By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 16, 2006
The Washington Redskins have a choice. They can go back to the smash-mouth, run-first identity they had last season in their 5-0 dash to the playoffs and hope for the best. Or they can keep playing as they are now, utterly without a coherent sense of who they are, and continue to look as hopeless as they did in a befuddling 25-22 defeat to the previous winless Titans yesterday.
If the Redskins have any doubts about the causes of their 2-4 misery, with the prospect of an all-but-dead season if they lose next week to the Colts in Indianapolis, all they had to do was look across the field at the far less talented Titans. Tennessee had only one thing going for it, but that was enough. The Titans knew who they were. They ran the ball 41 times for 194 yards at an injured Washington defensive line. Rookie quarterback Vince Young was decent, completing 13 of 25 passes for 161 yards, but he served strictly as counterpoint to 178 yards of rugged cutback rushing by Travis Henry.
Turn the calendar back 10 months. What the Titans did to the Redskins was exactly what the Redskins did to six straight foes last winter, including a playoff victory: own the clock, keep the defense off the field and establish primitive domination.
After what Coach Joe Gibbs called "a huge bitter disappointment" before a stunned and booing crowd of 88,550 at FedEx Field, the Redskins must do the most serious sort of NFL soul searching about the very nature of the team they send onto the field. Since Gibbs returned to the franchise, his regular season results have been quite poor -- 13-20 -- except for that five-game exceptional burst of old-school Riggo-drill Hog-'em-up football that began last December. Then, as the Redskins beat the Rams, Cardinals, Cowboys, Giants and Eagles by a combined score of 142-69, the Redskins abandoned any pretense of subtlety. Their two primary running backs carried the ball 174 times while Washington quarterbacks threw only 112 passes. That isn't balance. It's intimidation, time of possession and emphasis on minimal mistakes.
When the team talked about playing "Redskin football," nobody doubted what the cliche meant. Images of John Riggins and the Hogs flashed to mind, as well as deep play-action passes set up by constant ground-game pounding. The team loved it. Every offensive line loves to attack because they outweigh any defensive front, which requires quicker players. And the Redskins' defense adored the ball-control pattern that kept them rested on the sideline, ready to blitz. Yesterday, Clinton Portis and Mike Sellers carried 17 times for 73 yards. That would be fine production -- if it represented only the first half. Unfortunately, that was the Redskins' entire running game. Last season, in its 5-0 run, the Redskins averaged twice as many attempts and yards as they did against Tennessee -- 35 rushes for 161 yards by the two main backs.
At the moment, the Redskins are a mess, a team caught between two styles. Do the Redskins keep beating their heads against the wall as they try to put together all the gaudy pieces of Al Saunders's offensive dream machine? It's going to take a while. Seven hundred pages is one heck of an assembly manual. "As soon as we start establishing something, then we go and do some tricky-dicky stuff," said one veteran. That flimflam has always been part of the highly successful Saunders plan. One Santana Moss reverse gained 35 yards. However, three times the Redskins began possessions with trick plays that made the Redskins seem like an unpolished and scatter-dash outfit.
If the Redskins' defense, which is currently afraid to blitz but can't cover anybody, had played slightly better against the Vikings and Titans, Washington might be 4-2 and there'd be time to master the Saunders offense. But, as this season quickly slips into the rear-view mirror, the Redskins may not have that luxury. If you aren't remotely competitive against the Giants in the Meadowlands, then can't win at home against a young mistake-prone Titans team, then what are you going to do when the schedule gets hard? This was supposed to be the easiest win of the year. "I'm not going to be calling the plays myself," Gibbs said in answer to a question about whether he might resume his former duties at some point.
However, even if Gibbs doesn't call specific plays, he is completely responsible for the overall philosophy of the whole team. Right now, he's let Joe Gibbs football get hijacked while he's still the captain on watch. Over time, it's fine to get enough "touches" for skill players on the flanks. But with a true star in Portis, as well as a proven Ladell Betts, 277-pound menace Sellers, Rock Cartwright (who had a 118-yard game last year) and 254-pound bench-warming T.J. Duckett, the Redskins may be the most prepared team in the NFL to run the ball up the sinus cavities of its opponents. Who has five such punishing runners? "It's like this team was constructed to beat a team like Indianapolis," said one Redskin, "if we'll run the ball." But will they?
"It's all of us together -- special teams, defense, offense -- that are at fault," Gibbs said. "When you have things that are 'off' all the way across the board, that has to start with me."
Things may not be "off" as much as Gibbs fears. His team's effort is still high even if 10 weeks of results have been abysmal. Internal frictions still stay under wraps. "We handle everything behind closed doors," said a veteran. "We don't let anybody see anything." And Gibbs's reputation is still above reproach with his players. "Coach Gibbs is a great coach, a phenomenal coach. God forbid he doesn't do this [coaching] anymore," Sellers said. "We need to play with more heart."
Some teams need to hit bottom before they can rebound. If that's the case, the Redskins should be informed that they stank. The Titans didn't just block a punt for a safety, the Redskins allowed the man over center to come entirely free and smother the kick untouched. Hello, in football blocking assignments are counted from the inside out, starting from the center. Is it too much to ask that man "No. 1" be blocked?
"For our fans to boo, I haven't ever heard that in five years here," defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn said. "They feel we're not playing up to our standards. And I feel that way, too."
Eventually, if the Redskins continue to play as poorly as they have in nine of the last 10 weeks, including the ugly exhibition season, it will be logical to conclude that those standards should be lowered. It's possible they just are not very good. Football is still defined along the lines of scrimmage and except for their effort against the formidable Jacksonville lines, the Redskins' big men have been handled by almost everybody.
In all likelihood, funeral services will be held for the '06 Redskin season next week in Indianapolis. In lieu of flowers, send defensive linemen. At 2-5, with eight of the last nine games against teams with .500-or-better records, the Redskins might still talk the talk, but who'd listen? It's time for the Redskins to make a decision. Who are they?
Last winter they knew. And they were pretty good. Now they don't. And they're lousy. The choice should be obvious.