By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 27, 2006
When Washington players say that they have to get back to "playing Redskin football," what they really mean, of course, is that they have to return to playing Joe Gibbs-style football, circa 1981-92. With a nod to George Allen, there really is no other brand of football that's been played for any extended period of time in Washington that is worth remembering.
That's why it's so odd that, since his return, Gibbs sometimes seems to have strayed from his better football nature. His theories, after all, are among the simplest in the game. Get players who are smart and tough. Other qualities, even raw talent, can be finessed, to a degree. Then run the ball powerfully on offense -- like the Riggo drill with the Hogs -- and stop the run on defense. Every tactic flows from that premise. Control both lines of scrimmage and all the fancy frills will work, too.
Yet, except for a bludgeoning six-game winning streak late last season when the Redskins ran the ball more than 60 percent of the time and stuffed the run on defense, there has been little "Redskin football" since Gibbs returned. Except for last December and January, when memories were briefly but thrillingly revived, the Redskins have often played as if they had no sense of who Gibbs is, why he's in the Hall of Fame or who he wants them to be. Maybe the mild manners and constant talk of "character" by the coach, who turned 66 on Saturday, deceives his modern players. Maybe that is why Gibbs raised his voice last week at practice and cussed a few times. Did his players actually get the message? It's the NFL: smash somebody in the mouth.
"We need to get back to what we think we are. We need to get back to a formula that we know works. Sometimes you wander off or lose your way," Gibbs said after beating Carolina, 17-13, for his team's first solid, well-deserved victory in eight long, lost-in-the-wilderness weeks. "Trying to stop the run and running the ball well ourselves -- that was important.
"We really needed this. It is a real morale booster. After everything we've been through, today was our style of football. It was good to get back to that," Gibbs said after his team outrushed one of the NFC's more physical teams, 143 yards to 101. "It's still a tough road here. But we played a heck of a game against a real good football team."
Make that a pretty good game against a pretty good team. But this win, built on 104 yards rushing by Ladell Betts and a defense that allowed only 264 yards and one touchdown, was at least a potential start back toward respectability.
With two more home games on tap against Atlanta and Philadelphia -- both teams of Panther-like middle-of-the-road ability -- Washington still has a remote chance to make this season interesting in a weak year for the NFC. Oh, if only one of those home defeats to the Titans or Vikings could be reversed. At 5-6, rather than 4-7, a team could fantasize. But such sins can't be erased. As defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin realistically put it: "We need to build momentum for next year. Nobody knows why you go through seasons like this. But if we can all hang together, we'll be stronger because of it."
The crucial play was a brilliant 66-yard touchdown pass from Jason Campbell to Chris Cooley on third and eight with 4 minutes 37 seconds to play. "That was the play of the game," conceded Carolina Coach John Fox.
Campbell's rifle pass across the middle led Cooley perfectly on his crossing pattern, allowing him to catch the ball in full sprint. Otherwise the tight end would not have had the momentum to step out of the grasp of a diving tackle by Chris Gamble, then rudely brush off safety Mike Minter before sprinting the last 40 yards up the left sideline for the score.
"I didn't know Cooley was that fast," Campbell joked. Actually, both Campbell and Cooley redeemed themselves. Cooley dropped a long pass in the third quarter, forcing a Washington punt. And, midway through the fourth quarter, Campbell was overeager on a first-down pass and underthrew Santana Moss, heaving the ball into double coverage for his only interception.
"Both guys bounced back from tough plays before," said Gibbs. However, if the long bomb was the killing blow of the day, then the stage had been set by all of the Redskins' successful work in the trenches, on both sides of the ball.
"We stuck with the run all day. We tried to control the line of scrimmage. Keep leaning on 'em, smackin' 'em and some of those two-yard gains start turning into 10-yard gains," said Betts, who carried 24 times. "That's a nice defense line they've got. Everybody did a good job on some tough guys -- Jon Jansen on Julius Peppers, Chris Samuels on Mike Rucker. I think they got sick of seeing Mike Sellers as my lead blocker."
For once, the Redskins' defense, the team's most disastrous weakness all season, lived by fundamental virtues, too.
"They played inspired defense," Fox said.
"We've taken so much heat from everybody, we just wanted to hit people in the mouth," said Phillip Daniels, part of the much maligned line. After being trampled by Carnell "Cadillac" Williams last week in Tampa, the defensive front held DeAngelo Williams to 63 yards.
The Redskins' defensive secondary -- almost as vulnerable in the past -- also made progress. Vernon Fox, picked up off the street in August, proved that a Washington safety can play an entire game without letting a receiver get behind him. Amazing things happen when the play develops in front of you. You can see what's happening and react -- even intercept a pass, as Fox did.
Cornerback Shawn Springs, his abdominal injury finally fully healed, waged a brilliant all-day battle with Steve Smith. The Panthers' wide receiver put Carolina ahead 13-10 with 7:55 to play with one of the best leaping, corner-of-the-end-zone catch-and-tap-in receptions of any season for an eight-yard score. But, in all in all, Springs won, holding Smith to 34 receiving yards -- nearly 70 below his per-game average this season.
Unfortunately, the curse on poor Adam Archuleta continued. The highest-paid safety in NFL history, now relegated to special teams, was the "personal protector" for punter Derrick Frost with 21 seconds left in the half. He didn't protect him. Adam Seward caught a piece of Frost's kick, which went just two yards, and Carolina kicked a 51-yard field goal on the last play of the half.
If the Redskins had squandered just one less game earlier in the season, they might still be on the edges of the playoffs. But if that were the case, they probably wouldn't be playing Campbell at quarterback. So perhaps the tradeoff is worth the pain.
"Right now is a time of adversity for all of us. No one thought we would be sitting at 4-7 before the season started," Campbell said. "We have to stick together with all the negative talk outside."
When Gibbs returned, many thought he could quickly transform this franchise. After all, at this point in Gibbs I, the Redskins had won a Super Bowl and then, in his third year, were headed to a 14-2 season with 541 points scored. This time: 21-24, including two playoff games. But if the team in burgundy-and-gold can actually remember what the phrase "Redskin football" means and if the poised and promising Campbell can continue to make progress, then gratification may eventually arrive.
One solid game after nearly two months of embarrassment does not constitute a trend. But a couple more performances like this one at FedEx Field might start to change the tone of the Redskins' present and their prospects for the future.