By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 2, 2006
Slap yourself in the face. Yes, that's the same Washington Redskins offense. Two weeks ago, as soon as summer turned to fall, they somehow transformed, in a blink, from a bunch that could barely score to one that has, in two weeks, gained almost 1,000 yards. Now, a team that was deeply worried two weeks ago suddenly has the full attention of the NFL after a fireworks-filled explosion that shredded the proud defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars, 36-30, in overtime yesterday at FedEx Field.
The same talent-drenched offense that stumbled in preseason, then flopped against Minnesota and Dallas in two defeats, has announced itself with a thunderclap. Last week, quarterback Mark Brunell set an NFL record by completing his first 22 passes. This week, against a vastly better team, Brunell threw three touchdown passes to Santana Moss, including the 68-yard game-winner on the third play of overtime, while guiding an offense that amassed 481 yards, including 112 yards rushing by Clinton Portis. In a fortnight, the Redskins' offense has gone from being the league's fizzle to its buzz.
A football season can have several hinges, junctures where a team's fortunes swing dramatically with implications far beyond that one game. This was almost certainly just such a game. In one evening, with a narrow victory at sundown before 89,450 fans, the Redskins proved that the new offense orchestrated by Al Saunders and a rmed with every addition of talent that ownership could acquire was capable of embarrassing a fine defense in a desperately needed victory.
Before this season, the Redskins and their fans dreamed of what an offense with so many weapons might produce. However, learning a 700-page playbook takes time. Who knew how long that process might take and what the team's record might be before the handoff of the team's offense from Joe Gibbs to Saunders was complete? Would a season of potential Super Bowl contention be squandered as the team mastered the new attack in frustrating fits and starts?
Or would the transition be relatively brief? No final answer has arrived. But the burden of proof is shifting markedly in favor of the new methods and men. Ladell Betts joined Portis in a running attack that gained 152 yards while tight end Chris Cooley had four catches for 70 yards. New addition Brandon Lloyd grabbed three balls for 49 yards and Antwaan Randle El, who hasn't erupted yet, still contributed 40 all-purpose yards.
Every bit of that attack was needed as former H.D. Woodson star Byron Leftwich returned home brilliantly. The Jaguars' quarterback completed 21 of 35 passes for 289 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Trailing 27-17, he brought the Jags back to 27-27 in barely six minutes. Then, when the Redskins regained the lead 30-27 with only 1 minute 55 seconds remaining, Leftwich drove Jacksonville 43 yards to set up a game-tying field goal in the final seconds of regulation.
"I told our players that I've never been in a game that meant more to me. This game is going to have a lot to say about this year because [Jacksonville] is a really good football team," Gibbs said after watching his team blow both a 10-point and a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. "I'm proud of our team. To get off to the [bad] start, the way we did, then come back and play a game like this -- they are a unique bunch of guys."
The most unique of the bunch on this day was Moss, who gained nearly 1,500 yards last season but has seldom had a pass thrown his way this season. "If there has ever been better playmaker in the NFL, I don't know who it is," Gibbs said after Moss caught touchdown passes of 55, 8 and 68 yards from Brunell, who completed 18 of 30 passes for 329 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception -- on his first pass of the day.
The final play of the game perfectly illustrated how small the margin can be between sudden victory and disaster in the NFL. The Redskins ran a play with "four verticals," meaning a four-deep pass pattern, the exactly opposite of their ultra-conservative short-passing game that beat Houston last week. Moss got beyond cornerback Brian Williams, but still had bruising safety Deon Grant in the corner of his eye, a well-known hit man who was closing ground fast.
"No receiver likes a knockout. I peeked at him," Moss said of Grant. " 'Uh-oh,' I decided to attack the ball because I know he's going to attack me. That way I have less of a chance of getting my behind killed. He missed [me], thank God. After I caught the ball, it was just a blur.'"
Grant didn't miss by much. If Brunell's pass had been lazy, anything but a bullet up the left sideline, it might have been Grant with an interception, streaking the opposite direction, perhaps leading to an entirely different result. However, the Brunell who took the field last evening was well-armed indeed. "Mark took a couple of days off from practice this week [with a cut elbow]," said Moss. "Guys asked me, 'How did he throw on Friday?' I said, 'He's sick. He's throwing the whole house at you. I can barely hold onto the ball. Hey, maybe we ought to keep resting him.' "
"Maybe I can talk coach into doing that every week," Brunell joked. Or was he joking?
A healthy Brunell with a fresh arm, plus his wealth of experience, most of it gained as the Jags' star quarterback, opens a world of Redskins possibilities. "Running the ball [with Portis] has made a difference for us. That's where it all starts,' said Brunell, who prospers far better when his excellent play-fakes freeze a defense that has brought its safeties or linebackers closer to the line to stop the running game. "Things are coming together for us. It's pretty exciting to be a Redskin today. [Learning the offense] has taken some time. And we still have a ways to go."
Just as doubt feeds doubt, as it did for the Redskins throughout the exhibition season and those two early losses, confidence also breeds confidence. Early in the game, Moss says he told Brunell: "Just throw the ball up. I'm not saying I'm going to come down with all of them, but just give me a chance."
"We had something on our chest because we haven't been playing well," Moss said. "And there was a little chalk talk from one of their linebackers. They said they wouldn't give up 100 yards running. . . . Coming in our place? That's tough to say."
So, the Redskins' linemen, as well as Portis and Betts, decided to defend their turf, first establishing their outside runs, avoiding the Jags' stellar tackles, then pounding more up the middle after the big men had spent a long day chasing.
"This will build confidence for us and show us what we can do as an offense," said Cooley, who has cut his long hair, perhaps as a signal that the Redskins need to get more successful on the field before they are too flashy off it. "By overtime, their defensive backs were tired. I don't think they thought they could cover us."
All this happy talk about the Redskins' offense may make some fans cheerful. But next week the Giants' offense, led by Eli Manning, must be confronted in New York. If the Jags, with far less artillery than the Giants, can score 30 points and make comebacks almost at will in the fourth quarter against a Washington defense that still misses cornerback Shawn Springs, what awaits Washington in the Meadowlands?
Before this season began, the Redskins' defense was supposed to hold the fort until the new offense learned its tricks. Now, the reverse may be true. If so, the Saunders cavalry arrived just in time. "We didn't want to be behind the eight ball at 1-3," said Portis, whose continued health after a preseason shoulder injury may be the team's biggest factor.
"Santana pulled us out. He's one of the best cross-eyed receivers I've ever seen," said Portis, teasing another former University of Miami player. "The defensive back looks in his eyes and can't tell what he's going to do or where the ball is going."
At least, the Redskins finally have their eyes fixed on the prize. And not a game too soon.