A Pointless Exhibition

New England tight end Ben Watson scores on a six-yard touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter to give the Pats a 17-0 lead.
New England tight end Ben Watson scores on a six-yard touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter to give the Pats a 17-0 lead. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Aug. 26 -- There may have been some spin behind Coach Joe Gibbs's apoplectic postgame state after last weekend's loss to the New York Jets, a savvy coach trying to shock his team into shape with heavy expectations mounting. On Saturday night, following a 41-0 thrashing at Gillette Stadium during which his starters were thoroughly dominated, the Hall of Fame coach adopted a very different tone.

Gibbs, a sage hand at taking a team's temperature, praised and supported his players after this third straight exhibition defeat, never mentioning any "concern" -- his buzzword a week ago -- and expressing his belief in the team's ability to rebound before the games begin to count in the standings. That this was the last real tuneup for the regular season -- Thursday's preseason finale against Baltimore will likely be devoid of star power -- or that Gibbs's squad has been outscored 87-17 seemed suddenly far less consequential than merely rallying morale.

"It's not really important how I react," Gibbs said. "I kind of look at it as a tough time for us. We've had three games, we don't play well. Certainly tonight, New England -- it was everything their way. It's a real tough, hard thing to go through, and the best way to say it is we're all going to have to pull together and try to find the answer for it."

The first-team offense, missing running back Clinton Portis, has yet to mount a scoring drive, the starting offensive line yielded sacks on each of the final three drives of the first half, receivers dropped balls and veteran starting quarterback Mark Brunell was a miserable 7 for 16 for 51 yards (a lowly 48.05 rating this preseason). The defense, with three starters out with injuries, was shredded by Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, who completed three passes of 35 yards or more in the first half, eight of them (for 86 yards and a touchdown) to tight end Ben Watson, who roamed free. Add in oft-injured kicker John Hall's blocked field goal attempt from 43 yards, and more follies from Derrick Frost (a 23-yard punt) and the embarrassment was complete.

During the roughly 38 minutes the starters for both teams were on the field, the results were staggering. The Patriots had 20 first downs; Washington 4. The Patriots amassed 296 yards; the Redskins 65. The Patriots passed for 231 yards; Washington 20. The Patriots had 27 points; the Redskins none. The Patriots never punted with their starting offense on the field, and Brady was not sacked.

The offense aspires to new offensive highs under Al Saunders, associate head coach, but has nothing to build on through three preseason games. On the first drive, Brunell could not connect with top wide receivers Santana Moss and Brandon Lloyd, and a delay of game penalty negated a third and two on the second drive. Washington moved into field goal range on its third possession, aided by a 15-yard taunting penalty, but Hall's attempt was blocked.

An 11-yard sack derailed the next sequence, linebacker Mike Vrabel beat tackle Jon Jansen for a nine-yard sack to the end the next drive, and New England defensive end Ty Warren brought the unsightly first half to a close with another sack. Washington went three and out to open the third quarter, ending Brunell's night.

Gibbs deflected questions about the offense to all aspects of play -- "Special teams, offense and defense, we're kind of all together," and Lloyd professed strong belief in better things to come.

"I'm confident in what Al Saunders can do, and confident in this team," said Lloyd, who conceded that it "stinks" to lose this way. "We're not concerned."

The defense, among the NFL's elite the past two seasons, was pushed around for the second straight week. The absence of injured starting cornerback Shawn Springs (abdominal surgery) and starting defensive linemen Cornelius Griffin (knee sprain) and Phillip Daniels (back strain) was substantial (defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn left this game with a sprained ankle), as the Redskins had a limp pass rush and were sliced repeatedly in the secondary. Their propensity to yield big plays was glaring, and they continued to lag on third down, with the Patriots converting three of five in the first half, and several from long range.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers's third-down pass interference penalty keyed New England's opening drive, capped by a 23-yard field goal. Brady avoided the rush and dumped the ball to running back Corey Dillon for a 39-yard gain. He hit wide receiver Troy Brown for 36 yards on the next play, then rookie running back Laurence Maroney rushed in easily from five yards.

"If we don't take care of the little things, this is going to snowball," defensive tackle Joe Salave'a said. "It hurts. Our pride is battered a little bit now with the way things have gone. But we're not going to give up. We have to get this thing corrected."

Brady (92.5 rating Saturday) went with a no-huddle, shotgun offense the entire next drive, and the Redskins had no answer with the Patriots back in the end zone. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski struck again from 23 yards late in the first half and New England's 14-play, 81-yard touchdown drive churned nearly seven minutes off the clock, culminated with another touchdown, and sent the starters from both teams to the sidelines for good under the most disparate of circumstances.

"It really doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things," Brady said. "But it's always better to win than lose."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company