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Gibbs’ Return Is a Show Stopper

Times Staff Writer

On a day when the Washington Redskins welcomed back Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs, it was new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who truly deserved to take a bow.

Williams, who got a pay increase to become a coordinator for the Redskins after being fired as Buffalo’s head coach, more than earned his keep Sunday as Washington’s defense led the way in a 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay at FedEx Field.

The Redskins, ranked 25th in total defense last season, limited the Buccaneers to 169 yards -- only 30 yards rushing -- and no offensive touchdowns.

It was the first time the Buccaneer offense failed to score a touchdown with Brad Johnson at quarterback since Coach Jon Gruden was hired in 2002.

Gibbs was quick to deflect the credit for the victory to Williams, even though Washington’s offense frequently brought the record crowd of 90,098 to its feet -- especially when running back Clinton Portis touched the ball.

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“I can’t take any credit for that,” Gibbs said of the defensive performance. “All I do is walk down the field and scream, ‘Stop ‘em!’ ”

The Buccaneer defense, for years among the NFL’s best, had a beast of a time stopping Portis, who on the Redskins’ third play bounced right on a run designed to go left and found a turnpike-wide lane of running room. Suddenly, he was gone. The traded Denver Bronco star outran the defense for a 64-yard touchdown, the longest run by a Redskin since 1999. When the day was done, Portis had 148 yards in 29 carries -- and even more moxie than his coach imagined.

“One of the best things about Clinton is his enthusiasm on the sidelines,” Gibbs said. “He is bright-eyed, jumping in your face saying, ‘Run this!’ So I say, ‘OK, we’ll run it.’ ”

In the week leading up to the game, Portis was the subject of a bizarre hoax. Evidently, someone outside the Redskin organization spread the rumor Thursday that Portis had sustained a back injury while lifting weights and would miss between six and eight weeks. Determined to break the story first, an otherwise reputable Internet site posted the bogus news for at least five minutes. A perfectly healthy Portis was on the field practicing at the time. Editors at the bamboozled site learned that and quickly killed the story, but it was up long enough for the Redskin media-relations staff to receive more than 100 calls about it that day.

After his performance Sunday, Portis shrugged off the phony story.

“Didn’t bother me, man,” he said. “That’s the media. That’s what the media do. I was hoping they actually went with the hoax so Tampa Bay wouldn’t have prepared for me at all.”

What really seemed to catch the Buccaneers off-guard was the Washington defense, which forced a fumble and an interception and didn’t allow the visiting offense inside the Redskin 29.

Part of the motivation to play well, safety Matt Bowen said, was not just to prove the defense was better than last season’s numbers suggested, but also not to be upstaged by an accomplished Buccaneer defense.

“If you’re a defensive player, who do they always talk about? They talk about Tampa and Baltimore,” said Bowen, who had a team-high eight tackles and two sacks and forced a fumble. “You want to be mentioned sometime too, you know?”

Tampa Bay’s lone touchdown came on a botched play by the Redskin offense. It occurred around the middle of the third quarter, when Washington was protecting a 10-3 lead and backed up to its 14. Starting center Lennie Friedman had been replaced by backup Cory Raymer, presumably because Friedman’s bad snap in the previous series had resulted in a fumble.

So quarterback Mark Brunell took a snap at the 14 and stumbled when his feet got tangled with Raymer’s. As Brunell fell, he tried to hand off to Portis, but the bad exchange resulted in a fumble. Cornerback Ronde Barber scooped up the loose ball and scored to forge a 10-10 tie.

The Redskins inched away for good in the fourth quarter with two field goals by John Hall, claiming the 500th regular-season victory in the 72-year history of the organization. A quarter of those victories have come on the watch of Gibbs, whose career record is 125-60.

Without question, Gibbs is the biggest figure on the Washington sports landscape. A sign posted along the top rim of the stadium Sunday read, “Welcome Home, Joe” -- even though the Redskins of his previous go-round played at RFK Stadium -- and fans wore burgundy T-shirts proclaiming, “Gibbs is Back.” He said the back-and-forth nature of the opener left him drained and felt more like an entire season than a single game.

So focused was he on his task, he politely declined to do the quickie halftime interview for television, reasoning it would only cheat him out of precious minutes to make adjustments.

“I’ve got 12 minutes to try to construct something at halftime to try to help our football team,” he said. “I want to do the right thing. But if I have an option, I want to get in there.”

And what Gibbs wants, Gibbs gets. He has a franchise to rebuild, one that made the playoffs only once in the 11 seasons he was gone. He has got an important job to do, even if sometimes it just requires yelling, “Stop ‘em!”


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