By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, September 22, 2005
The smartest coaches and the best teams want no part of early-season euphoria, which is why a bye week is probably in the best long-term interest of the Washington Redskins. Two long touchdown passes at Texas Stadium to beat the Cowboys, as dramatic as they were, could easily be fool's gold. The Redskins' offense can't for one second fall into thinking it's going to be bombs away the rest of the season.
Presumably, the most excited folks around town (perhaps a few in the locker room) will decry the momentum lost from not playing this week, when in fact the week can be used to put the season's first two games in more complete context. Yes, any examination can start with Mark Brunell's two beautiful touchdown passes in the final 3 minutes 46 seconds in Dallas. But not just because they produced the 14 points that won the game.
In case you hadn't noticed, the Redskins have rushed for exactly one touchdown in the last five games, and that came in the meaningless minutes of last season's finale against the Vikings. The passing game had become so ineffective that teams were comfortable putting eight defenders along the line to stop the Redskins' primary offensive weapon, Clinton Portis. Bill Parcells did it the other night; he crowded the line with Cowboys and essentially dared Brunell to beat him. For 56-plus minutes the Redskins couldn't do anything about it, until Brunell's passes to Santana Moss changed what the Redskins should be able to do offensively over the next few weeks -- or not.
So what now?
For starters, Joe Gibbs knows he's got the makings of a deep passing game. Brunell, after underthrowing receivers who'd gotten open deep early, demonstrated that even late in the game when he was tired and after he'd been sacked five times, that he has enough arm strength to get the ball over the head of a cheating safety, even one as good as Roy Williams. And for all the criticism of the Redskins' wide receivers (too small, no game-breakers) the truth is Moss indeed is a stretch-the-field receiver. He, David Patten and Taylor Jacobs have been as sure-handed as one could reasonably expect.
Just the sight of those deep passes to Moss on film will make the Redskins' next opponent, Seattle, honor the passing game, which ought to allow Portis and Ladell Betts more running room than they ever saw against the Cowboys. Burn a cheating safety enough, he'll stop creeping up to stop the run.
There's also the possibility that Gibbs and his offensive staff will embrace throwing deep more often. Hey, it worked in 1991 when Mark Rypien got in a deep-throwing zone that lasted all season. Even if Gibbs continues to play it relatively conservatively, running the ball more effectively would keep the offense on the field longer, which would keep the defense from having to pitch these near-perfect games all the time.
And let's keep in mind that the strength of this team, no matter how many times Brunell connects with Moss deep, is the defense. If the defense had allowed Dallas to score even a field goal in the fourth quarter, the miracle comeback Monday night would have been an "L." Folks around here aren't quick to embrace a defense-first team but they'd better get used to it.
The best decision Gibbs made when he returned was to hire Gregg Williams and Greg Blache to coach the defense. That's two men who should be head coaches running the Redskins' defense every day.
Have you looked at what's going on in the league through the first two weeks? Defenses are dominating. The Colts, who seem not to have played defense since Mike Curtis left, have allowed 10 points. Tampa Bay, which still has Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber, has allowed only 16. And the Bears, knowing they have to ride out the ups and downs of a rookie quarterback, have dedicated themselves to knocking people out and have allowed only 15 points. The Redskins (20 points allowed) and Bengals (21) are right behind the leaders.
Who would have guessed the MVP of the Colts would be not Peyton Manning, but pass rusher extraordinaire Dwight Freeney, quite possibly the best defensive player in the league right now.
Okay, the Redskins don't have a player as overpowering as Freeney, but it's a defense that hasn't had a bad game in 18 tries under Williams and Blache. The defense had a bad half against the Packers last year, a bad half against Philly, and one against the Bengals. But a bad game? No, not one. LaVar Arrington is the only one who would be recognizable to most Washingtonians on the street, and he's (smartly) easing back into full-time duty. It's difficult to imagine that any two cornerbacks in the league have played better than Shawn Springs and Walt Harris. So far, they've covered like Deion, and Monday night each went toe-to-toe with Cowboys running back Julius Jones. How many great games is it going to take before folks actually know who Cornelius Griffin, Marcus Washington, Phillip Daniels and Demetric Evans are?
It's as no-name a defense as there is in the NFL, not a Freeney, Urlacher, Brooks, Peppers or Strahan in the bunch. Collectively, however, they've been among the best in the league despite too many turnovers and too many penalties on the offense, which brings us back to Gibbs and Brunell, who by now should have a sense of what's possible.
The bye week should afford them time to throw out some of the elements that haven't worked and adopt more of what Brunell feels comfortable doing now that everybody knows for certain who is going to be the quarterback.
The real stunner at the end of the game in Dallas Monday night wasn't seeing Brunell snap off those two accurate deep passes, but Gibbs smiling and enjoying a regular season victory the way he did, the sideline shower a nice piece of irony considering Mr. Gatorade, Parcells, was on the other sideline, dry as the desert in defeat.
If Gibbs did make the wrong decision on who to start at quarterback at the start of the season, he seems to have gotten it right in Week 2, and it didn't really cost anything in Week 1 except the justifiably hurt feelings of Patrick Ramsey. Even if there's no way of adding to the momentum during this off week, there's also no way of denting the confidence of the quarterback, the coach, nor the defense as they try to find out whether the trip to Dallas was just one nice night, or a season-changing event.