- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

New Year’s Eve came a week late in Washington when Joe Gibbs shockingly ended his retirement to return as coach of the Redskins on Jan. 7, 2004. Redskins fans, frustrated by the failures of Gibbs’ five successors over 11 seasons, were sure the Hall of Famer would restore the team to its accustomed place among the NFL’s best.Guess again. Despite an overachieving defense that ranked third in the NFL, Gibbs’ return fell as flat as a tortilla. The Redskins had the league’s third-worst offense, were swept again by the archrival Dallas Cowboys and finished last in the NFC East at 6-10, just one victory more than their fewest of the previous eight years.

Though Washington annually topped the NFL in attendance and revenue, 2004 was the fifth straight non-winning season under Dan Snyder’s ownership. Only Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit and Jacksonville can match that record of futility.

The Redskins’ curious offseason began with the decisions not to match reasonable offers to two of the defense’s key performers, so cornerback Fred Smoot bolted for Minnesota and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce for the NFC East rival New York Giants. And rather than put up with his grumbling, Gibbs traded top receiver Laveranues Coles to the New York Jets for less accomplished wideout Santana Moss, taking a huge $9.3 million salary cap hit in the process because of the acceleration of Coles’ signing bonus.

While those debatable moves were unfolding, Sean Taylor, whom Gibbs had called “the most researched draft pick in NFL history” when he took the safety fifth overall in 2004, added to his reputation for shameful behavior. Taylor dissed Gibbs by refusing to participate in the offseason workout program and by not even returning the coach’s phone calls. Then while at home in Miami, Taylor was charged in June with felony assault with a firearm for which he faces a mandatory three-year prison sentence if convicted.

Back on the home front, three-time Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington, who missed most of 2004 following knee surgery, didn’t feel appreciated enough and lashed out at the organization and the media in April. Arrington then went into a shutdown mode from which he didn’t emerge for four months, coincidentally the day before he settled his 19-month contract grievance with the Redskins.

Arrington was joined in rehab this offseason by offensive tackle Jon Jansen, defensive end Phillip Daniels and safety Matt Bowen, fellow starters who were sidelined for all or most of 2004.

Then there was the latest chapter in the ongoing saga “As Patrick Ramsey Turns.” Ramsey had started 14 straight games at quarterback with a 19/11 touchdown/interception ratio before breaking a bone in his foot in November 2003, only to have Gibbs hand the starting job to newly acquired veteran Mark Brunell in March 2004.

But after Brunell was horrible during the first half of 2004, Gibbs was forced to give the job back to Ramsey. Despite Ramsey’s 8/6 TD/INT ratio and 65 percent accuracy, Gibbs showed his lack of confidence in him in April, trading three first-day selections for the right to take Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell with the 25th choice. All told, there are plenty of reasons why the Redskins are looking for some serious redemption this season.

“Last year was not what the Redskins have been about,” said cornerback Shawn Springs, who didn’t become a Redskin until 2004 but who grew up in Silver Spring. “You walk in the front door of Redskin Park and you see those three Super Bowl trophies and you know that.”

No one knows it better than Gibbs, who won those trophies following the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons — the Redskins’ only league titles since 1942. Gibbs, who walked away in March 1993 exhausted from 12 seasons nearly unmatched in NFL annals, was wooed by Atlanta and Carolina during his retirement, but ultimately the deeply religious coach felt that it was his mission to redeem the Redskins.

“I thought long and hard about coming back for other opportunities that were unbelievable, but I just couldn’t see myself in a different uniform,” Gibbs said. “This is where I’m supposed to be. A big part of my life was in Washington. These are the people I want to try to do something for. Will it work? I don’t know. Sometimes in life, you get bitter disappointments. Getting it going back in the right direction would be fantastic.”

While Gibbs is trying to right a franchise, his most acclaimed player is out to show that he’s not a has-been at 27.

“People think I might be washed up,” Arrington said. “It just makes it all the better to prove them wrong.”

Assistant head coach/defense Gregg Williams loves nothing better than an elite player with a chip on his shoulder.

“LaVar is on a mission,” Williams said. “You find out a lot about yourself when you’re rehabbing. When you have to battle back from an injury and you haven’t been hurt before, that’s a reality check.”

But Redskins fans have had more reality checks than the cast of “Survivor: Down Under.” After being spoiled by eight playoff berths, four NFC championships and those three Super Bowl titles during Gibbs’ first go-round, they’ve enjoyed just one playoff victory since. That was back in 1999, so long ago that not one player who was on that team suited up for Washington in all five subsequent seasons.

“I’m not trying to make up for anything from last year,” said Jansen, who had never been hurt before tearing an Achilles tendon last August. “I don’t think anyone is. Hopefully, we’ve learned from mistakes we made, but there’s always a sense of urgency to win. For one reason or another, we haven’t been able to come through.”

Bowen also claims he isn’t out to redeem his lost 2004 season. A playoff participant with St. Louis and Green Bay his first three years, Bowen was extremely frustrated by the Redskins’ aggregate 11-21 record his first two seasons here. Even Houston, an expansion team in 2002, won more games than Washington in 2003 and 2004.

“Enough of this losing around here,” Bowen said. “It’s time to put it together. As hard as we work, as hard as we practice, we need to show it on Sundays.”

Ramsey said he doesn’t have to show that he’s a legitimate NFL starter, but Springs said the quarterback is “like a marked man” because he’s under so much scrutiny.

“The pressure comes with the job,” said Ramsey’s pal, Jansen. “I don’t think it’s too much for Patrick.”

In any event, Jansen believes the Redskins “have the best combination of skill and will and guys dedicated to the team that we’ve had” during his seven years in Washington.

However, there’s still a missing ingredient.

“We have to develop a winning way,” Springs said. “When I was in college at Ohio State, we expected to win. I talk to [Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb] and they expect to win in Philadelphia. There’s got to be a premium on winning this year. Last year we had a new system and new guys. This year no one will cut us a break.”

That win-now mentality has been a major reason for the Redskins’ lack of success under Snyder, who’s always looking for the quick fix. In 2000, it was adding over-the-hill Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith to the defense. In 2001, it was hiring disciplinarian coach Marty Schottenheimer. In 2002, it was getting offensive big man on campus Steve Spurrier. In 2003, it was the free agent Jet-skins, led by Coles. In 2004, it was the return of the hallowed Gibbs.

Even though he turns 65 in two months, Gibbs counsels patience. He tinkered instead of overhauling after his career-worst 6-10 debacle. Only three 2005 starters Moss, receiver David Patten and center Casey Rabach weren’t Redskins in 2004.

“Many times people want it overnight,” Gibbs said. “They don’t care what’s happened in the past. Our performance hasn’t been there the last 12 years. I’m trying to build something. Last year it didn’t go well. How much progress will show up over time? Will it be real slow or is it going to take a jump? We don’t know.”

No we don’t, but as Arrington said of his comeback, “It’s going to be interesting to see how things play out.”

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