By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Two weeks into the season, the Washington Redskins' offense has a familiar look. It appears much the same as it did early in the 2004 season -- Coach Joe Gibbs's first after a lengthy retirement -- and that year it finished third worst in the NFL. The offense has scored just one touchdown, sustained only six drives longer than five plays, managed one pass over 25 yards and failed to integrate the new talent acquired in the offseason. It is putting immediate pressure on the coaches and players.
"We've got guys there we think can make great contributions to the team," Gibbs said yesterday after reviewing tape of the Redskins' 27-10 loss Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys. "Right now, we haven't been able to get them the ball. Certainly, if we continue with that we're going to be in deep trouble."
Although the team overhauled the offense this offseason and stockpiled speed at wide receiver, it has not gotten the ball downfield. It has displayed an inability to run or pass sufficiently, with quarterback Mark Brunell struggling behind a porous line and new offensive mastermind Al Saunders unable to produce anything close to his dynamic offenses of the past.
The Redskins have averaged 56 offensive plays per game -- second worst in the conference -- while the coaches aim for 70, with third-down failures resulting in short drives. Reversing that quickly is imperative for a group still adapting to new personnel and a new playbook.
Gibbs said criticism for conducting too soft a training camp and not implementing enough of the offense in preseason games is not unfounded with his team winless in six games, including preseason, heading into Sunday's contest in Houston.
"Will I approach the preseason next year the same way I did this year?" Gibbs said. "No, probably not."
Precious little has worked for Gibbs. He hired Saunders to invigorate the attack, bringing a system that produced fireworks in San Diego, St. Louis and Kansas City. Teaming speedsters Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El -- significant offseason additions -- with wide receiver Santana Moss, star running back Clinton Portis (still nursing a shoulder injury) and tight end Chris Cooley was expected to make the Redskins' offense among the most feared in football, but it has not come close to connecting on a deep ball yet.
"When those [deep plays] are dialed up, we need to execute them and there's been a number of reasons why we haven't been," Brunell said. "But we're not going to stay away from them. We believe in this system. We believe in the philosophy behind it."
Brunell, who threw a weak interception at the 1-yard line on what could have been a game-tying drive in the third quarter Sunday, is bearing the brunt of the criticism. He has a 32.6 quarterback rating on third downs (9 of 22 for 81 yards with an interception), 29th in the NFL, was 7 for 18 through three quarters Sunday with the game still in the balance and has a 67.7 passer rating on the season. And his age -- he turned 36 Sunday -- already is an issue.
Gibbs said he never considered pulling Brunell on Sunday, and would not entertain it unless Brunell were injured. A shoddy performance by the offensive line often left Brunell with little time to operate, players said, and he was sacked six times. "We've got to be better than that," tackle Jon Jansen said. Brunell's inconsistency mirrors that of the entire offense, Gibbs said, adding that he also has made some "very good plays" and can still make every throw necessary to run this offense.
"Mark drives this engine," center Casey Rabach said. "Mark's still got a lot in him, put it that way. Everybody has 100 percent confidence in Mark's abilities to get this thing on the right track."
The entire offense must adapt to the deep zone coverage that has stifled Washington. Dallas and Minnesota played a cover-2 defense against the Redskins, dropping safeties back to double team the Redskins' downfield threats. That should open up space at the line of scrimmage for the running game, but the Cowboys and Vikings were able to control the line of scrimmage with six- and seven-man fronts, and Saunders has called just 45 rushing plays to 61 passes (opposing teams have rushed 65 times).
"I think the way to solve [cover-2] is to run it," said Brunell, whose backups have no combined NFL starts since 1997. "You've got to run the ball. They don't have a safety in the box, so we've got to run the football and make them bring that guy up."
"It's frustrating, I can't lie about that," Lloyd said of the struggles against cover-2. "But being mad about it is not going to solve anything. It's kind of like you go back to the drawing board and hopefully the coaches upstairs have something planned for it. Hopefully, they have something to combat it."
Backup tailback Ladell Betts leads the team with 10 receptions. Lloyd has just one catch for six yards. Randle El has seven catches for 42. Cooley has three for 20 yards.
Last season the Redskins righted themselves after a 5-6 start and reached the playoffs by pounding the ball on the ground. Having Portis suffering from shoulder injuries has been a factor, but the mentality of the team should not change, Portis said.
"That's going to always be the identity of this team. It just so happens we haven't got in a rhythm these two weeks. It's a lot of three and outs," Portis said. "Not converting third down, that's really killing the attitude of the team when you don't go out and convert on third down."
The Redskins are just 6 for 27 on third downs (22 percent), third worst in the NFL. That is stopping drives, sapping momentum and stalling a running game that is averaging 4.4 yards per carry in limited opportunities.
"We've been terrible on third down," Jansen said, "and really that's the key to the game."