Joe Gibbs made his Hall of Fame bones by having his teams playing their best football in December and January. Five appearances in the NFC championship game, four in the Super Bowl and three championships make for one of the great 12 year runs in the history of the game. When he came back for a second go round after an 11 year absence, he’d lost some speed on his fastball, but his late season touch still lingered. In three of his four closing months of seasons coached in round two, he had winning records. And in two of those times they made miracle runs to the playoffs after coming into the final month with losing records.
With the Redskins Thanksgiving Day loss in Dallas, a little of that Joe Gibbs’ December magic is needed. While the record is on the plus side heading into December this year at 6-4-1, there are enough teams with decent records in the Wild Card mix to make four wins in the last five games necessary to be certain of a playoff spot. Maybe the tie with Cincinnati will be enough to put them over the hump with nine wins, but with the Giants at 7-3 and the Eagles at 5-5 just in their own division, it’ll be a tough putt. That’s where that tie comes in. Assuming the Giants and Eagles don’t tie any of their remaining games, the Redskins tie will break all ties in either a good or bad way. Besides Philly on the road and the Giants at home on New Year’s day, the remaining schedule has them at Arizona and Chicago and home against Carolina. Those last three teams all have losing records, but the Cardinals and defending NFC champion Panthers started the year with Super Bowl aspirations and may not yet have folded the tent.
Anyway, since Gibbs provided the template for the December sprint to the playoffs in 2005, let’s take a look at what happened in the final months of that season and the ensuing 10 to help figure out how to, and not to – do it:
2005, Pre-December record: 5-6, December record: 5-0, Final record: 10-6 with Wild Card win in Tampa and Divisional round loss in Seattle – After losing back to back home games to the Raiders and Chargers to close out November, Gibbs decided to dance with the one who brung him. He was going to run the football as he had during the glory days of the 80’s and early 90’s. They opened December with a 24-9 win at St. Louis with Clinton Portis and Rock Cartwright each rushing for more than 100 yards. And while Gibbs had struggled to get points from his team the season before, they knocked down the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles with 31 or more to close out the season.
2006, Pre-December record: 4-7, December record: 1-4, Final record: 5-11 – This was by far, Gibbs worst season. He finally had to bench Mark Brunell for good halfway through it. The one December win was over the playoff bound Saints, but too many mistakes and inconsistency did them in. The fact that they were able to get back to the playoffs the following year is a testament to how good Gibbs was in preventing the ship from sinking.
2007, Pre-December record: 5-6, December record 4-1, Final record: 9-7 with Wild Card round loss in Seattle – The drama that made this December sprint happen, literally involved life and death. When Sean Taylor was murdered Thanksgiving weekend, it should have ended all expectations for a team with a losing record. And although they talked about making it to the playoffs for Sean, it didn’t seem realistic. The loss to Buffalo to open December only deepened the tragedy. Gibbs made the mistake of calling back to back timeouts to ice Bills kicker Rian Lindell, which resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and turned a 51 yard attempt into a very make-able 36 yarder for a one point Buffalo win. On top of that, the team had to fly to Miami the next day for Taylor’s funeral, then play a game two days later against Chicago. And if that wasn’t enough, starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a dislocated kneecap in the first quarter against the Bears. If you want to credit divine intervention for what happened next, go for it. Todd Collins, who’d spent most of the previous decade on the bench, came in to pull off the victory and led the Skins to wins in their last three against the Giants, Vikings and Cowboys, all of whom had winning records. They ran out of gas in the playoff game in Seattle and Gibbs retired for good. But this was a December that will ALWAYS be remembered.
2008, Pre-December record: 7-5, December record 1-3, Final record: 8-8 – That one December win probably saved Jim Zorn from being a one and done coach. That was more or less confirmed by the Redskins (don’t laugh) Executive Vice President/Football Operations Vinny Cerrato. The December 21st home victory over Philadelphia came after loss to the 1-11-1 Bengals at home. Zorn said after that one, “I just feel like the worst coach in America.” And nobody argued. The two other December losses were at Baltimore, after which, Clinton Portis sarcastically referred to Zorn as, “A genius”, and a season closing loss at San Francisco, before which, Cerrato was dispatched by owner Daniel Snyder to calm Clinton down because he was upset at Zorn. The fact that Zorn was actually brought back for 2009, even though he didn’t have a losing record, remains a head scratcher.
2009, Pre-December record: 3-8, December record 1-4, Final record: 4-12 – Even if Zorn had managed to run the table in December, it was a foregone conclusion that he was on his way out since the sixth game of the season. That’s when his play calling duties were turned over to Sherm Lewis who had been calling bingo games at the senior citizens center. The oddest thing about that December is how it started. Facing the 11-0 Saints, the Redskins pretty much had the game locked up, assuming the reliable Shaun Suisham could make a 23 yard field. Incredibly he missed and the Saints went on to win 33-30 in overtime. In the other home losses that month, they were embarrassing in both games – a lifeless 17-0 loss to Dallas and the famed “swinging gate” loss to the Giants 45-12. Their one win was beating up on hapless JaMarcus Russell in a 34-13 victory at Oakland. San Diego was begging them to win the season finale when they rested all their starters for the playoffs, but the Skins still lost 23-20. Zorn was fired as soon as the plane landed back in D.C.
2010, Pre-December record: 5-6, December record 1-4, Final record: 6-10 – A season that began with hopes of a new beginning, crashed and burned. The new coach was two time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, who was looking to cement Hall of Fame worthiness and the new quarterback was Donovan McNabb, who was looking to do the same. There were hopeful signs early, with quarterback guru Ron Jaworski calling McNabb’s week two performance against Houston, “The best of his career,” even though the Skins lost the game. Two weeks later McNabb returned to Philadelphia and beat his old team. But we later found out that Shanahan and McNabb as a forced marriage was never going to work. When a one point loss to Tampa dropped the Redskins to 5-8, Shanahan pulled the plug and handed the team over to Rex Grossman for the rest of the season. Rex threw his usual share of interceptions, but lost games to the Cowboys and Giants by only three points apiece and won an overtime game at Jacksonville. It was enough to make Shanahan feel he could sell Rex as a stopgap until they could develop a young quarterback.
2011, Pre-December record: 4-7, December record 1-4, Final record: 5-11 – Andy Dalton was available to be taken, but they didn’t pull the trigger, electing to trade down for Ryan Kerrigan. Rex and John Beck would battle for the job, with bad beating out worse for the job. Rex was eventually benched after a four interception performance against the Eagles, but after Beck proved to be an embarrassment (even though Kyle Shanahan said, “I stood on the table for him in Houston” trying to get the Texans to draft the former BYU star when he was an assistant there), Rex was left to finish up the season. He did manage to beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in New York, which was his last NFL victory.
2012, Pre-December record: 5-6, December record 5-0, Final record: 5-0 with Divisional round loss against Seattle – This time December was the continuation of a sprint. Following a November 4th loss to Carolina to drop to 3-6, Shanahan started talking about evaluating players for next year. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III had a different view of the situation, saying he was planning to come back from the bye week to make a run at the playoffs. He was good against a weak Eagles team at home in a 31-6 victory. He was great in a 38-31 win at Dallas on Thanksgiving four days later. They opened December with home wins over the Giants and Ravens. But that Baltimore victory sent the season on a different course. RGIII injured his knee in a collision with Helote Ngata and after trying to limp through it, gave way to Kirk Cousins to finish out the overtime victory. Cousins pulled off a win at Cleveland the following week while RGIII stewed in the stands. He returned to limp through wins over the Eagles and Cowboys to clinch the NFC East. When RGII re injured the knee in the playoff game, he should have come out, but stayed in until his ACL completely tore. It would be the beginning of the end.
2013, Pre-December record: 3-8, December record 0-5, Final record: 3-13 – Only the second time since the league went to a 16 game schedule in 1978 that the Redskins record was this bad. And they earned it. On a snowy afternoon at FedEx Field, the Redskins were abysmal in a 45-10 loss to the Chiefs to drop to 3-10. The stands were virtually empty in the fourth quarter. Shanahan, who knew he was on his way out, shut Griffin down for the last three games, claiming he was not benching the former phenom, but making sure he was healthy for an offseason of work. Rehabbing the knee injury had prevented offseason work going into this season. RGIII didn’t put up a public stink, understanding that Shanahan was on his way out anyway. Cousins was good enough to lose one point games to the Falcons and Cowboys. He lost the season finale to the Giants 20-6 and looked bad.
2014, Pre-December record: 3-9, December record 1-3, Final record: 4-12 – The hiring of Jay Gruden to replace Shahan seemed mostly about fixing RGIII. It wasn’t long before that plan fell apart. When Griffin dislocated his ankle in a week two win over Jacksonville, Gruden seemed almost relieved and allowed for the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to unseat Cousins once he returned. As it turned out, once Griffin was healthy, he wasn’t replacing Cousins, who’d already been benched for Colt McCoy. And when he did replace McCoy, the former Texas star was coming off a win in Dallas. RGIII’s performance was so bad that Gruden first ripped, and then finally benched him. He hoped to finish the season with McCoy, but when he got hurt, Gruden was forced to return to Griffin. He did win the second to last game of the year, 27-24 over Philadelphia on a field goal from Kai Forbath. The winning score was set up by the also fallen from grace former Heisman winner, Mark Sanchez, who threw an interception.
2015, Pre-December record: 5-6, December record 4-1, Final record 9-7 with Divisional round loss to Green Bay – The entire month of December turned out to great, but it got off to a terrible start. The Cowboys, who couldn’t beat anybody without the injured Tony Romo, pulled off their only Romo-less win of the year with Matt Cassell 19-16. A variety of mistakes down the stretch, including a muffed punt by DeSean Jackson, were killers. The saving grace was the NFC East was so bad, that they were still in it at 5-7. In fact, the win at Philadelphia to get to 8-7, clinched the division. They had no trouble drubbing the ready to quit Cowboys in the season finale, but allowed Aaron Rodgers and the struggling Packers to get right in the playoff game.
If this year’s team is looking to join the spirit of ’05, ’07, ’12 and ’15, it’s likely to take at least 4-1 to get it done. But as you see, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.