Veering Off Track After a Running Start

By Les Carpenter
Monday, December 4, 2006

They had packed away their screens, their slants, their double reverses, closing forever the box of toys Al Saunders brought with him to Washington. It was time for adult football now, with helmets down, shoulders out and pads smacking hard. For a time it worked just as it had in the old days, with the Redskins rumbling down the field, the ball tucked safely in the arms of Ladell Betts.

Then on a day they were in control of a football game, with the Atlanta Falcons broken and all but defeated, they let Saunders -- their offensive mastermind -- open the box. And out burst the jumping jacks, the Slinky and the pogo sticks set to bounce extra high.

A long pass to Santana Moss that went out of bounds.

A reverse to Antwaan Randle El for minus-two yards that looked straight out of the September, October and November playbooks when it didn't work, either.

A pass to Randle El that dropped at his feet.

And then the air began to drain from an afternoon overinflated with misguided hope.

It was the start of the second quarter, the Redskins led 14-0. In fact they not only led the game, they were dominating the game, pounding Betts through the left side of the line, knocking Atlanta's John Abraham and Grady Jackson into the sandy grass and stomping on their backs as they thundered past. The defense had just stopped Michael Vick on a fourth down near midfield. Momentum was theirs. So it seemed a curious move to go back to the chest of forgotten toys.

"We stopped being physical," running back Rock Cartwright blurted out in the middle of the locker room when the question was posed to his teammate Mike Sellers.

At that moment any attention given to Sellers was turned to Cartwright, who stood by his locker and shook his head with amazement. "Ladell is in a groove, he's running great. Why do you do that?" Cartwright said.

It would take a few moments before Cartwright realized he had asked the question that lingered in the eaves of FedEx Field even after most of the 86,436 had stomped out of their seats and up the aisles in disgust. His answers became more restrained, more rehearsed in the way a player usually is after a game.

But the question had already been asked far higher up the ladder of power.

"Throughout the game we lost our momentum and quit making plays, which is what it really amounts to," Coach Joe Gibbs said in his news conference. "We have stuff that we believe in. When we stick with it I think we can win football games."

Later, while saying he didn't remember the series in question, he added: "We set our goals for the game and when we started out we were operating as we've operated all year. Then we just couldn't sustain our momentum. We had a game plan set but we just couldn't stick with it."

It seemed the Redskins had already settled the war they were fighting within themselves last week. Realizing the gimmicks weren't working, Gibbs talked about going back to the old way, the one he knew, which meant grinding the ball downfield. Then he went out and did it. The offense in the victory over Carolina last week was much like the offense of last season, of most of Gibbs's seasons. The inspiration it appeared to give a defense that begged a slower pace was enough to think that maybe, just possibly Washington could make another improbable playoff run.

It was a notion that lingered through the first quarter yesterday as the Redskins built their 14-0 lead, a notion that floated giddily in the stadium until the lid popped on the toy bin. After that the Redskins never reclaimed their omnipotence. They wouldn't lose the lead until early in the third quarter. But something was lost that one series and they never found it again.

After the game Saunders said he saw an opportunity to score another touchdown and put the game away for good. He said the last time he game-planned for the Falcons (just two years ago when he was with Kansas City) the Chiefs rushed for 271 yards and an NFL-record eight touchdowns in a game they won, 56-10. This Atlanta defense was pretty much the same as that one, he said, and he planned accordingly.

But those Chiefs were so different than these Redskins. They were built to play Saunders's complex, all-out offense. Washington never was.

In a way, the failure here is not his fault. He is an excellent offensive coordinator, a man whose enthusiasm in meetings has invigorated his players at times. His system has proven to work in St. Louis, where it won a Super Bowl, and Kansas City, where it took the Chiefs to the playoffs. When his best-laid plans have failed to work he is nonetheless always patient and available to the media after games, standing as he did yesterday, leaning against a wall and explaining his rationale.

Yet none of this makes him a good fit for Washington, not with a team that was built on defense and a power running game. If he stays, they will have to find a way to mix his imagination with Gibbs's more methodical approach. That may be a tough balance to strike. So far they don't seem to have struck it well.

Yesterday the Redskins had an excellent chance of winning if they had only remained committed to bulling forward through the line, rather than prancing around the perimeter and lobbing passes downfield. They are not a team that darts and dances and probably never will be as long as Gibbs remains the coach.

They proved that against the Falcons, first in the way they owned the game when they ran, and the way they came to pieces when they stopped being physical.

In a defense of his offensive coordinator, Sellers said: "Gadget plays don't work all the time. When they do, everyone praises them and when they don't people complain about them."

And while there is truth that had Randle El run for a touchdown on the reverse there would have great shouts of joy and confetti flying through the FedEx stands. But the euphoria would have been short-lived.

Because it's not who they are.

And that's why the toys have to stay in the chest.

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