Pressure Building From the Start

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

When the Redskins lose their season opener, Washington indulges in a kind of delicious self-inflicted sports misery that is as intense, though not as pessimistic, as the despair that afflicts New England when the Red Sox lose two games in a row. From a distance, it's amusing to watch. How can sane people and sophisticated fans extract so much cosmic meaning from one measly 19-16 defeat to the Vikings? However, if you attended your first Redskins game in '57, if your father rooted for Sammy Baugh, then you grasp the reason why high anxiety is in the air. Because it's more fun this way.

Where's the kick in being sensible when going nuts over one loss is a respected local tradition? If the only good excess is wretched excess, then we've mastered it. Even the Redskins understand. They know they play in Crazy Town, the city with 5 million offensive coordinators, none of them happy at the moment. As pros, they understand that, even if they lose to Dallas on Sunday, they can still salvage their season. Joe Gibbs's teams were 0-2 in '84 and '89 but ended 11-5 and 10-6.

However, they also realize the dangers of a bad start in a town that is totally Redskin-addled. The pressure of expectations gets more suffocating with each loss. Adoring fans, once soured and searching for nits to pick, can suck down a team faster than injuries and penalties. Even Gibbs lost his first five games as a Redskin coach. So did Marty Schottenheimer. Once Steve Spurrier started to lose, the sucking sound around him just got louder. In his first year back, Gibbs began 1-4. "Mo" lives here.

So, how much Redskin worry is justified after an atrocious 0-4 preseason and a narrow loss at home to a Minnesota team that figures to finish in the middle of the NFL pack? Are we merely in nail-biting territory? Is patience sufficient? After all, one win in Dallas and Washington would be right back where many predicted -- 1-1 after two games.

That's certainly the tone being set by a mellow, sane-as-rain Gibbs, who called his team "inconsistent on offense, defense and special teams," in yesterday's postmortem. Joe knows. Don't give Washington anything to chew on. Don't mention any culprits by name. Hug the kicker who missed with the game on the line in the final seconds from 48 yards -- the distance where you separate the ones who stay from the ones who go. The Vikings made their 46-yarder through the same goal posts as the first half ended. And hold dear to those comfortable cliches: "They made big plays on third down and we didn't."

As for Sean Taylor, who added two more key 15-yard penalties to his long résumé, Gibbs had his back, of course, saying the Redskins would send the films to the NFL office because the Vikings got away with something similar.

Of course, it's also possible that -- if what we've seen so far is the real Redskins team -- the time has already passed for mere alarm and the situation is serious enough to merit lucky chants and the invocation of ancestral relics. Third down is where the rubber meets the road in the NFL. That's where all the coaching midnight oil and the savvy of your veteran quarterback is tested. And that's what was scariest for the Redskins on Monday night. Brad Johnson, an ex-Redskin and the oldest quarterback in the league, was 10 for 15 for 179 yards, a touchdown and a 129.6 passer rating on third downs. Mark Brunell was 6 for 13 for 55 yards, no touchdowns and a 58.1 rating.

That's the game.

On third down, the Vikings "consistently" had answers for what Gregg Williams's defense threw at them. Johnson is sharp, experienced and motivated, but he brings no unique skills to the table. With Shawn Springs still recovering from surgery, everybody knows where you attack the Redskins -- at the corners in a crunch. If the safeties try to help, then the middle is open. Johnson simply exploited what Tom Brady had exposed in the Patriots' 41-0 August evisceration of the Redskins.

Yesterday, Gibbs said he was "hopeful" that Springs could play in Dallas. Springs said he doubted it. Last week, the same theater was played out regarding Clinton Portis. He ended up playing about half the game, carrying 10 times for 39 yards.

When the Redskins faced the same third-down challenges, both their strengths and weaknesses quickly appeared. It's possible that no Redskins team has ever had as much speed at the five skill positions as the current Redskins possess in Portis, Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, Brandon Lloyd and Chris Cooley. Steve Young called their quickness "unbelievable." From the moment they begin shifting, then going in motion and finally breaking on the snap, they exude potential for huge plays. The Redskins have had Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell, the Fun Bunch and the Smurfs. But they've never had more raw tools.

But can they execute crisply early in the season? Can they mesh their talents unselfishly? Is Mark Brunell, a good but not great quarterback who is now 36 and had never thrown more than 20 touchdown passes in a season until last year, the proper leader to distribute the ball among them? On Monday's third downs, Brunell was sometimes flushed from the pocket. Those passes he did complete were quite short considering the deep-strike potential of his receivers. Will that change? How soon?

At the moment, the Redskins are a team that seems destined to play plenty of close games. Since his return, Gibbs has been involved in 14 games decided by four points or less. His record is 6-8. Usually, that's a reflection on the coach. In this case, it may also be a commentary on the mediocre quality of the Redskins' game-on-the-line kicking.

If Redskins fans want to worry -- and of course they do -- they have plenty of fodder. Free agents Andre Carter and Lloyd have yet to be sighted. Hard-hitting free agent safety Adam Archuleta has been seen, but usually making a tackle after a pass has been completed in his area. Of the new bunch, Randle El already looks like the real deal.

Perhaps the most fundamental concern for those who imagine a trip to the Super Bowl is summarized in one simple question: Who are the current Redskins who will be Hall of Famers? You don't win Super Bowls without such players. Portis has the early career stats. Sean Taylor has the talent, but does he have the temperament? Names, please?

However, for those who prefer to be patient, there is plenty to anticipate. Al Saunders has built potent offenses everywhere he's been. This time, he's loaded with puzzle pieces. As long as Brunell remains healthy, it's hard to believe that fine offensive numbers won't arrive. The defense under Williams already has established itself as playoff caliber. Combine the two and by November you might have quite a combination.

But what will the record be by that time if the current level of "inconsistent" play -- which translates as consistently mediocre-to-poor performance -- continues? That's the question. Feel free to bite the last remaining fingernail.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company