By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Let's not jump the gun and say the Redskins are in turmoil after their 41-0 drubbing by the Patriots on Saturday. But consider this: Yesterday punter Eddie Johnson may have had the shortest career in Washington history -- less than six hours. Some guys just have a cup of coffee. Johnson didn't even have time to say, "Cream and sugar."
On Monday, the Redskins phoned the unemployed punter in Arizona. Yesterday morning, they auditioned him as a possible replacement for Derrick Frost, the resident shank artist. By lunch, Johnson, who's spent time with four other NFL teams, was signed and running back Jesse Lumsden released to make roster room. "I was going to apply for a sales job at a personal training gym in Scottsdale," Johnson said. "I was still asleep when they called." Suddenly, he thought he was dreaming.
However, after practice yesterday afternoon, Johnson made the mistake of saying, "My leg is kind of tired." So, he went to get iced. These days, that's a bad idea at Redskins Park, where only tough guys need apply. Many a coach has a hair trigger after watching the team be outscored 87-17 in this 0-3 month. By sundown, Johnson himself has been iced -- cut, booted out of town. With luck and a red-eye flight he may still get that gym job by today. But how would you like to be Jesse Lumsden?
By nightfall, one question hung in the air: Can Tom Cruise punt?
Almost nothing seems too weird to happen around the Redskins this month. On Monday, owner Daniel Snyder cut a deal with Cruise's production company to pay development costs in exchange for the chance to finance his film projects. Thus was born "First and Goal LLC." Cruise's production partner said, "We are entering into a profitable relationship with unlimited creative and financial potential." Isn't that what Steve Spurrier said?
This Redskin preseason has been so star-crossed or goofy, that the NFL must be tempted to think, "Same old Redskins -- champs of the offseason." However, this time may be far different from the years of Deion Sanders and Jeff George. With less than two weeks left before their opener, the Redskins may be doing a wonderful job of fooling the league and hiding their hole cards. Or else they're deluding themselves completely. It's going to turn out to be one or the other.
Only exceptional teams can afford to play with one hand tied behind their backs, even in the exhibition season. Yet that's exactly what the Redskins have tried to do, according to their coaches and players. This organization, whether correct, thinks that it is so loaded for a Super Bowl run that it would rather risk losing by lopsided scores than revealing its strategy.
Al Saunders, who runs the offense, maintains he has only used "two percent" of his 700-page playbook in exhibition games. "I know what the end product is going to look like. . . . I've been in this offense a long time and I know it works," said Saunders, pointing out that "the last [exhibition] team here that went 0-4 was 1982, and their next 32 games after that their record was 28-4."
When you look as bad as the Redskins have so far, that self-evaluation is either incandescent coaching confidence or hubris. What's indisputable is that the Redskins have shown an offense so simple it would make a high school team look exotic. On Saturday, the Redskins put a man in motion or shifted formations only a half-dozen times. "That's by plan," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "That's not just in one game [against New England]. That's in all three games."
"If the same thing happens in the season opener," tackle Chris Samuels said, "then we've got a problem."
Yesterday, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams joined this Redskin chorus. "Everybody seems to place so much emphasis on the third exhibition game. Why would we do that? Why wouldn't we wait until they're using real bullets," said Williams, who described the defensive game plan for the Pats as "zero." As for tomorrow's final exhibition, against the Baltimore Ravens, the Redskins show no indications that they will change their game plan. Or, rather, their game non-plan.
Saunders and Williams maintain they want to see their players perform in the simplest circumstances, unaided by deception and left to beat their opponents physically at old-fashioned football. In other words, get some answers about basic talent levels, player by player. Unfortunately, those answers have been extremely ugly. Redskins tackles, including Jon Jansen, had trouble protecting Brunell without chip-blocking assistance. Tom Brady read Williams's defense with ease and shredded the middle of the secondary. And special teams continued to be so bad that Johnson was summoned, and dismissed, perhaps as an object lesson.
Most teams would not risk exposing their personnel so starkly. Is that coaching wisdom or folly? Is the Redskins staff stripping down egos, Marine-style, to build back a tight-knit, ego-free, championship unit? Or is confidence, which only reappeared in this organization one season ago, being destroyed prematurely? In short, is the Redskins' much-praised and expensive coaching staff acting with supreme self-assurance or with the kind of cockiness it would see as a flaw in a player?
"In the first 10 plays against Cincinnati, we brought the house" with blitzes, said Williams. "We said, 'Looks like we're pretty good at that.' " So, since then, he has chosen not to "avalanche it" but simply line up and "let 'em play."
"We never think that [41-0] is going to happen," Williams said. "But we have to have a certain confidence in our systems and in who we are coaching" to take the chance on such minimalist game plans.
The Redskins once lost a world title game 73-0. Presumably no coach found a silver lining in that one. But the Redskins, now that they've had a few days, have found their rose-colored glasses for 41-0. "After a game like that, you have a more receptive group," Williams said. "It's been nice in the meeting room this week. 'Coach, what do you think you can do for me?' That's better than having guys who are already booking tickets to [the Pro Bowl game in] Honolulu.
"They all think they know more than you. They become more of a captive audience when they have been humbled. Saturday night, we got humbled."
The most adult of all the Redskins is, of course, Coach Joe Gibbs. So, he sees both sides. He and his staff took the risk of under-scheming for the sake of analyzing personnel but paid a high, and presumably unnecessary, price in team embarrassment.
"I'd like to say I was smart enough to plan it that way," Gibbs said of the notion that brutal exhibition experiences might prevent overconfidence and ensure an attentive and intense team in the regular season.
"We have not played well, so we're all concerned," said Gibbs, who frequently coaches best when he can play the role of steadying force at the center of a crisis. "We are going to have to work our way out of it."
At the moment, that goal seems far away. Safety Adam Archuleta embodies the Redskins' befuddled state. "At certain times we haven't played the run well. Certain times we haven't played the pass well," he said. "Now we're trying to put it all together."