Trailing in the fourth quarter of the home opener, in danger of falling to 0-2 and perhaps sending rookie head coach Jim Zorn's debut season spiraling out of control before it even gets started, QB Jason Campbell avoids a fierce New Orleans Saints pass rush and unloads deep to a streaking WR Santana Moss, turning the game around and launching Washington on an unexpected, eye-opening four-game win streak.
As time passes, some football seasons get reduced to a few lasting impressions, a few indelible images. Others just sort of ... fade away ... not so much lost as relegated to dusty boxes tucked away in a dark corner of the mind’s attic.
Today I found myself wondering how, or even if, I will remember the 2008 Redskins. And not surprisingly, doing so triggered a mental movie reel of seasons past against which they might some day be compared.
The surging Redskins go on the road and beat Dallas and Philadelphia, in consecutive weeks, on the strength of a brutal running game, an emerging Jason Campbell and an opportunistic, inspired defense. No single specific play really stands out, with the possible exception of rookie safety Chris Horton’s brilliantly choreographed game-clinching interception against Tony Romo in Dallas.
More, what emerges is the sense that this is a different Redskins team; quite possibly the first in a generation capable of reclaiming a proud organizations' rightful place among the NFL elite. What may well carry on in memory about the two week stretch is boyish owner Dan Snyder, just after the Eagles win, unselfconsciously expressing what every Redskins fan with a heartbeat felt that day.
Since trips down memory lane can easily slip from pleasant jaunts to marathon treks, I’ll begin, arbitrarily, at the dawn of The Glory Years, and offer here just a few thumbnail mental snapshots of seasons past that stand out, alongside which 2008 may, or may not, someday take its place.
1982 - K Mark Moseley’s fifth field goal of the day in the swirling December snow of RFK Stadium beats the New York Giants, clinching the Redskins first playoff berth in six long years. DE Dexter Manley steam-rolls Dallas QB Danny White in the NFC Championship, knocking him cold and out of the game. DT Darryl Grant high-steps into the end zone with Manley's deflection of a Gary Hogeboom pass, knocking out the hated Cowboys and propelling the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl. There, RB John Riggins brushes off Don McNeal like so much sleeve lint and rumbles into immortality.
1983 - QB Joe Theismann, Riggins, The Hogs, The Smurfs and The Fun Bunch score at will all season, shattering the NFL record. Good thing too, given The Pearl Harbor Crew. They overwhelm the then–L.A. Rams 51-7 at RFK, in the divisional round, then survive the 49ers and some QB Joe Montana magic to take a second straight NFC title, before heading back to the Super Bowl and a shot at Dynasty.
Rocket Screen. Jack Squirek. Marcus Allen.
The Pittsburgh Steelers come to town. Again no one play stands out–this one turns out to be about the overwhelming sense the 6-2 Redskins are physically overmatched, and the slap-upside-the-head realization that neither the team nor young Jason Campbell are ready for prime time. 2008 swims sharply into focus–the Redskins may be 6-3, but they are not among the league elite.
1985 - NY Giants legendary LB Lawrence Taylor gestures in panic toward the Redskins sideline, having just snapped Theismann’s leg like so much kindling. A few minutes later, Jay Schroeder’s first NFL pass—a perfect downfield sideline rope to Art Monk—suggests life might go on after all.
1987 - Head Coach Joe Gibbs, on his knees, watches with the rest of us as Minnesota QB Wade Wilson's fourth-down pass to RB Darrin Nelson, Redskins' CB Darrell Green and the RFK goal line converge in the final minute to decide the NFC Championship. Two weeks later, we witness the 35-point blur of brilliant madness that is the second quarter of Super Bowl XXVI ... a moment that has long since passed from memory into legend.
1991 - Sorry–some boxes are too heavy to thumbnail.
Dallas II. On their final game-clinching drive, the Cowboys Riggo-Drill the Redskins on their own field. As captured perfectly by a similarly attuned fan, that image may well prove the defining moment and lasting memory of the 2008 season, coloring it forever as one that got away.
1993 - The Redskins thrash the Dallas Cowboys at RFK in the season opener, Richie Petitbone's head coaching debut–and the realization comes that there might be life after Gibbs. What follows is fifteen weeks of psychic whiplash, and a 4-12 finish. Perhaps there would not.
1994 - A hot, young new head coach–a Cowboy, no less–rides into town. Name of Norv Turner. A quarterback named Heath Shuler is drafted third overall. Hello, Franchise. Shuler gets picked off no less than five times at RFK by the moribund Arizona Cardinals, and the Redskins fall to 1-6. Hello, Reality. Cool rookie backup Gus Frerotte, in funky throwbacks, beats the Colts in Indianapolis a week later in his debut. Washington finishes 3-13, but that’s okay. Turner is collected, competent and confident. "What we do works."
1996 - A stirring, stunning 7-1 start. All of Redskindom is pestering Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser to bring The Bandwagon out of mothballs. Tony's terse answer? "After Buffalo." An average Bills team tramples–and exposes–the Redskins, 38-13. Eliminated by week 15, a decisive season-ending win over Dallas in the final game at storied RFK Stadium is rendered bittersweet.
Seattle again. One final, brutal, game-clinching drive briefly resurrects hope.
1999 - Exit the Cooke Era, enter the Snyder. FB Larry Centers glides up the San Francisco sideline to beat the 49ers and clinch a playoff berth. The Redskins dominate Gus Frerotte's Detroit Lions at FedExField in Round 1. In round 2, at Tampa Bay, Brian Mitchell takes a kickoff back 100-yards to provide a double-digit second-half lead. The Redskins D is playing great. Could it be? QB Brad Johnson throws a killer interception, and Bucs RB Warrick Dunn does a Houdini, turning a potential game-clinching fumble recovery into a game-changing Bucs touchdown. Dan Turk (RIP). No, it could not.
2000 - Hype, championship-style. CB Deion Sanders, DE Bruce Smith, S Mark Carrier, QB Jeff George. Jeff George? The celebrity Redskins under-achieve from jump, barely squeaking by Carolina, then losing to hapless Detroit. Injuries pile on injuries. 44-year-old K Eddie Murray, good for about 42 yards, is asked to come up with 49 against the Giants in a late season game ripe with playoff implications. Exit the Turner Era.
2001 - Enter Marty Schottenheimer. A flaccid 0-5 start includes one of the most disheartening games in modern Redskins history, a 37-0 shellacking at the hands of Green Bay on Monday Night Football. LB LaVar Arrington–the new face of the franchise–comes up with a "look what I found" pick-six against the Carolina Panthers to finally stop the bleeding. The Redskins slug and claw to 5-5 ... then slip, slide and gag down the stretch to finish 8-8. General, we hardly knew ye.
Back-to-back losses against the Giants and Baltimore Ravens. Once again, no specific plays stand out, only further confirmation these Redskins are not contenders. Worse, there is a deepening conviction that the organization may be fatally flawed. Watching them badly, predictably, lose the battle in the trenches against the league's better teams, with little indication the powers-that-be see the same, there is a sense this team may have truly lost its way.
2002–03 - No doubt a defense mechanism, I seem to have reduced immediate recall of The Spurrier Era to one indelible image.
2004 - The Return of the King.
2005 - a classic Gibbsian December run brings a playoff berth. The Redskins defensively dominate the Buccaneers in Tampa in Round 1. A dropped interception by CB Carlos Rogers and prehistoric offensive performance combine to leave them short in Seattle in Round 2, but no matter–the Redskins are back.
2006 - Or perhaps not.
2007 - Sean Taylor ... and tragic magic down the stretch. Jason Campbell goes down, Todd Collins comes on and sparks instant offense that leads to another successful December playoff run. Up in Seattle, a perfect bounce of a muffed Seahawks kickoff return finds its way into WR Anthony Mix's hands, and Mix roars into the end zone. It doesn’t count, of course, and ultimately the Redskins go on to lose, but for a few shining moments the Redskins are the NFL's “It” team, and the sky is the limit. Then, Joe Gibbs announces his surprise retirement.
The King is dead. Long live the King.
Up in Cincinnati in week 15, against a woeful Bengals team, the Redskins are still alive for the playoffs and a great story in Zorn’s rookie campaign. They seem to go through the motions for a half, and fall behind. What looks like a stirring comeback effectively ends with FB Mike Sellers' goal-line fumble ... and the competitive part of the season is over.
How 2008 is remembered down the road will be different for all of us, of course. We all bring our own unique perspectives, expectations and biases to the table. But it is also largely dependent on what comes next.
If the Redskins soar over the next few years, this 8-8 season could come to be remembered much like Joe Gibbs’ debut in 1980–a stepping stone to great things. Or, if they continue to stumble or just tread water, 2008 may slowly blend in with the many other isolated seasons we scarcely remember at all.
That’s how it is with memories. As they become more distant, they slowly blend into the context in which they were born.
How will 2008 be remembered? Will it be remembered at all?
Only time, and circumstance, will tell.