- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 28, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Fans never forget the legends — the champions whose accomplishments are carved into a sports town’s collective consciousness. But, then, there are the others: those valiant warriors whose feats, though noteworthy, seem destined to fade with time. Welcome to “Overlooked,” our recurring series on Washington teams and athletes who, in hindsight, deserve a second look — and, perhaps, a reappraisal by fans who over the last decade have seen it all: chumps, champs and everything in between. Which brings us to the 1999 Redskins

It’s a year remembered for the St. Louis Rams with good reason. They were so explosive, they were given one of the all-time great nicknames: “The Greatest Show on Turf.” With Kurt Warner, Terry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk, the Rams shattered records and helped usher in a new pass-happy era in the NFL.


But there was another offensive juggernaut in 1999: the Washington Redskins, led by quarterback Brad Johnson.

Coach Norv Turner’s Redskins might not have transformed conventional football thinking, but they were effective and efficient — so much so that they ranked first in offensive DVOA (efficiency), according to Football Outsiders. They weren’t far behind the Rams in conventional categories either: second in points (27.7 per game) and yards (372.8) and sixth in passing (245.3). The Rams and the Redskins were the only teams that season to have a top 10 passing and rushing attack.

Locally, the 1999 Redskins hold another distinction: They’re the last — and only — Redskins team to win a playoff game at FedEx Field. Washington finished 10-6, beat the Detroit Lions in the stadium’s first-ever postseason contest and came within two points of advancing to the NFC Championship.

The success on the field came in a time of monumental change for the franchise: Dan Snyder’s purchase of the Redskins had been finalized just six months before the season.

“For the transition of ownership at that point, people forget that damn team was good,” says former Redskins back and return specialist Brian Mitchell.

A year earlier, the Redskins had gone just 6-10.

Casserly’s last shot

Charley Casserly figured he was about to lose his job. The then-Redskins general manager went into the 1999 offseason understanding that whenever John Kent Cooke sold the team, Washington’s new owner would want his own people. And that was indeed the case when Casserly offered his resignation to Snyder in July.

But in the months prior, the Redskins still needed to put together a football team and had one glaring need: quarterback.

Former starter Trent Green, ironically, signed with the Rams, but Washington had already honed in on his replacement. In December 1998, Casserly went in person to watch Brad Johnson warm-up before the Minnesota Vikings’ game against the Tennessee Titans. Johnson, a game-manager type, had lost his job to Randall Cunningham earlier in the season.

“In the games (Johnson) played, he was very good,” Casserly said. “He was smart, he was accurate with the football. He could read the defense, make all the throws. It was a question about his arm … but during the physical we felt like he was going to be fine.”

In February, the Redskins completed the deal — sending a first, a future second and a third-round pick to Minnesota.

Casserly said Washington beat out the Baltimore Ravens for the deal as they knew former Ravens coach Brian Billick wanted to reunite with Johnson after coaching him with the Vikings.

Washington wasn’t done dealing, either. That year, after all, was the Ricky Williams trade — in which the New Orleans Saints sent its entire draft and then some to the Redskins in exchange for the fifth pick so they could select the Texas running back. In total, Washington received eight picks (including a future first and third).

From the haul, Casserly drafted two players who had an immediate impact: cornerback Champ Bailey and right tackle John Jansen. In both cases, the Redskins used their additional draft capital to move up and take the pair. Bailey boosted a secondary already with Darrell Green, while Jansen was part of a remodeled offensive line.

After the draft, the Redskins signed three veterans in the second wave of free agency that became important contributors: left tackle Andy Heck, defensive end Mario Coleman and fullback Larry Centers.

“We thought there was potential on the team,” Casserly said.

Pieces click

Johnson turned out to be exactly what the Redskins needed. The then 31-year-old grasped Turner’s complex “Air Coryell” offense and made the throws necessary to produce big plays.

By season’s end, Johnson topped 4,000 yards — becoming just the second Redskin to reach that mark (and 24th player in NFL history). It was a different era.

Johnson, though, wasn’t the only driving force for the Washington offense. Running back Stephen Davis was a 6-foot, 230-pound bruiser who plowed his way to 1,408 yards and a league-high 17 touchdowns.

Davis was a surprise, given he had been a backup for three years. But Casserly said Davis had spent that time developing steadily as an inside runner and was ready for the opportunity when it came.

Johnson and Davis fit the mold of the Redskins that year, Mitchell said. Both were considered NFL afterthoughts. They were men with something to prove.

“A lot of guys on that football team were scrappers,” Mitchell said, “guys who were given opportunity, guys who were given second chances and made the best of it.”

Still, the Redskins‘ season was anything but smooth. In Week 1, the Redskins blew a 24-0 lead against the Cowboys and lost in overtime. That provided a crucial lesson, Mitchell said: “We got somebody down like that, keep ‘em down.” From there, Washington went on a four-game winning streak, then lost three of four.

It wasn’t until Week 16 when the playoffs became guaranteed — when Redskins rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the San Francisco 49ers and won in overtime with a 33-yard touchdown from Johnson to Centers — two of the Redskins‘ offseason acquisitions.

They were headed to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

“I told our guys at halftime we didn’t play well in the first half, and the second half would define what this team is,” Turner told reporters. “We defined it pretty well.”

Falling short

The first and only Redskins‘ playoff win at FedEx Field came easy. Washington’s defense, which had been spotty all year, made life a nightmare for Lions quarterback (and former Redskins starter) Gus Frerotte, sacking him five times and picking him off twice in a 27-13 victory. The Redskins were so dominant that the raucous crowd — just shy of 80,000 — left thinking Super Bowl.

“It was a very, very festive atmosphere,” Mitchell said. “I can tell you that.”

Those dreams, however, were dashed the following week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Thanks in part to a touchdown return by Mitchell, Washington was in control with a 13-0 lead midway through the third. But Tampa Bay turned the game with two late scores.

With just over a minute left, the Redskins had the chance for a game-winning field goal — lining up for a 52-yard attempt. But the snap was too low and Johnson, who picked up the ball, was tackled as he had nowhere to throw.

“You always go and say, ‘What if? What if?’” said Mitchell, who was released after the season. “And I hate those what-ifs.”

Despite the disappointing end, the future seemed bright.

It wasn’t.

Washington’s splashy signings of Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Mark Carrier in the spring of 2000 backfired. Turner was fired midway through the 2000 season and Johnson was benched for a soon-to-be-out-of-the-league Jeff George.

The Redskins finished just 8-8 and the Snyder era was underway.

Johnson? The quarterback the Redskins discarded signed with the Buccaneers in 2001 and led them to a Super Bowl win two seasons later.


Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.