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 tide 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 nachos.
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 each other."