By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 16, 2006
The season played out in four distinct acts, each more bizarre than the last, before concluding in much the same way it began. The Washington Redskins were consistently surprising -- for better and worse -- and never boring during the 2005 season, but in the end they left fans with the same lingering question going into next season: Will the offense ever catch up to the defense?
The team's six-game winning streak, and postseason march, ended Saturday in a second-round playoff game in Seattle. It was a game in which the offense was largely ineffective for three quarters, and failed to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the defense and special teams. The Redskins' 20-10 defeat mirrored so many from the first two years of Coach Joe Gibbs's second tenure as coach: too few yards and too few points. And, unlike in the earliest stages of this season, the team could not overcome those offensive deficiencies.
The Redskins, who finished 11-7 overall, entered the season with modest expectations, coming off a 6-10 season and facing one of the toughest schedules in the NFL. Yet they streaked to a shocking 3-0 start, plummeted into a 2-6 hole -- wasting the equivalent of a half-season -- then rallied to win their final five regular season games to reach the playoffs when they had little room for error. That winning streak, with the players bound to wearing their lucky white jerseys and white pants, carried over into the wild-card playoff game at Tampa Bay, with the Redskins winning, 17-10, despite posting 120 yards, the lowest for a playoff victor. But the fourth act would be most painful, as the offense faltered again, and the season ended in the chilling rain of the Pacific Northwest.
"I certainly think that we accomplished a lot this year," Gibbs said Saturday night in Seattle. "Our football team last year was 6-10. I think the facts kind of speak for themselves, where we wound up on defense, and where we wound up on offense."
The offense improved from 30th in total yards in 2004 to 11th this season; a year ago the Redskins were 21st in rushing and 31st in passing, while this season they were seventh in rushing and 14th in passing. Although those gains were noticeable, and resulted in receiver Santana Moss and running back Clinton Portis each breaking single-season yardage records, the Redskins still often struggled to score. In 18 games, including the playoffs, they averaged 21.4 points; they were held to 17 points or fewer nine times (including both postseason games), and they exceeded 24 points only five times.
"I'm going to lean towards the positive and talk about what we have done [offensively] and what we have accomplished, because we've come a long way," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "I think we are going to go further."
It likely will take more production from the offense for the Redskins to advance deeper into the playoffs next season. And a defense that has put together two stellar seasons must do so again. The Redskins could not duplicate their No. 3 ranking from 2004 -- they finished ninth in total defense -- but in the second half of the season, few teams were better. Their defense produced more turnovers, big plays and touchdowns in that span than Washington's 2004 defense did, and did not allow an opponent to score more than 20 points in the final seven games, including the playoffs. Over those seven games, opponents averaged 14.1 points as the Redskins finished in a 6-1 tear and played physical defense.
"Any time someone asks you if you're surprised that you gave up 20 points, that's a compliment to us," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "It's a compliment to all the defensive coaches and some of the competitors that we have on that side of the football. We got some guys who are going to hit you. You can ask [Seattle most valuable player running back Shaun] Alexander about that. We're going to hit you. Ask [Tampa tailback] Cadillac [Williams]. If you watch the film, you know that the Redskins are going to get after you on defense."
The offense and the defense hit highs and lows over the five months they played, but the season began just as 2004 ended, with the defense holding up the offense. In Week 1, Washington sneaked by Chicago -- the eventual NFC North division winner -- without scoring a touchdown (9-7); won at Dallas on two late touchdown bombs to Moss after not scoring for 55 minutes (14-13); then beat Seattle, the team with the best record in the NFC, 20-17, in Week 4 after a bye. They were 3-0, in good playoff position on their way to a 5-1 finish in the NFC East and 10-2 mark against conference opponents in the regular season.
What followed was a disastrous run that prompted more questioning of Gibbs. Over their next eight games the Redskins won only twice, requiring a wild scramble to salvage the season. With Moss, acquired for former top receiver Laveranues Coles in the offseason, having a torrid start to his Redskins career, and Portis less effective, the Redskins began to deviate from their run-first philosophy. The Giants crushed them, 36-0, on Oct. 30, the first time Gibbs was shut out in a regular season game, then in November blew three straight fourth-quarter leads to fall to 5-6, with the defense uncharacteristically yielding big play after big play.
Gibbs called a veterans-only meeting after a 23-17 overtime loss to San Diego at FedEx Field, and, after a long meeting with his offensive staff, rededicated himself to the run. The defense, meanwhile, was finally getting healthy again, particularly the defensive line, and the timing of those factors produced one of the best late-season runs in franchise history.
"When we were 5-6, everybody wrote us off," Portis said. "So the guys would constantly fight and the defense would pick us up and carry us when we did struggle."
Portis ran for 100 yards or more in each of the final five regular season games. Moss, after being blanketed for weeks, was able to get downfield again because so much attention was focused on the run. And the defense, unable to force many turnovers through 11 games, caused 23 in the final seven, including several that shifted momentum in key games. Washington won back-to-back road games against St. Louis and Arizona, building some confidence, then topped 30 points in the final three games against division rivals -- Dallas, the Giants and Philadelphia -- to clinch its first playoff berth since January 2000.
"We have a lot of character, and guys play real hard football," Moss said. "Tough football. Regardless of how it looks, or how fluid it looks, we find a way. That's what I like about it here."
But even Moss was stung by the final result. The fourth act unfurled Saturday, resulting in a barren Redskins Park yesterday rather than a flood of players getting treatment and gearing up for the NFC championship game.
Again, the offense stumbled, unable to even gain a first down on most drives, and the defense played Seattle's potent offense to a stalemate for the better part of the afternoon. The Seahawks scored only two touchdowns, lost three fumbles and lost Alexander to a first-quarter concussion, but Washington's offense never made them pay for their mistakes, and fell 10 points short.
"Every player on this team is trying to get to that [championship] game that [the Seahawks] are going to next weekend," Moss said. "If you're not there, you can pat yourself on the back and say a job well done, but there's always going to be some emptiness in your heart knowing you got so close and didn't make it."