Much was at stake for the Redskins when they stepped foot in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on Dec. 26, 1999.
A win over the 49ers meant an NFC East title and the opportunity to host a first-round playoff game. A loss and the Redskins would possibly have to settle for a wild card spot.
The struggling 49ers had dropped nine of their last 10 games. Their 10 losses that season had been by an average of 19 points.
The 8-6 Redskins sported a high-powered offense led by one of the league’s hottest quarterbacks, Brad Johnson. They were a game ahead of the Cowboys and Giants in the NFC East and had clinched a wild card berth due to losses that day by Green Bay and Carolina. But they were yet to beat a team with a winning record.
The scenario seemed precarious for their Redskins when San Francisco took a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter of the Sunday night game. ESPN color analyst and Redskins great Joe Theismann even asked rhetorically if the Redskins knew what was at stake.
Johnson later led an nine-play, 67-yard touchdown drive highlighted by a diving 20-yard, third-down catch by 16th-year wide receiver Irving Fryar. The catch on the 49ers’ 10 was first ruled incomplete. But the Redskins challenged the call, which was overturned after the tape showed the ball never hit the ground.
Two plays later from the 1-yard line, with Theismann urging the Redskins to run behind Pro Bowl right guard Tre’ Johnson, Brad Johnson did just that on a sneak and reached the ball across the goal line. Conway’s conversion tied the game at 20 with 3:28 left.
The 49ers, who amassed 418 yards and 24 first downs that day, charged right back. Led by the passing and running of quarterback Jeff Garcia, they drove to the Redskins’ 22. But in perhaps the Redskins’ biggest play of the season, linebacker Shawn Barber stripped the ball from rookie running back Terry Jackson and defensive end Anthony Cook recovered to force overtime.
The Redskins won the coin toss and went 78 yards in four plays. Johnson completed two passes to running back Skip Hicks, and wingback Larry Centers ran 12 yards to the 49ers’ 33. Johnson then lofted the ball into the right flat to a wide-open Centers. He ran untouched into the end zone to give the Redskins their first NFC East title since the 1991 season and what would be their last until 2012.
In a giddy post-game locker room, first-year Redskins owner Dan Snyder handed the game ball to coach Norv Turner, then in his sixth season in D.C. Johnson also earned kudos. He completed 32 of 47 passes for 471 yards, breaking Sammy Baugh’s 51-year-old team record of 446 yards.
Centers, then in the 10th season of a 14-year career in which he totaled nearly 9,000 rushing and receiving yards, called his overtime reception the biggest play of his career to date.
At Redskins Park, a banner was raised saying “1999 NFC Eastern Division Champions.” Sport Magazine later named Dan Snyder the 1999 NFL Owner of the Year.
The Redskins closed the regular season and entered the new millennium with a 21-10 win over Miami at FedExField on Jan. 2, 2000. Johnson played about a half and passed for 75 yards to finish with 4,005, the second-best total in Redskins history. He posted the league’s fifth-highest quarterback rating (90.0) that season and earned his first Pro Bowl invitation.
It was off to the playoffs, where the Redskins would host the Lions in the first round in a bid to reach their first Super Bowl since the 1991 season.
“It’s been too long,” said Redskins return man extraordinaire Brian Mitchell, who played on that Super Bowl team. “It’s time to get something going. It’s time to let others watch. We don’t need to be watching.”
The Redskins posted a 27-13 win over Detroit at FedEx, but they fell to Tampa Bay, 14-13, in the divisional round at Raymond James Stadium.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. His web site is redskinshistorian.com. Check out his Facebook Friend and Fan pages and follow him on Twitter.