Reversal of Fortune
Saturday, December 24, 2005
The resurgence began deep inside Redskins Park in a situation room, near the office of Coach Joe Gibbs, that one of his offensive assistants calls the Submarine. There, coaches held the first of three key gatherings in a 20-day span that helped transform the Washington Redskins from a team seemingly destined for another disappointing season to one that can make the playoffs by winning its last two games.
The Redskins are playing arguably their biggest game ever at FedEx Field today against the New York Giants largely because, instead of trying a newfangled, big-play approach, they simply returned to a conservative but power-oriented brand of offensive football that had been successful for Gibbs in his first tenure with the team, players and coaches said. Over the past few weeks, the Redskins have essentially foregone finesse in favor of uncomplicated power.
"All along, Joe knows the importance of running the ball when people know you're going to run the ball," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "But yet he's always wanted the ability to get big plays. We were deficient in that area last year. He really prefers to be balanced but he wants to be known as a team that when you look at us, other people in the league will respect you for being a tough, physical team. That's the stamp he wanted."
The transformation began in the Submarine on the Monday before Thanksgiving, the day after a devastating 16-13 home loss to the Oakland Raiders left the Redskins with a 5-5 record. During that loss, Randy Thomas, the vocal right guard, believed something primal and damning was happening. Consciously or not, he thought, the Redskins had surrendered the psychological battle of the trenches. Being tougher than the other guy was the most basic part of football, and the Redskins, Thomas believed, had traded power for subterfuge and surprise. The high point of frustration came when Thomas stormed off the field after another three-and-out series, and yelled in the direction of Joe Bugel, the Redskins' assistant head coach-offense, and main coach of the offensive line.
"Put it on us!" Thomas shouted. "Put it on us!"
The next day, Breaux walked into the Submarine frustrated yet determined. He has known Gibbs for nearly 30 years, and knew he had the coach's ear as much as anyone on the offensive staff. Breaux, whose responsibility is to track how the Redskins perform on third down, entered the situation room for a meeting with Gibbs and Bugel carrying folders brimming with statistics.
The offensive charts, Bugel thought, demonstrated the lack of success the Redskins were having with their third down play-calling. Against Oakland, third downs of between two and six yards were of special interest to Breaux; 10 times the Redskins faced third down with six yards or fewer to go. In seven of those instances, the Redskins used the shotgun formation and nine times they passed.
Breaux's numbers suggested that the Redskins weren't playing Gibbs's usual brand of power football. Power football teams did not run shotgun on third and short as frequently as the Redskins had done. They did not fail to convert short yardage, and if they did, they did so running the football, or passing in power formations that gave the appearance of a possible run.
Bugel had not forgotten the sideline exchange with Thomas a day earlier. At one point in the Submarine after Breaux's presentation, Bugel told Gibbs of Thomas's outburst and that the entire offensive line felt that way.
"I'm a great messenger," Bugel said "Back in the '80s, when John Riggins said, 'Buges, I'd like to carry the ball 35 times,' I made sure Coach Gibbs knew it. He gave John the ball 37 times. Any time a guy says something, we encourage them to talk. It's a walk the walk, talk the talk kind of thing."
Left tackle Chris Samuels and right tackle Jon Jansen said something similar to Bugel, and on the offensive line, that attitude was growing: If the Redskins were a power football team, it was about time they acted like it. What was truly at stake was Gibbs's faith in the line's ability to fight power with power on the line of scrimmage and win. To the linemen it was a question of attitude.
"Guys asked for it," offensive lineman Ray Brown said, recalling Thomas's anger. "RT would come off the field and he'd be teed off based on us coming off the field, and he was like, 'Hey, put it on us,' and Buges went in and said to put it on the offensive line in front of the offensive staff. And maybe we were ready for it. We might not have been ready for it before, but if we could convince our coach, and he in turn convinced the staff, that gave us confidence."