- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

Washington Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn had to laugh this week as he reflected on what a long year it has been.

“I’ve heard rookies say, ‘Man, I’ve hit the wall three times!’” Wynn said.

The season felt like it began the moment coach Joe Gibbs was rehired Jan.7 and seemingly re-started each time the Redskins came to grips with their deteriorating paradigm. Today it finally comes to an end with a game against the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field.

The 12 months since Gibbs’ celebrated return have demonstrated just how complex the Redskins’ problems were, how Gibbs himself is more mortal than anyone remembered, and how the run for a fourth Super Bowl trophy, despite fans’ once-giddy expectations, might never get off the ground.

Yet the mood around Redskin Park remains optimistic. Washington (5-10) competed in every game, didn’t splinter when things got ugly, identified team leaders and uncovered holes in the roster and scheme. Ultimately, the Redskins believe, the foundation for success was laid.

“The outside world, they would probably look at it very discouragingly,” Gibbs said at week’s end. “To me, we played 20 football games [including the preseason]. I count one where we didn’t play with somebody — St. Louis in the preseason. Other than that, I think our guys played hard, they came to play each week.”

Today’s game will be followed by team meetings tomorrow and the start of an intensive organizational review Tuesday. There have been growing indications in recent days that coaches at that time will recommend against the return of several high-profile players, among them possibly wide receiver Rod Gardner, left tackle Chris Samuels and cornerback Fred Smoot.

Thus today’s game at FedEx Field also functions as the end of an era. Gibbs this week called the coming offseason the most important time of his second stint. An organization in constant upheaval since owner Dan Snyder purchased the team in 1999 might not look a whole lot different next September, but it will be decidedly more attuned to Gibbs’ vision.

“I’m looking forward to getting into the offseason, because I think I have a good feel for where we are and what we need to do,” Gibbs said.

On paper, Washington seemingly has nothing to play for against the Vikings (8-7), who can ensure a trip to the postseason by winning. But defensive line coach Greg Blache spread the story this week of how his Chicago Bears upset the playoff-bound Detroit Lions in a similar year-end situation in 2000, setting up a 13-3 record in 2001.

“It just goes to show you, it’s never too early to build,” Wynn said.

The game’s key matchup will pit the Redskins’ second-ranked defense against the Vikings’ second-ranked offense. Washington is clinging to hopes of making up 94 yards on No.1 Pittsburgh and finishing with the coveted top ranking. But it must do so without Smoot (bruised kidney) and by stopping the Vikings’ dynamic passing attack.

Minnesota’s only problem, in fact, seems to be that the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning are grabbing all the headlines this year. Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper is challenging Steve Young’s single-season NFL record of a 112.8 rating, but Culpepper’s 112.2 still lags well behind Manning’s amazing 121.4.

Calling Minnesota’s unit “the best offense we’ve played, no doubt about it,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams added, “It’s a defensive coach’s nightmare, but our staff and players love these kinds of challenges. We’ve had a chip on our shoulder all year long. We’ve played with that competitive, bring-on-all-challengers [mentality]. Hopefully, we’ll make it a very fun game.”

What happens on offense for the Redskins, meanwhile, could be even more intriguing. All year, Gibbs has run an extremely conservative attack, one that scarcely resembled the record-setting unit of his first tenure. But late this week he seemed to drop a hint that the Vikings’ potency has him ready to finally enrich the mixture in his balky engine.

“I think you’d have to go into this game saying to yourself, this team’s going to be hard to stop — I don’t care how good our defense plays,” Gibbs said. “You’d have to say to yourself, we’re going to need a lot of help from special teams and offense.”

Last weekend’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys punctured Washington’s hopes of vanquishing its demons in that series and ending the season with a three-game winning streak. Simply put, the last-second, 13-10 defeat was galling.

No more can the Redskins alter the basic storyline of this interminable season than can they change the outcome of that Cowboys game. But they’re vested in the idea of kick-starting what could be a very interesting offseason with a final positive note.

“We’ve got pretty well pigeon-holed,” Gibbs said. “This will be one last statement we can make here. We’re big underdogs. To the outside world, we’ve got very little chance here. We’ll see.”

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