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Michael Wilbon

Winning From a Point of Strength

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page D01

Once upon a time, when a team lost close games and half the team didn't function properly, the only conceivable solution was to get better. For decades in professional sports, you fixed what was broken by practicing harder and smarter, by coaching better, by getting the guys you had to do it better next week than last week. And that brings me to the Washington Redskins, who don't need to do anything dramatic, grand or symbolic. They certainly don't need Joe Gibbs leaving the sideline for the front office. They don't need to spend a jillion dollars to sign a bunch of new high-profile players. They don't need to reprogram Clinton Portis, or change out all of their receivers. They don't need to scrap everything and start over with a new plan. And they certainly don't need to be too dreamy after beating the Giants, 31-7, yesterday at FedEx Field.

The Redskins are supposed to beat the Giants at home. The second-best defense in the NFL ought to shut out a rookie quarterback, which it did. What the Redskins needed to do was play the right way, which is to say play to their strengths. They needed to play defense, run the ball, throw play-action passes and rollouts, and put away a chump, which is what the Giants are now.

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They don't need to celebrate, and didn't. But they do need to realize they're not far from something good, as long as they don't give in to the irrational urge to do something showy. The Redskins need a huge dose of steady and boring, just the way they played against the Giants, just what they were most of Gibbs's first tenure here. They need to keep handing the ball to Portis. They need to keep working with Patrick Ramsey, coaching him up to figure out just how good he can be. They need to remember that Dick Vermeil didn't win in St. Louis his first season back after a long absence, or his second season back, but his third, and that Gibbs is not on a clock.

It's not the ends, it's the means the Redskins need to be worried about the rest of the season. They need to be consumed with methodology. Gibbs knows that, even if the rest of the town and most folks around the NFL don't. Just because it's not happening quickly doesn't mean it won't happen. The Redskins aren't going to explode back into prominence, so they might as well get used to grinding. Gibbs, as anxious as he is to win again, seems to have made his peace with that. "We need to build something here," he said. "We need to get something built. We need to try to win every game and try to see who are our guys."

That, of course, starts with figuring out the team's identity and being true to it. I thought they did that in Detroit a few weeks ago, when Portis lit up the Lions for 147 yards in a victory. But maybe everybody in camp needed a reminder, even Gibbs. "Our identity," he said, "what we need to do is run the ball. It's one thing to say it, but another thing to do it."

So against the Giants, very wisely, they did it. Portis, the best player on offense by a million miles, carried 31 times for 148 yards. Was it easier to run against the Giants than the Eagles or Steelers? Yes. But building an identity means playing to one's strengths even if some days it doesn't work. The Redskins don't have Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. They've got Portis, and the Redskins are 4 for 4 in games he has rushed for 100 yards. "We've got to feed him 25 times," Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense, said. "That's why we brought him here. That's why we got him."

Everybody will need to exercise more patience than anyone thought when Gibbs signed on. Ironically, Dan Snyder has somehow fought off his own infamous impatience and prevailed on the coaching staff to forget about the 4-8 record. "The owner," Bugel said, "told us, 'Don't panic. Don't panic.' "

What's happening here is what usually happens the first year a new staff is in charge. Coaches and players are feeling their way and it's a struggle. That includes, in this case, a Hall of Fame coach named Joe Gibbs. "I guess we've been searching, trying to find our way offensively," Gibbs said. But on the subject of what yesterday's offensive outburst means, he said, "I don't know what it means."

A lot of these questions Gibbs won't be able to answer until the offseason, when he's not putting together a new staff or trying to familiarize himself with his roster and the league. Come January, Gibbs will be able to devote all his time devising and revising -- not just plays, but entire schemes and methods of attack on offense. And what he doesn't need, while in that process, is a new running back or, if it can be avoided, a new quarterback. Regardless of how inept the offense has looked, I cannot see Gibbs spending December through July "searching" and not finding the answers because he's always found them as a coach in the NFL. Or as Steelers line coach and former Redskins lineman Russ Grimm reminded me last week, "Didn't he figure it out in NASCAR after a couple of years? You know he'll figure this out, too."

I also don't see Gibbs walking away before next season. Gibbs admitted after the Giants game that he "was hurting" in recent weeks, not because he's infirm or ill but because it was reported he was. The whole episode implies he's only here for the quick fix and doesn't have the resolve to make it through the tough times. On that subject, Gibbs said, "I know we've been through a lot. Maybe it's something we needed to go through to learn about ourselves."

In the meantime, "I squeezed him every day," Bugel said. Bugel could see how much Gibbs was hurting without Gibbs saying anything. "He's got so much pride . . . He doesn't like to see or hear ugly things that are said or written, like this thing that he's ill and going to get out of the game. That really, really upset him. Look, he's here. I know he likes this team."

The biggest purpose the victory over the Giants can serve, besides simply winning a game, is reinforcing to the players the team's identity. Ramsey was reminded of what can happen if he doesn't throw interceptions and fumble. The offensive line was reminded of what happens if it cuts down on false starts and holding penalties. The entire offense was reminded of what can happen if it just gives a terrific defense reasonable help. And even the coaches were reminded of how effective Portis can be if the team doesn't fall behind and he gets 25 or more carries.

There's a locker room full of players who love playing for Gibbs and are willing to play hurt and injured without being asked. While the Redskins aren't ready to be a contender, there are plenty of signs for anybody who wants to see them that changing course now is a lot worse in the long run than being 4-8 this season.

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