By Michael Wilbon
Monday, December 5, 2005
They should have been doing this all along. The Washington Redskins should have committed to pounding people with their running game from Week 1. Throwing is nice if you've got Peyton Manning tossing it to Marvin Harrison or Carson Palmer pitching it to Chad Johnson. But when your starting linemen are from the likes of Michigan, Auburn, Texas and Wisconsin and when your $50 million running back stands on the sideline pestering the coaches for more carries, it's clear the personality of the team is screaming, "Let us run !"
Don't get me wrong, the St. Louis defense stinks. Only five teams in the NFL have worse run defenses than the Rams did entering Sunday's game, which speaks to the larger point of Sunday's victorious smash-mouth performance.
The Redskins probably won this game back on Monday when the coaches decided they were going to pound the Rams like veal. Even with Ladell Betts injured and unavailable, the Redskins came to a decision early last week. A game plan with great emphasis on running the football very likely would make the offense more aggressive, which ought to help put away opponents in the fourth quarter, which had been a huge problem three straight weeks. Running would help the offensive line find the identity they had been seeking all season. Running definitely compliments the defense. And running would be the best tactical way of attacking not only the Rams, but the Cardinals in Arizona next week, and then the Giants and Cowboys and Eagles to close the season.
So to that end, the Redskins handed the ball 27 times to Clinton Portis, who gained 136 yards and scored two touchdowns. And when Portis was catching his breath, Rock Cartwright carried nine times for a career-high 118 yards.
That's 36 carries for 254 yards. "We would have run it 70 times if we had to today," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. On the first play of the game, Portis ran eight yards and it looked like Bugel was screaming to run the ball more. "Actually," Bugel said, "I was screaming before the game even started. I probably used some words I can't repeat. We had told the signal-callers upstairs, 'Run the football.' "
And down on the field, tackles Chris Samuels (Alabama) and Jon Jansen (Michigan), center Casey Rabach (Wisconsin) and guards Randy Thomas (Mississippi State) and Derrick Dockery (Texas) were happy as elves on Christmas Day. Jansen has been dying to play this way since training camp convened. "We've wanted to do this," Jansen said. "We haven't had any identity other than inconsistent, but it does fit our personality. We [the linemen] come from pound-it programs and most of the staff has that personality, too."
True enough, the Redskins' offense isn't chock full of guys from Brigham Young, Florida and Southern Cal. They've got a back named Rock who's from Kansas State. Betts is from Iowa. These aren't throwin' people. They come from places known for head-knocking, where "off-tackle" is a badge of honor instead of an insult. Gibbs, while still preaching balance between pass and run, says he's fine with this renewed emphasis on running. "No, I didn't think we were going to run that much," he said afterward "But our guys want to run the football and we feel it kind of fits with us."
So, the question that must be asked is this: If the linemen wanted to run all along and there are three quality running backs to carry the ball, why did it take until the 12th game of a 16-game season to get with the program, to commit completely and totally to the run?
"What lessons do we ever learn early?" Jansen asked with a smile. "With the defense we have, we should be able to do this every week. That has to be the personality of the offense. "
There was another reason to abandon the run. The Redskins gave up quite a bit, in personnel and dollars, to bring in Santana Moss. And in the first eight weeks of the season, he was right there with Harrison and Johnson as one of the most prolific receivers in the league. "You don't want to turn your back on a guy like that," Bugel said. "We brought Santana in do to that and he has played so well. We tell Mark, 'You throw him the ball in a one-on-one situation,' because he'll jump out of his shoes to go get it."
So, the Redskins -- understandably -- fell in love with Moss even though the best thing for the offense appears to be to attack. As Dockery said, "Look, we understand that on third-and-long we need to buckle up and protect. But whenever it's possible, let us attack the line. Even in the passing game, with quick passes we can attack. We're all good athletes, we can all move. Let us get out on screens and attack the defense. And it seems to fit with the defense we have. It would help us control the clock, and I think in some cases cut out some of all the silly mistakes we made over the last four or five weeks."
Before today, the notion that the Redskins could win their final five games seemed silly and unobservant. One of the big reasons, alluded to by Jansen, was that the offense was all over the map. One week the team would throw it a million times, the next week run for a while, then go back to chucking it deep.
Trying to look at a victory over the rudderless Rams and their rookie quarterback and project how it will carry over to games against the Giants and Cowboys is dangerous. The Redskins were supposed to beat the Rams. The Redskins' defense should confuse a quarterback making his first start, whether he's from Harvard or USC. It's tiresome how hyped Ryan Fitzpatrick was after one relief appearance victory over one-win Houston, as if playing his college ball at Harvard somehow handicapped him.
Small-college quarterbacks make it in the NFL all the time. Just look at Steve McNair (Alcorn State), Kurt Warner twice (Northern Iowa), Rich Gannon (Delaware), Stan Humphries (NE Louisiana), Phil Simms (Morehead State), Doug Williams (Grambling), Ron Jaworski (Youngstown State), Ken Anderson (Augustana) and Terry Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech).
From watching Fitzpatrick play the last two weeks, it's easy to see he's got great feet, explosion and a big arm. He's tough and cocksure about his ability. Still, he was in way over his head against a Redskins defense that had a week to look at him on film. A bit of irony here is that the Rams, who appear about to dump Mike Martz, seem ready to pounce on Gregg Williams, a Missouri native. Consider the Redskins' manhandling of the Rams' offense something of an audition tape for Williams, whether he returns the interest or not.
Beyond Sunday, by climbing to 6-6, the Redskins are still in the playoff picture, which made for a good ending to a difficult, soul-searching week coming off those three bad losses. If you concede that Seattle, Chicago, the Giants and Carolina will enter the playoffs as division winners, the Redskins are still a game behind Atlanta, the Cowboys and Vikings (all 7-5), and two behind Tampa Bay (8-4). And only two of those five will earn wild-card spots. It doesn't look likely, but victory here enables hope to live.
"We had to take one step," Gibbs said. "We lost three games. We had to keep ourselves alive and going."
They played old-fashioned football to do so. They'd better play similarly if they want to keep it going.