A Winning Formula Is Taking Shape

Running back Clinton Portis cuts to the outside and slips by the Eagles for a six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that gave Washington a 20-9 lead. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 18, 2007


One of the many irresistible things about pro football is the stunning reversal of fortune that characterizes just about every season.

The Houston Texans are 2-0 for the first time. The Green Bay Packers, with Brett Favre having reduced his role from gunslinger to game manager, are 2-0. The Detroit Lions, who have looked no better than a Class AAA team for most of the last 10 years, are 2-0. The San Francisco 49ers, rebuilding forever, it seems, are 2-0. And the Washington Redskins, who came back with essentially the same cast that lost 11 games last season, are 2-0. Who knew?

The Redskins, after dealing the Philadelphia Eagles a serious setback Monday night, are two games better than the New Orleans Saints, who many people picked to go to the Super Bowl, a game better than the Chicago Bears who won the NFC last season, two games better than the laughably pathetic New York Giants.

There is an incredibly long way to go and the offense is hardly high-octane, but through two games the Redskins have played contentious defense, run with power and purpose, made field goals and demonstrated in two close games something that actually resembles willfulness, all characteristics of every good Joe Gibbs team over time.

No matter the Eagles' struggles, winning in Philly is impressive, and especially so because the Eagles were desperate not to start 0-2 and intent on proving that they are still Super Bowl contenders. Suddenly, it's the Eagles who are 0-2, disgruntled and wondering about their franchise quarterback, while the Redskins join the Lions and Texans as the surprise stories of this season. The craziest thing, of course, would be to look ahead, but it's difficult not to when the division's new doormat, the Giants, are coming to Washington on Sunday.

On a night when the Redskins committed three penalties on consecutive plays near the end of the first half -- delay of game, false start, false start -- and scored a touchdown nonetheless, it appeared for the first time in a couple of years that the ship might once again be on course. On a night when the home team was in urgent need of a win, the Redskins began to build an identity, a fledgling r¿sum¿ as to what we might come to expect in the coming weeks.

Yes, the Redskins have started 2-0 in recent seasons. In fact, they did it two years ago and went to the playoffs, even won a game in the postseason. What 2-0 gives a team, in most cases, is some affirmation that they are doing something right. They won't go into the Giants game feeling desperate or feeling that they need to make huge changes. The Redskins won't fret as much over the ratio of run to pass, or spend time worrying about the size of the offensive playbook or why the defense isn't playing up to form or all the other junk that comes with being 0-2.

You want fretting? That's what Philly folk will be doing, having already booed quarterback Donovan McNabb and his teammates. They'll be asking about McNabb's knee and whether it's sound, about an offense that has scored one touchdown in 23 possessions through two games, about the team's 1-6 record in the last seven McNabb starts. There will be questions, serious questions, that suggest the Eagles are hung over from quarterback Jeff Garcia's performance late last season and into the playoffs. There will be anger directed at Coach Andy Reid for letting Garcia go to Tampa Bay, where he shredded the Saints on Sunday. "It's not all Donovan," Reid said, convincing probably nobody in this town. "It's me not getting him [into the right plays] and him continuing to knock the rust off. We're off by a hair and once we get that straightened out we'll be okay."

The Redskins, meanwhile, can try to do exactly what they've done through two weeks, only better, and more consistently. "They pass-protected well and they were able to run the ball," Reid said of the Redskins, a compliment that must be a symphony to Gibbs's ears.

You don't form conclusions two weeks into any season, but you can get impressions. It's possible to see, even this early, that Gibbs is in control of the offense again and it's working.

Just as important, the real Gregg Williams defense has returned.

Gimpy McNabb or not, it must be satisfying to go on the road and hold the Eagles to four field goals -- on a Monday night, against a hated opponent facing a must-win situation. Three field goals. They got just enough of a pass rush to bother the now immobile McNabb. They covered well enough downfield to prevent the completion of any significant deep passes. The Eagles, in the person of Brian Westbrook, were able to run, but not once the action moved inside the red zone.

It figured to be just the kind of game it was, low-scoring and dull and offensively challenged. The end of the first half fiasco that found the Redskins committing three straight penalties and had Gibbs changing his mind about whether to kick a field goal or go, for it was illustrative of the Redskins' search to find themselves offensively. Who knows how much confidence Gibbs will now have in quarterback Jason Campbell in similar situations in the coming weeks, or for that matter how much confidence Campbell will have in himself and his receivers in him.

So, Campbell was a touch better, as was the offensive line, as was the defense that stuck to the Eagles' very ordinary receivers like Velcro and forced Philadelphia into 4 for 15 on third downs. A new season, so far, means new and different results for both the Eagles and the Redskins. Not many forecasts predicted this kind of role reversal. That's part of the intrigue after the first two weeks of an NFL season that is unfolding curiously.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company