By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007
In times of crisis, with their running game stalled, Coach Joe Gibbs and his old-school staff have often trumpeted a bare-knuckle philosophy. Long nights for the coaches in the film and meeting rooms, and more brute force from the offense during practices and games, are the keys to a more productive rushing attack. Hard work could conquer all.
And so it is again this season, with the Washington Redskins' running game in neutral and the offense ranked 28th in the NFL, that Gibbs and his assistants are calling for a return to physical football. The situation is not entirely unlike those Gibbs has faced in each of the three seasons since he ended his retirement. Only now, after the worst loss of his career last Sunday in New England, the situation may be more dire.
Tailback Clinton Portis is mired in a season-and-a-half-long funk, hardly resembling the explosive threat who produced 1,516 yards in 2005, while his accomplished understudy, Ladell Betts, languishes on the bench. Two of the line's most trusted blockers -- tackle Jon Jansen and guard Randy Thomas-- are injured and the substitutes have not stepped up.
"Generally, over a period of time, really hard work in the run game should pay off," Gibbs said. "It should pick up your average per rush, and that's what we need to do if we want to be effective and keep people off" quarterback Jason Campbell.
Gibbs has altered the intensity of practice since Sunday's loss. He has spent more time engaged in physical "live" run-blocking and blitz protection drills, and the message delivered again to the players this week resonates like so many since 2004, although the results have been mixed at best. The Redskins remain one of the NFL's predominant teams in rushing attempts, while the league becomes increasingly dominated by spread offenses and dynamic passing attacks.
"It's just toughness," assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel said of what ails the running game. "It's just physical brutality. So we just keep on pounding and pounding and pounding, and Joe Gibbs's theory is just work harder and kick their butts. Kick our butts and kick their butts."
In 2004, his first season back, Gibbs implored the team to finish strong and carry momentum into the following year, and it went 3-5 in the final two months. With the team facing postseason elimination in November 2005, there came a harmonious coupling of words and deed, as Washington rode a relentless rushing approach to five straight wins and a playoff berth. A year ago around Thanksgiving, there was talk of returning to that brand of "Redskins football," with a greater emphasis on toughness; they changed quarterbacks as well and went 2-6 in the second half.
The Redskins are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry this season -- only four teams are worse -- below even the awful rate in 2004. They have rushed for just three yards per carry over the past three games. The 47 rushing yards against the Patriots was their second-lowest total since Gibbs came back. Washington and Chicago are the only teams that do not have at least one carry of 20 yards or longer by a running back.
"We've got to stay after it and eventually it's got to break," Portis said. "It can't get no worse."
The Redskins have not averaged four yards per carry -- the league average -- since the season opener, but that's not for a lack of trying. The Redskins are tied with the Vikings for the NFC lead with 30 rushes per game, but are 28th overall in first downs and 20th in time of possession. Ten of the other 31 NFL teams are running at least 29 times per game, but those clubs are averaging 4.5 yards per carry collectively. Bugel, who oversees the offensive line, holds his unit accountable for the demise in productivity.
"We've got to block better, that's the bottom line," Bugel said. "Cripes, the backs got to have holes to run through, and we can't use injuries as an excuse. Nobody feels sorry for us. Cripes, we're everybody's homecoming game right now. Nobody's scared of us."
How do you rectify that predicament?
"There's your shoulder pad, put it underneath my shoulder pad," Bugel said. "Don't play with your big fat belly and your soft breast; play with your shoulder pad. That's run blocking."
Portis is not without fault, either. He was inactive for months recovering from hand, shoulder and knee injuries, and though continuing to talk about regaining his strength and conditioning the results have been to the contrary. He has not been nearly as effective on outside runs -- where he used to break free for big gains -- and is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this season. In 15 games dating from the start of the 2006 season he has been pedestrian: 242 carries for 956 yards (4.0 average) with 12 touchdowns and just one 100-yard game.
Portis said he looks like himself when studying recent game film -- though he is trying to stem a habit of carrying the ball in the wrong hand -- but is striving for better balance and more power. "I just got to fight to stay up," Portis said. "I can't let one person bring me down. I have to work on the safety and give him something and make him miss. I got to get big runs out of this."
Betts has been ineffective as well, but he often goes an hour or more without carrying the football, enough to derail any tailback. He eclipsed 1,000 yards after replacing injured Portis in the second half of 2006, but Gibbs has been adamant that Portis is his starter (he has 98 rushes the last six weeks to just 30 for Betts), and Bugel equated switching starters to throwing Portis "under the bus" this week. Others on the staff believe Betts could contribute more with a bigger role, sources said, but they lack the authority to alter personnel.
When asked if Betts merits more carries, associate head coach-offense Al Saunders said only, "Well, Clinton Portis is our starter, and that's where we are." Betts said no one has said anything to him about getting more carries. So in lieu of major alterations, more hard work will suffice.
"We have to coach harder, and we need more discipline coming off the football," Bugel said. "Hey, I hope everybody feels bad, because there's a lot of mad people from the top of the organization to the last guy in the organization. Everybody's mad; the players better be mad. We have to make them madder, if there is such a word."