No matter chill, December warms Redskins' hearts


ASHBURN, Va. -- It could be straight from an episode of The $64,000 Pyramid.

The clues are eggnog, Christmas and Washington Redskins success under Joe Gibbs. The answer: things associated with December.

While the final month of the year often brings to mind snow, ice and below-freezing temperatures, December is when Gibbs and his Redskins team heat up.

In separate stints as Washington's coach - 1981-92 and 2004-05 - Gibbs has guided the franchise to a combined 39-14 record and a .736 winning percentage in December. In contrast, Richie Petitbon, Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier compiled a 20-24 record and a .417 percentage in December between 1993 and 2003.

This season is no different. The Redskins (9-6) have won all four games this month and, as a result, have the inside track for their first postseason berth since 1999.

Quarterback Mark Brunell said the seeds have been sown by the 65-year-old Hall of Fame coach, who led the club to Super Bowl victories in 1982, 1987 and 1991.

"He's just a good coach," he said of Gibbs. "He's been there before. He knows what it takes to get a team motivated. He knows how to get guys going at this time of the year."

Gibbs deflected the credit to his players.

"It helps that we've had good football teams here in the past," he said. "And it helps to be in the running. They're motivated and they're excited. ... Good players down the stretch will rise up."

To a large extent, Gibbs is correct. In his first tenure in Washington, he posted just one losing record and the team advanced to the playoffs seven times behind the likes of John Riggins, Art Monk, Darrell Green and the offensive line known as the Hogs.

So last year was quite a departure for Gibbs, who endured his worst season as an NFL coach with a 6-10 record. Questions about whether the game had passed him by swirled around him.

"Coming off of last year, he really wanted to emphasize, `Let's be playing for some meaningful games in December,'" said right guard Ray Brown, who was with Washington from 1989 to 1995 and then from 2004. "Sure enough, we got it."

Gibbs, renowned for adjusting his game plan in midseason, did just that this year. After the team suffered three straight losses to fall to 5-6, he rebuilt the offense around running back Clinton Portis.

The fourth-year back responded by posting four consecutive 100-yard rushing games and has 1,404 yards for the season, just 27 shy of the club record set by Stephen Davis in 2001.

Defenses that have tried to adjust by concentrating on the run have been exposed by Brunell, who threw three touchdowns passes to H-back Chris Cooley and wide receiver Santana Moss, respectively, in back-to-back wins over the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

And the ball-control style of play has kept the Redskins' defense rested and energized during the later stages of games.

While Gibbs acknowledged that the 5-6 record served to motivate the team, he also made it a point to emphasize the attitude in the locker room.

"I think our players have real character and real heart," Gibbs said. "I think they worked extremely hard getting ready this year."

Broadcaster Joe Theismann, who spent the last five seasons of his 11-year NFL career playing quarterback for Gibbs, likens his former coach's teams to a star boxer.

"When does a great fighter really win the fight? They win them in the 10th, 11th, 12th rounds or, if it's going to go 15, it starts in Round 12," Theismann said.

"I think he's found out exactly what his football team is capable of doing. He has been able to figure out what people have been trying to do against him, and all the egos, all the aches and pains, all the complaints sort of go away. At this time of year, this is do-or-die time. This is where the pros' pros step up, and he's been lucky enough to have a bunch of them lead his football team."

Redskins@Eagles Sunday, 4:15 p.m., chs. 45, 5, 1430 AM, 106.7 FM Line: Redskins by 7 1/2

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