at FedEx Field seemed to let out a collective sigh of despair, as though everyone in the building knew what was coming. They’d seen it before, and based on the last decade of Redskins history, they had every reason to believe another lead would be squandered.

But that was then, and this is now. And if there was any doubt about the effect Gibbs’ return had on the Redskins, one need only look at the manner in which they pulled out yesterday’s 16-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“You put last year’s team in that same situation,” said one veteran player, “and we would have collapsed.”

Welcome to a new era of Redskins football. Or rather, welcome back to the old era of Redskins football, where the home team takes a potentially calamitous situation and turns it into an inspiring victory.

“There was a different aura,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “The Bucs felt it, we felt it. We were going to win the game.”

For a few tense moments in the second half, there were plenty of people who questioned whether Washington would win this one. When Brunell stepped on reserve center Cory Raymer’s foot, slipped and botched a handoff to Portis deep in Redskins territory, Tampa Bay’s Barber immediately scooped up the ball and sprinted 9 yards into the end zone to tie the game 10-10.

The shift of momentum in the stadium was palpable, but these new-look Redskins responded to the adversity with aplomb. Defensive tackle Jermaine Haley pressured Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson into throwing an interception to linebacker Antonio Pierce, and Washington produced just enough offense to set up a pair of fourth-quarter field goals by John Hall and seal the deal.

“We went through a real bad period there,” Gibbs said. “We weren’t getting much done on offense. And then we give away a touchdown there. I’ve seen some other teams more or less just say, ‘We’re not going to win this.’ But our guys just kept battling back. I appreciated the way they fought back.”

The 500th regular-season victory in Redskins history (Gibbs’ 125th) featured plenty of the same qualities seen during the Hall of Famer’s first stint in town. Washington attacked Tampa Bay’s renowned defense with 166 rushing yards (148 by Portis in his Washington debut), surrendered just 169 total yards (30 rushing) in a stifling defensive performance and made fewer mistakes than the opposition.

That was always a winning combination for Gibbs-coached teams in the past, and it appears to be in the present. According to research by the Redskins’ radio team, Gibbs now has a 39-0 record when his team rushes for at least 150 yards, gives up less than 100 yards on the ground and wins the turnover battle.

Portis ensured that the 150-yard rushing barrier would be reachable before the season was five minutes old. The 23-year-old tailback’s first official carry in Washington was a beautifully executed, 64-yard touchdown that sent the crowd into a frenzy. On first-and-15 from his 36, Portis started left, cut back into a gaping hole on the right and took off for the end zone and Redskins immortality.

“It’s simple: He cut back to where we weren’t,” Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles said. “It was out the gate at that point.”

Portis’ run (the lone offensive touchdown of the game) will be shown over and over again on highlight reels until the day he retires, but the Redskins won this game on the strength of their defense. Assistant head coach Gregg Williams finally unveiled his full scheme, using a host of packages and blitzes to keep the Bucs guessing all afternoon.

Williams’ propensity to rush the passer was evident from the start, with safety Matt Bowen blitzing past fullback Mike Alstott and punching the ball out of Johnson’s right hand late in the first quarter. Tackle Cornelius Griffin pounced on the loose ball at the Tampa Bay 34, and 10 plays later, Hall booted a 20-yard field goal to give Washington a 10-0 lead.

Bowen, who had another key sack in the fourth quarter, said there was considerable talk all week about Johnson’s penchant for holding the ball away from his body and being susceptible to fumbles. The safety also noted how he and his teammates have embraced Williams’ defensive philosophy.

“If you work hard for Gregg, he’s going to put you in position to make plays,” said Bowen, who added that he hasn’t been given this much freedom to blitz since “I played in my backyard.”

The Redskins made the most of Williams’ scheme yesterday, holding the Bucs without a first down until the seven-minute mark of the second quarter. They limited running back Charlie Garner to a scant 25 yards on 11 carries and sacked Johnson four times.

Perhaps the biggest play of the day came from a pair of unheralded reserves who suddenly found themselves seeing significant action. With the game tied 10-10 early in the fourth quarter, Haley (subbing for Griffin) ran untouched into Johnson’s face and forced the former Redskins quarterback into a bad pass. Pierce, starting at middle linebacker in place of injured Mike Barrow, intercepted the ball and returned it to the Tampa Bay 39.

“I can’t talk enough about the defense,” Gibbs said. “They kept us in the game.”

If the defense kept Washington in the game, the no-frills offense won it. Despite some early problems leading to three botched snaps, Brunell maintained his poise and directed the Redskins to a pair of fourth-quarter field-goals.

The final dagger was a 10-play, 51-yard drive that chewed up nearly five minutes down the stretch. By the time Hall connected on a 34-yarder, his third field goal of the game, the Bucs were left with only 16 seconds to try to mount an unsuccessful comeback.

It was a classic Gibbs drive in a classic Gibbs victory.

“The team stepped up,” Portis said. “We said, ‘Let’s make a statement. We’ve got an opportunity to put them away. We’re going to run the ball down their throats.’”

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