Joe Gibbs had been one of the NFL’s greatest coaches during his 1981-92 run with the Washington Redskins, highlighted by three Super Bowl victories with three different starting quarterbacks. The franchise had fallen on hard times after his retirement, earning only one playoff berth in the ensuing eleven seasons. So when Gibbs came out of retirement prior to the 2004 season, it’s not for nothing that his was a second term that won bipartisan plaudits in the D.C. Beltway.
Washington struggled to a 6-10 record in the old coach’s first year back, giving rise to fears that he was either out of touch or not the same driven coach who stayed overnight in his office watching game film. The 2005 season would be crucial in determining if the second term would be a success.
The beginning seemed almost magical in how well things worked out. Washington didn’t necessarily look dominant, but they beat two future playoff teams in the first three weeks, in Chicago and Seattle. And they beat another contender in their archrival, the Dallas Cowboys. More than that, it was the way they won that told you something good might be happening with the 2005 Washington Redskins.
Washington’s defense shut down Chicago in the opener, holding the Bears to 41 yards on the ground and winning 9-7. The Week 3 win over Seattle came in overtime. I have to add that as a Redskins fan in the NFL and a Red Sox fan in baseball this October 2 day was a great one—the Red Sox won their regular season finale and clinched a share of the AL East title with the Yankees, while the Redskins went to 3-0. I might need to get the date engraved somewhere.
But it was the game in between the Chicago and Seattle wins that was electric. Washington went to Dallas for a Monday night game and for the better part of 55 minutes they looked inept. The Cowboys led 13-0 and the ‘Skins had the ball on their own side of the field. Then veteran southpaw quarterback Mark Brunnel hit Santana Moss on a 39-yard touchdown pass. And then in an unbelievable stunner, Brunnel hit Moss from 70 yards out on the next possession and Washington’s 14-13 win left Jerry Jones and then-Dallas coach Bill Parcells in shock.
Brunnel was looking to rejuvenate his career after having quarterbacked Jacksonville’s best teams under Tom Coughlin in the 1996-2000 period. At 35 years hold, he’d opened the season playing behind Patrick Ramsey, but Gibbs quickly pulled the trigger on a change in the opening day win. Moss had been acquired from the Jets in the offseason, part of a straight-up wide receiver swap with Lavarneus Coles. In the backfield, the ‘Skins had one of the league’s best in Clinton Portis, and tight end Chris Cooley was starting what would be a productive career in the nation’s capital.
But the calling card of this team was the defense. In 2005 no one connected the name Gregg Williams to bounties in New Orleans, the scandal that would eventually end his career after the 2011 season. Williams then was simply one of the best defensive coordinators in the game and given completely leeway by Gibbs to run his attack-oriented packages. Philip Daniels was the top pass rusher coming off the end and Marcus Washington was a havoc-wreaker at linebacker. The secondary was the core though, and no one hit harder or made more big plays than free safety Sean Taylor.
The middle of the season was still a trying time and the 3-0 start eventually turned into a 5-6 record. A blowout win over San Francisco was followed by a humiliating loss to the New York Giants. More maddeningly, the ‘Skins lost consecutive home games to a bad Oakland team and a San Diego team, that while above-average and well-coached with Marty Schottenheimer, still ended the season at 9-7 and home for the playoffs. It looked like “home for the playoffs” was exactly where Washington was headed all over again.
Consecutive road games were ahead at St. Louis and Arizona, and the Redskins needed to make up for the blown home games. The ground game was dominant against the Rams, with Portis going for 136 yards and Rock Cartwright racking up 118, in a decisive 24-9 win. Then in Arizona, trailing 13-10 in the third quarter, Antonio Brown brought a kickoff back for a touchdown. The 17-13 margin stood up.
Now, at 7-6, Washington was back in the playoff discussion and three consecutive games against their division rivals were ahead—home games with the Cowboys and Giants and then the season would end against the Eagles. Only Philadelphia, having endured a rough year with Donovan McNabb getting hurt and Terrell Owens talking his way out of town, was out of the race. The Redskins could range from missing the playoffs to winning the NFC East.
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The stretch drive could not have started out better against Dallas. Brunnel picked up where he left off all the way back in Week 2, slinging touchdowns. This time the target was Cooley, who caught three scoring passes in the first half. Washington led 28-0 at halftime and coasted home 35-7, picking off Cowboy quarterback Drew Bledsoe three times.
Next up was the Giants on Christmas Eve, and I sat in an airport bar, waiting for a flight to Fort Myers, watching this one and wondering where this Redskins offense had come from. Brunnel was locked in again, completing 7-of-11 for 112 yards, while Portis broke the 100-yard mark in a 35-24 win. But if you thought Brunnel’s passing volume looked low, it’s because he’d been knocked out early in the third quarter. While Ramsey hit 5-of-7 for 104 yards, the injury wasn’t what an offense that seemed to be finding its footing needed.
Brunnel was back for Week 17, and the Redskins still had the full range of postseason possibilities ahead of them. So long as they beat Philadelphia, the playoffs were theirs. If that came in conjunction with a Giants loss in Oakland, the NFC East was theirs. But a loss and a Dallas win meant no playoffs.
New York gave some clarity to the race on Saturday night with a division-clinching win. The Redskins took the field on the late afternoon of New Year’s Day, with fans in Dallas anxiously watching as they awaited a Sunday night game with St. Louis. Brunnel would play for Washington, while the Eagles were without McNabb, the man who’d led them to four straight NFC Championship Games and the previous year’s Super Bowl.
Mike McMahon did his best to imitate McNabb though, and the Eagle backup threw first-half touchdown passes to Reggie Brown that built up a 17-7 lead. Washington kicked a field goal before the half to cut the lead back to one possession. A tense game went to the fourth quarter with Philadelphia holding a 20-17 lead.
Then big plays made the difference. Washington nudged into field goal range early in the fourth quarter, but Portis took matters into his own hands with a 22-yard touchdown jaunt. Now Philadelphia had to throw and another backup was getting his shot, in Koy Detmer. But the ‘Skins defense forced a sack and fumble and Taylor—attacking the quarterback from his free safety spot even with a lead in the final three minutes—scooped up the ball and took it to the house. It was all over but the shouting, and Washington’s 31-20 win sent them on to the playoffs.
Taylor’s playmaking skills delivered Washington in the first playoff round at Tampa Bay, as his 51-yard fumble return for a touchdown was the difference in a 17-10 win. The run finally ended at top-seeded Seattle, who beat Washington 20-10 en route to the NFC crown.
It was still a big finish that showed the world Joe Gibbs could still coach. He stayed on for two more years, making the playoffs again in 2007. The ’07 team was another one that closed strong, winning four straight must-win games to close the season. But that season was marred by tragedy—Taylor had died from gunshot wounds suffered when an intruder broke into his home. The 2005 team was the moment Gibbs, Taylor and Redskins Nation were all together .