Throwing Downfield Is Redskin Offense's Antidote

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Joe Bugel lets each syllable dangle in the air a few seconds, exaggerating his pronunciation of the word "vertical" as if the elongation might somehow help the Washington Redskins finally stretch opposing defenses, too. Bugel, the Redskins' assistant head coach-offense, is pondering the team's three-year offensive rut -- the lack of big plays and touchdowns.

"Let me just say this -- you've got to throw the ball down the field. That's the bottom line," Bugel said. "Say no more. Get vertical. Ver-ti-cal."

Joe Gibbs ended his retirement and reassembled a staff of longtime assistants intent on reprising the glory years when his Redskins bludgeoned opponents on the ground, and finished them off with aerial artistry. The combination was successful from 1981 to '92, during which Gibbs won three Super Bowls. Fans knew what to expect from Washington's offense, and it delivered with rare exceptions.

Yet, as Gibbs's fourth season back approaches, the Redskins are still seeking offensive stability, rediscovering running success but lacking a sustained downfield presence. There have been built-in excuses -- whether Gibbs's staff adjusting to a very different NFL in 2004, or the players adapting to associate head coach Al Saunders's new offense in 2006 -- and flashes of brilliance. But players and coaches agree that an erratic deep game has much to do with a tepid scoring offense, 5-11 record last season, and 21-27 mark since Gibbs returned.

"You've got to score points in this league," Bugel said. "Our whole philosophy over the years has always been to crush them in the running game and throw the ball downfield, you know what I mean? We need to score. . . . We want to score a lot of points. That's the bottom line. And that's been Joe's philosophy for however many years he's been the head football coach. And it'll sink in. Believe it, it'll sink in."

Gibbs's goal every Sunday is for the offense to produce at least 21 points. But the Redskins rarely accomplish that. Washington has surpassed 21 points just 15 times in 48 games (four of those came during the five-game winning streak to end the 2005 season), with the Redskins 10-5 in those games (11-22 otherwise). During Gibbs's first three seasons of his first tenure, the Redskins surpassed 21 points on 27 occasions -- despite playing a strike-shortened nine-game season in 1982 -- and were 25-2 in those games.

Defenses have changed dramatically since then, with fire-zone blitzing and deep-zone defenses the norm, and defensive players are bigger, stronger and faster. But over the past three seasons only five teams have topped 21 points less often than the Redskins -- Cleveland (10 times), Oakland (11), Detroit (11), Houston (12) and Tampa Bay (14). Of that group, all but Tampa Bay have been last-place doormats since Gibbs has returned. The average NFL team topped 21 points 21 times in that span.

"The teams that are winning games are scoring points, and the teams that aren't, aren't winning," said Mark Brunell, the backup quarterback now but the starter for much of the past three seasons. "It goes hand in hand, and we've got to score points to win in this game. You would think you need more than 21 points, but on average that's usually about it, and that's just three touchdowns a game -- not even one per quarter.

"It's tough to score and we're facing some very good defenses and there's lots of factors involved -- field position and having a strong defense -- but at the top of the list its having a solid offense that is very capable in all capacities."

Specifically, the deep component must improve. Critics harped on Brunell's poor arm strength and unwillingness to make difficult throws over the middle or in traffic. With Jason Campbell now at quarterback, there will be no worries about the ability to throw strikes 50 yards downfield, but Campbell must develop timing with his receivers and learn when to gamble deep and when to seek alternatives closer to the line of scrimmage.

The Redskins finished tied for 17th in the league last season with just 39 passes of 20 yards or longer, their highest ranking in that category the last three seasons. In 2004 Washington was last with just 27 completions of that distance. Since Gibbs came back, the Redskins have connected on 106 such passes; only four teams have fared worse in that span (Houston, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Baltimore). Of the Redskins' NFC East foes, Philadelphia produced 170 passes of that length, Dallas amassed 146 and New York hit on 112 passes of 20 yards or more.

"Jason Campbell is capable -- he can throw the football down the field," Saunders said. "It's something he's shown in the past in other experiences in college and he's done a very good job of that. He's a very accurate passer downfield, and that's a part of his game that I think we'll incorporate and benefit from.

"And we've got some speed on the perimeter and with his familiarity with what we're doing now and the timing with the receivers -- the passing game is a timing game and Jason last year didn't have the luxury of having a lot of opportunities to work with Santana [Moss] and work with Brandon [Lloyd] and work with Antwaan [Randle El] and Chris Cooley."

Moss and Cooley have shown a proclivity for making the big play and getting in the end zone, but other receivers will have to emerge. Lloyd did not have a touchdown in 15 games last season, and has just one score over his past 21 games. Randle El had three touchdowns last season and has five in his last 45 games.

"One thing I've learned about the vertical passing game," Moss said, "is if you just let it come, it's going to be there. I feel like when you attack, attack, attack, attack, it eventually opens up because teams are either going to play you deep or play you short. And with the running backs we have and with the receivers we have, the vertical game is going to be there. It's just a matter of timing it and calling it when it's needed."

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