By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005
Without running back Clinton Portis, wide receiver Santana Moss believes there is no way he would be about to complete the best regular season of his career, and without Moss, Portis doubts he would be on the cusp of breaking the Washington Redskins' franchise single-season rushing mark. At various times this season, the presence of one of the Pro Bowlers has made life significantly easier for the other, and now, with both in top form, Washington is one win from its first playoff appearance since 1999.
Both Moss and Portis are less than 40 yards from breaking the Redskins' single-season marks for receiving and rushing yards, respectively, with just tomorrow's game in Philadelphia remaining; only once before have teammates on a non-expansion team set those records in the same season (Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin with Dallas in 1995).
The play of Portis and Moss has complemented one another and forced defenses to adjust their tactics. Because the Redskins lacked a deep passing game in 2004, defenses stacked the line against Portis early this season. But Moss's torrid start resulted in safeties paying special attention to him, eventually limiting his downfield gains at a time when the running game was sputtering.
But in the past five games, the Redskins have rededicated themselves to the ground game, calling nearly twice as many rushes as passing attempts, and with Portis reeling off four straight 100-yard games, defenses had to begin putting a safety closer to the line of scrimmage once more. That left more single coverage for Moss, who has exploited those situations for long receptions the last few weeks, culminating with three touchdowns last Saturday against the NFC-East leading New York Giants.
"Early in the year, everybody was on Clinton, and I was just letting them know, 'Hey, I'm doing my job,' " said Moss, who opened the season with six straight games of 87 yards or more. "And now it's in Clinton's hands, and we're doing our job just to consistently catch the balls that are available and stay on our blocks and stuff like that. So the last four games Clinton has 100 yards a game, and it's a blessing to have that kind of backfield, because it takes a lot of pressure off you when you've got the teams keying on him like that."
Their individual accomplishments -- coupled with Chris Cooley setting a franchise record for receptions by the tight end/H-back and quarterback Mark Brunell throwing the most touchdowns of his 13-year career -- have helped resuscitate what had been a horrid offense in 2004.
The Redskins have improved from 31st last season in scoring to 13th in 2005, and the red-zone offense ranked third in the 32-team league.
"We were a bad offense last year," Brunell said. "We didn't produce enough points. We were very ineffective with the pass and that starts with me. As far as the team is concerned, we've taken a huge step in the right direction, but I think our best days are ahead, and we're at a place now where we're doing some good things, much better than we were a year ago."
Moss leads the NFL with 17 receptions of 25 or more yards and the Redskins have 23 such plays as a team. Last season, Washington had 12. The Redskins have five pass plays of 50 yards or more; last year they had one. Last season, the team did not have a touchdown reception of 20 yards or more; this season they have five. Meantime, Portis set a franchise mark with eight 100-yard games, and he stands 96 yards shy from becoming the third runner in league history to reach 1,500 yards in three of his first four seasons.
At last, they have sustained balance in the offense.
"This is the optimum," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux. "When you're able to run like this, they've got to get people up there, because there's not a defensive coordinator in this league who doesn't want to force you one way, and they all want to take that run away. Every one of them, all 32 of them. Obviously, there's a correlation, there's no question about it. Hopefully, we can continue to get that balance. Santana leads the league in plus-25s [yard receptions], and that's the chunks you can get when you're running the ball well."
Portis's gains have resulted in Moss burning defenses deep once more. Moss has five catches of 30 yards or more in the past two games, but none in the four weeks prior, when he was the focus of defensive attention and the Redskins were passing more than they ran with regularity. Moss also had just one touchdown in his previous eight games before his three touchdowns Saturday of 17, 59 and 72 yards. He was able to repeatedly exploit struggling cornerback Will Allen, with Allen lacking support from a safety.
Portis has been a workhorse, rushing 26 times or more in four of the last five weeks, while doing so just once in the first 10 games. The Redskins have been rushing the ball late in games, and grinding down defenses.
"Teams have been knowing all season we was going to try to run the ball," Portis said. "It was just us abandoning it. If you stick to the running game and keep pounding and keep pounding, it's hard to stop."
Redskins Notes: Safety Ryan Clark was fined $7,500 for unnecessary roughness for leaving his feet and leading with his helmet on a tackle during the Giants game, according to league sources. . . .
Washington (4-1 against the NFC East) has not won three straight games against divisional foes Dallas, New York and Philadelphia since 1992. The last time the Redskins won five divisional games was in 1999, when Arizona was still in the NFC East. Washington posted a 5-3 record with two wins coming against the Cardinals.
The last time the Redskins went 5-1 against Dallas, New York and Philadelphia was 1987 -- Gibbs's second championship club -- although two wins were with replacement players. The last time Washington had five wins against these three teams in a non-strike-shortened season was 1983, and they did it previously in 1974. In all those seasons except 1974, the Redskins reached the Super Bowl. . . .
Should Washington, Dallas, Kansas City and San Diego all win this weekend, there would be 15 NFL teams with 10 or more wins. There have never been more than 13 since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978.