By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005
No matter the quarterback, receivers, game plan or opponent, the Washington Redskins could not produce on third down last season. Try as they might to prolong drives, score points and win games, the offense consistently failed, resulting in a 6-10 record and 30th-place ranking in the NFL.
In a season that, after three games, has been the antithesis of 2004 -- with Washington's reworked, big-play offense sparking a 3-0 start -- no change has been more startling than the turnaround of 35-year-old quarterback Mark Brunell, particularly on third down. He, and the offense, have gone from inept to sublime on that crucial down, and their repeated success in the clutch resulted in Sunday's 20-17 victory over Seattle, including three improbable third-down conversions during the game-winning drive in overtime.
A year ago, it seemed that no miscue was too elementary, with dropped balls, procedural issues and delay-of-game penalties coming at the most inopportune times, and the offense limited to occasional spasms of success.
But with Brunell shining, new wideout Santana Moss streaking by defensive backs, a more stout offensive line and Coach Joe Gibbs and his assistants shedding the rust from their long layoff as a staff, the Redskins' offense has begun to feast on third-down opportunities. Washington ranks second in the NFL, converting 49 percent of its third downs after ranking 28th in the league last year (31.7 percent).
"I think it's a confidence thing, hopefully," Gibbs said, "and I think the guys believe. They know what you're capable off. Certainly, I think our play has stepped up as we've kind of gone here. Hopefully, it carries over. Last year was so hard for us. We couldn't get a big play like we've had in these games. We just couldn't get a big one when we had to have it."
Things began to turn in the fourth quarter of the second game, when Brunell scrambled for 25 yards on third and 27, then completed successive fourth-down passes on the drive, including a 39-yard touchdown to Moss on fourth and 15. It carried over to Sunday. Brunell was 11 of 15 on third-down passes against the Seahawks for 128 yards, a touchdown, and a 120.9 passer rating. Five third-down receptions were caught by Moss, who was acquired from the Jets for disgruntled receiver Laveranues Coles, including both in overtime.
Of the 13 third-down conversions Sunday (13 of 18), Brunell accounted for all but one with his feet or arm. "I'm extremely pleased with the way he's playing right now," Gibbs said. On third down last season, Brunell completed less than 36 percent of his passes with a 32.0 passer rating. Now, he stands fourth in the NFL in third-down passing (64.3 percent with a 102.4 rating), and has completed all five of his passes on third down with between 8-10 yards to go.
"Whenever we need it," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, "Lefty's coming through."
"You see how [New England quarterback] Tom Brady for the past few years moves his offense," Moss said, "all the winning teams, you see how they're winning by making those plays. That's been a key part to our success: Make plays when it really counts."
Gibbs's decision to finally adopt the shotgun formation has paid off -- the Redskins converted eight of nine third downs Sunday when in the formation -- and Moss has been an immediate favorite. He leads the NFL with 10 third-down receptions -- he is second with 168 yards in those situations -- and has caught a pass for at least 30 yards in all three games.
"He gets to the ball and makes something happen," Brunell said. "That's what the great ones do."
Changes to the offensive tempo have been significant as well. The Redskins struggled to get plays off on time last season, with calls slow from the sidelines, and too much pre-snap motion to refine. The offense is now stripped of much of that maneuvering, players are more comfortable and the signals from the coaches are immediate. Washington routinely got to the line with 18 to 20 seconds remaining on the play clock Sunday and committed only one offensive penalty.
"Our tempo has been much better than last year," Gibbs said. "And Mark's got us in and out of there [the huddle] and our receivers are real smart, real quick, and I think we've redefined some of the things we're doing, too, as far as motion."
For all of their gains, however, work remains. The Redskins have scored just four touchdowns through three games, and the running game has yet to fully evolve. The offense is ranked 14th overall -- much improved but still middle of the pack -- and is tied for 20th in passing. The three wins have come by a total of six points, and without their third- and fourth-down efficiency, Washington likely would not be atop the NFC East a month into the season.
"All three games came down to the last play," Gibbs said. "I think you'd have to say our football team right now, that might be the way we play all year.
"I've been proud of our guys, the way they fight. We fight extremely hard."