A Team That Doesn't Know What It Is and Doesn't Know Where It's Going

Quarterback Mark Brunell, left, and receiver James Thrash are left to lament ways to fix an offense that, at the end of last year, maybe didn't need much fixing.
Quarterback Mark Brunell, left, and receiver James Thrash are left to lament ways to fix an offense that, at the end of last year, maybe didn't need much fixing. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Monday, November 13, 2006

PHILADELPHIA -- On New Year's Day, the plan was simple. Clinton Portis stomped the sideline here on the south side of town, imploring Joe Gibbs to embrace his vision, as if it could be anything else in the middle of a playoff surge.

"It's guts and power!" he shouted. "Do you want to win?"

And Gibbs wanted very much to win, so guts and power it was. Portis dropped his head, bulled his way through the Eagles for 112 yards and almost single-handedly carried the Redskins to the playoffs. They knew exactly what they were that day and that understanding almost took them to the NFC Championship game.

How in 11 months had they lost themselves like this? Sunday, on the same field where Portis ran, the defense held and Mark Brunell pointed to the sky, the muddled message was on display again. And no one was completely sure if it should be ferocity or finesse. The gentle touch passes and complex slants and screens of the Greatest Show on Turf had long given way to a more smash-mouth form of football. But it was a smash-mouth that still fell significantly short of "guts and power." And that has always been the problem this season. They've never known exactly what they are.

They talked later about how they were going to run the ball through the rainy afternoon, softening a rigid Philadelphia defense into a mushy core that could collapse under a barrage of second-half passes. Like most game plans this season, it didn't work. The Redskins gave a half-hearted attempt at running the ball until Portis went down with a broken right hand. Then they tried to throw, but by then the chance to establish anything meaningful had been lost and the day squished on in the manner of these Sundays before it, with a scramble of passes and runs trying to get back into the game.

"Everyone asks the same questions every week," receiver Santana Moss said as he walked out of the locker room, then shrugged.

Brunell, the besieged quarterback, shook his head as he left his postgame interview mumbling something about being tired of "these questions" to a team employee.

Somehow you would have thought they'd have corrected this by now. The 700-page playbook, the volume of so much derision early in the season, has been committed to memory. Sunday, receiver Brandon Lloyd said the players understand the entire offense, they know where they are supposed to be, what they're supposed to do, what each player can do. But something fails between the meetings and the games.

"We have execution problems," he said. "We just don't execute."

Precision can be tough when you never seem to know exactly what you are. Portis's injuries this year may have disrupted some of the timing, removing a key piece of the offense from practices. Al Saunders, the associate head coach-offense, lamented about this a little last Sunday night. But the direction has seemed unclear even when Portis has been healthy. Some weeks, the Redskins want to pound it up the middle. Some weeks, they want to throw. Maybe it wouldn't matter if there weren't so many moments like the one early in last week's game with Dallas as the Redskins repeatedly tried to push the ball over the goal line from inside the 15 and instead came up with nothing.

On New Years Day, there was no question. Brunell only completed nine passes that day. The Redskins were going to run their way to the playoffs.

This time, with the playoffs increasingly a pipe dream, it is only a matter of time before Brunell is done. Perhaps this experiment of him as Kurt Warner was a farce; he was always more the quarterback who protected games rather than trying to win them with his passes. Sunday, as he kept missing open receivers and had a screen to Moss picked off and returned 70 yards for a touchdown by Philadelphia's Sheldon Brown, you could see his Redskins future dripping away with the rain. By game's end, Todd Collins was warming up, ready to come in had Washington gotten the ball.

Gibbs refused to discuss the quarterback situation, but it's obvious a decision has to come soon, whether it's next week in Tampa or next month in New Orleans. And yet, even with the reality of his future staring him in the face, Brunell defended the system that has come to be his downfall, saying, "We know what we want to do, we just need to be better."

Then he bit his lip and smiled what appeared to be a very forced smile.

"It will come," he promised. "It's a good system."

Time has ticked away, however. In management and ownership's hunger to have Gibbs deliver greatness before he pulls the plug on his second run with the Redskins, they reached too far. They took an efficient offense that needed a slight remodel and brought in an offensive wizard who speaks excitedly in team meetings of building a house from the ground up. It took an afternoon in the rain, in the site of perhaps their greatest triumph of last season to see just how far they had strayed from what made them good. Now too much of the season is gone to properly fix it.

Back on New Year's Day, in the same interview room, Gibbs raved about Brunell. He said his quarterback kept "fighting and surviving." Sunday, in the offense that never seems to know if it wants to run or pass, that wasn't enough anymore. That game here 11 months ago was supposed to be the start of something big for Brunell -- a year that could take him to the Super Bowl that had always eluded him.

Instead, he will be the most visible victim of the team that could not find itself again.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company