When you're a member of one of the worst defenses in the NFL,
camaraderie can be hard to come by. So when someone suggested
early in the season that the Washington Redskins' defensive
players get together every Thursday for dinner and some
much-needed bonding, the response was underwhelming. Any player
who didn't show up, however, was designated as a Buster, a title
that veteran cornerback Darrell Green originally gave to players
who were late for meetings or didn't practice hard last season.
For two days after missing the defense's night out, Busters got
the silent treatment from the other defensive coaches and players
and were awarded a placard or a plastic cup bearing a message
such as: FOR THE MAN WHO SPELLS TEAM WITH AN I.
During the season, as the defense slowly improved, so too did
attendance at the Thursday night dinner. Based on the way the
Redskins played last Saturday in a 27-13 NFC wild-card playoff
win over the Detroit Lions, this week's get-together might pack
the house. In its first postseason appearance in seven seasons
Washington feasted on the Lions, keeping Detroit quarterback Gus
Frerotte under wraps and springing running back Stephen Davis for
119 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries before he had to leave
the game with a sprained right knee.
The Redskins will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa on
Saturday with a berth in the NFC Championship Game on the line.
"We all wish we had been playing better defense all along," says
rookie cornerback Champ Bailey, whose first-quarter interception
set up a Washington field goal. "But we've stepped up and helped
this team win games when it really counts."
During the regular season Washington ranked ahead of only the
expansion Cleveland Browns in defense, allowing 357 yards a game.
That stat, and new owner Daniel Snyder's itchy trigger finger,
could lead to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan
after the season. But last Saturday, Nolan's defense battered and
baffled the Lions, who had embarrassed Washington 33-17 on Dec.
5. Redskins outside linebacker Greg Jones set the tone when he
sacked Frerotte on the Lions' first play from scrimmage.
Frerotte, the former Redskins starter, was sacked four more times
and intercepted twice. Washington held Detroit to 258 yards, 58
of which came on a Hail Mary completion at the end of the first
half and another 90 of which came on a garbage-time touchdown
drive. (Safety Ron Rice scored Detroit's first touchdown on a
94-yard return of a blocked field goal.)
"Everybody wants to have nice, pretty stats to point to," says
Redskins defensive end Marco Coleman. "All that matters now is
that we play like the Number 1 defense in the league."
They'll certainly need that kind of an effort to bump off the
Bucs, who average 111 rushing yards per game behind bulldozer
Mike Alstott and scatback Warrick Dunn (1,565 rushing yards
combined during the regular season). "We must shut down their
running game and control the line of scrimmage," says Redskins
defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. That's why Washington doled out
$57 million in free-agent contracts to Wilkinson and fellow
tackle Dana Stubblefield before the 1998 season. The portly pair
of tackles has been a disappointment, but on most downs they can
at least tie up three blockers. To complement Wilkinson and
Stubblefield, the defense needed younger, more agile athletes who
could exploit the opportunities created by those double teams and
make big plays.
Washington started the season with five new starters, none more
important than Coleman, a 1992 first-round pick of the Dolphins
who spent four years with Miami and three more with the San Diego
Chargers before signing with Washington as a free agent last
June. Coleman became the outspoken leader that the Redskins'
defense desperately needed.
When he yelled at his teammates after a fumble on the first day
of training camp, Coleman was surprised to see he had startled
some people. Then, after the team blew a 21-point fourth-quarter
lead against the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener, Coleman
realized Washington had a defense utterly lacking in skills,
chemistry and accountability. "We've tried to ignore the
criticisms all year because we've always had confidence in our
defense," says linebacker Shawn Barber, another of the new
starters. "It's just that everyone else hasn't."
Early on, players felt no kinship with the strangers lined up
beside them. Now, however, they say the key to turning around the
defense was getting to know one another. Imagine: The success of
a franchise worth $800 million was riding on a few plates of
As the unit grew closer at the dinner table and on the field,
Nolan felt more comfortable calling blitzes and stunts. The
defense caused more turnovers, such as Barber's game-saving
forced fumble against the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 26. All of
that helped the Redskins hold opponents to a respectable 19.4
points per game in the second half of the season, 8.4 fewer than
during the first half. Washington also finished atop the NFC with
a plus-12 turnover margin. "We are definitely building something
special on defense," says Barber, who was second on the team with
148 tackles. "We aren't doing anything different with our attack.
Our success relates directly to the effort we made to get to know
Barber, 25, is part of a Redskins youth movement at linebacker
that also includes Jones, 25, on the left side and Derek Smith,
24, in the middle. At 6'2", 220 pounds, Barber, who was taken in
the fourth round of the 1998 draft out of Richmond, is one of the
lighter starting linebackers in the NFL. He also happens to be
one of Washington's fastest players and one of the defense's most
An hour after last Saturday's game Barber watched as Nolan
silently made his way across a near-empty locker room, pulling a
small black suitcase behind him. "There have been a few
gratifying moments this year, and today was certainly one of
them," said the embattled assistant. "Next week will be tough,
but what happened today sure can't hurt our confidence."
On his way out, the first door Nolan tried was locked. So was the
second. All season critics have been trying to run Nolan out of
town. For one moment, at least, it seemed as if no one wanted him
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO ROUGH STUFF Jones sent the Lions an early message when he sacked Frerotte for a seven-yard loss on Detroit's first play from scrimmage.