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Reversal of Fortune
A Return to Power Football Resurrected Redskins' Season

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

There was also, thought Thomas, a double negative with passing so much in short yardage. Not only did such a strategy suggest that Gibbs did not believe the offensive line could power its way over a defense, but the opposing defense, seeing the Redskins line up in a passing formation in short yardage, would grow to believe that the offense lacked faith in the line's ability to smash through the defense.

"Football," Brown said, "is all mentality. If you believe you can do it, you can. And if it's in the mind of the defense that you can't, you probably can't."

For Gibbs, the lack of balance in short yardage had nothing to do with his faith in the line. He said repeatedly he was reacting more to game situations. But he was not defensive or offended by the questioning of the play-calling. Often, Breaux would tell coaches not as familiar with Gibbs to be persistent with their suggestions, even if it appeared that Gibbs did not appear receptive.

"Sometimes, you don't have to kill a snake twice," Breaux said. "There's trust over time. We know each other. There may be times that Joe accepts things that I say more readily than you, but you have to understand that this has been built up over time. There's a trust factor there. But he wants ideas."

For Gibbs, deep recriminations were growing. How could a season that began with such hard work and preparation be on the brink of disaster? How had a team that he believed in so deeply perform with such uneven results? Was it possible that this type of effort could be wasted? Could it be that Gibbs himself had miscalculated the ability of his team this badly?

"This has been a process of evaluation, and the players had something to say," Gibbs said. "The players expressed some feelings. If a player tells you something, chances are, it means something. We were all looking at it, saying, 'Where do we stand?' In that Oakland game, we killed ourselves on third and two to six. I think what happened is you're caught up in the moment of the game. You can get out of balance. That happened to us."

The Redskins called 25 runs against the Raiders, but only seven in the second half, when at times they had a 10-point lead. After the meeting, the Redskins called 30 running plays in their next game against the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 27. And they lost again, 23-17.

The Second Meeting

The Redskins were 5-6. Merely changing the plays wasn't going to be enough. Facing a make-or-break game against the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 4, Gibbs called a meeting of veterans, players with six years' experience, during which he implored them to take a stronger leadership role. Breaux said Gibbs had tried the same tactic successfully in his first tenure with the team.

"We reached a point where if we lose the Rams game, we're cooked," Gibbs said. "Now's the time. You're either going to play, or you'll be at home. That's where we were. That's where we've been. You win it or we're done."

The meeting, Breaux recalled, was typical Gibbs: There was no yelling or screaming, but the coach was pointed in his purpose for getting the group together. When Gibbs recalled the meeting last week, he referred to its necessity as "desperation time." The players sat in a conference room and listened to Gibbs before taking over. The team belonged to them, Gibbs told them. They were the leaders and the other players would follow.

"If you're around Joe, you could possibly say this is an easygoing guy," Breaux said. "But let me tell you something. The hair can stand up on the back of his neck. And so, he can swell up and make his point without ripping people. He solved some problems. He kept things together."

Brown, the 20-year veteran, spoke next. Thomas said a few words, reminding the players that during similar moments in 2004, no one spoke up.

"The thing is, last year we were at the same point when we needed to address things and it was too late," Thomas said. "This year, we caught it in time, and we needed to make a change and we did. Guys responded, man. Sometimes when you feel hopeless and nothing is going right and you've always been a guy of not many words, well, you just don't want it to slip away and think you should have said something."

Marcus Washington, the starting strong-side linebacker, attended the meeting and said the primary voices were not those of defensive players, but Gibbs, then Brown, Thomas and Jansen.

"We needed to do something," Washington said. "You could feel it getting away. The offensive line brought us back. It was Randy and Chris."

A Voice in the Desert

By the time the Redskins arrived in Arizona to play the Cardinals on Dec. 11, the offensive line had been vindicated. A week earlier, the Redskins rushed for 257 yards, highlighted by Clinton Portis and Rock Cartwright both topping 100 yards in a 24-9 victory over the Rams. The signature moment was Thomas pulling from right guard on a 47-yard Portis touchdown run.

"See what I've been saying?" Thomas said. "This is who we are."

But a week later, in the first half against the Cardinals, the Redskins regressed. Quarterback Mark Brunell threw three interceptions in the first half. Samuels, the Pro Bowl left tackle, was angry. At halftime, with the Redskins trailing 10-3, Samuels had reached his breaking point. The Redskins, he said, were throwing their season away.

Samuels's ankle was throbbing. He recalled the room being quiet for the halftime gathering and he only spoke because he believed the usual leaders -- Thomas, Jansen and Brown, for example -- had said enough.

"I'm not knocking those guys, but I just thought something should be said. What I said was 'We got ourselves into this mess, and we better get ourselves out of it,' " Samuels said. "I felt like something needed to be said. Those guys were walking all over us. We did this."

The coaching staff listened. In the opening drive of the second half, the first 11 plays of a 13-play touchdown drive were runs, with Portis scoring on a 15-yard run off right tackle. The Redskins went on to win, albeit by only 17-13, but a new image had been cast.

The focus remained tight, and the Redskins haven't looked back, blowing out the Dallas Cowboys, 35-7, last Sunday.

"For the last month, the [offensive line] went hat on hat, crushing guys," Washington said. "They were the ones who got physical. They took the lead."

The result is an offense that is more spare, but one that has rediscovered its toughness and drive. Over the past four weeks, the Redskins are averaging 37 carries per game. In the previous 10 games, the Redskins exceeded 29 carries with their running backs only four times. For the first time in his Redskins career, Portis has three consecutive 100-yard games. Brunell is passing less but more accurately. Over the past month, Brunell completed 60 percent of his passes in every game. Chris Cooley has 64 catches, second to Santana Moss's 75.

"Chris [Samuels] got on us that day. That was the one that really hit home because we were on the verge of letting this whole thing slip away," Brown said. "Chris just nailed it. Sometimes with athletes there needs to be a rallying cry, and it may change every week. We're going to lose this thing? In the desert? To Arizona? Come on.

"A lot of time, the team needs to claim the team. They have to say, 'It's our team,' even though Mr. Snyder owns this organization. If there's no sense of ownership inside this locker room, there's no way we can go out and play for one another. I think we took a quick inventory about what's happening and what's going on."

Redskins Notes: The team did not practice yesterday and did not offer any injury updates, partly because the league does not mandate status updates of injured players without a full practice, and partly because of a gamesmanship.

The Giants did not issue an updated injury report and the Redskins, unwilling to cede any potential advantage, acted likewise. As such, starting left cornerback Carlos Rogers is officially questionable for today's game, though he did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Rogers is suffering from a torn left biceps muscle.

Starting weak-side linebacker LaVar Arrington was also listed as questionable with a lingering right quadriceps strain, as was reserve safety Matt Bowen (knee). Samuels (ankle), right corner Shawn Springs (groin) and kicker John Hall (illness) were all probable.

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