The Punishers

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 6, 2008

PHILADELPHIA Each week, the Washington Redskins continue the dazzling process of discovering who they are while simultaneously amazing everybody else. This time, the Philadelphia Eagles were the team left stunned and listening to hometown boos after a 23-17 beating, just as the Cowboys looked shocked last week.

Now, with back-to-back wins on the road against NFC East foes, something no Washington team has done since the '87 Super Bowl champs, the Redskins of Jim Zorn are coming into focus fast. They're an 18-wheeler. You're not.

Some teams can start 4-1 but their record can mean little and hide much. Norv Turner began 7-1 in 1996, but that Redskins team struggled down the stretch and missed the playoffs. This 4-1 start, however, appears to be full of muscle.

For the last month, the Redskins haven't cared who they played or where, whether they took a lead or fell behind. Even more impressive, for the last two weeks, they have brazenly bludgeoned two of the league's most physically imposing teams, dominating both lines of scrimmage.

Rushing yardage tells it all: Washington has 364 yards in the past two games while those scrawny guys from Dallas and Philly combined for just 102. Clinton Portis alone had 145 yards here after 121 in Dallas.

On a day when the Eagles greeted the Redskins with an 80-yard scoring drive and a 68-yard punt return for a 14-0 first-quarter lead, Washington responded by thumping Philly the rest of the afternoon. The Redskins built a 203-to-22 dominance in rushing yards thereafter. No, 'tis not a misprint. That just doesn't happen here. But it did.

"There's something to be said for how you beat a team," tackle Jon Jansen said. Last week, the Redskins fat-lipped the Cowboys with a 161-44 edge in rushing yardage and 38 minutes 9 seconds of ball control. This time, after the first Philly drive, the Redskins ran 75 plays to 35 for the Eagles. Also, the Redskins still have zero offensive turnovers.

The word's getting out: The Redskins will steamroll you, right up until Zorn calls a flanker reverse pass with Antwaan Randle El connecting for an 18-yard score to Chris Cooley. Or until Jason Campbell calls for a snap on "first sound" and Portis dashes untouched four yards for the winning touchdown before half the surprised Eagles even got in their stances. "We surprised 'em," Portis said.

"Give them credit," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said, "for sticking to what they like to do, which is run the ball."

Actually, Portis may have gotten the ball 50 times the last two weeks, but he is just part of a pleasing balanced attack. "We've defied convention. We've been able to go to Portis. We've got the gadget plays, the outside plays, the short pass and the long pass," guard Pete Kendall said. "It's come to the point where you have to defend the whole field."

Whatever depth of poise or variation of style has been necessary for the last month, the Redskins have found it. One risky late-game call showed several of the threads in the fabric the Redskins are weaving as a team and its coach learn to trust and appreciate each other.

With 2:53 to play, the Redskins needed to convert on third and two from the Eagles 38 to salt away the game. Should they just give the ball to Portis? Perhaps.

But Zorn has flair, loves to dare and decided to get cute. He called a tricky play with motion, misdirection and people running everywhere. The whole mess exploded in a busted play, forcing Campbell to throw the ball away.

"Goofball play. I paid the price. I was flustered a little and had to call timeout to compose myself," Zorn muttered in the Redskins' locker room.

For so many years that it is painful to recall, the Redskins have often used such mistakes, such moments of lost poise, to become passive and turn victory into defeat. Zorn, at such times, seems to actually relish the danger.

Faced with a game-on-the-line decision, "punt 'em back or go for it" on fourth and two, Zorn waved his offense back on to the field and called the formation.

But he didn't call the play!

"Clinton called the play," Zorn said.

Portis called his own number -- a draw out of the shotgun -- and plowed through five defenders for four yards, a first down, three take-a-knees and the Redskins' fourth straight victory.

"A huge, huge play. He willed his way for the first down," Zorn said. "It was his grit and our offensive line's grit that did it." Just like they did all day.

The Redskins have not repealed the turnover. It's a law in the NFL. Shaun Suisham, with seven straight field goals, including 41, 48 and 50 yarders in this game, won't always be perfect. Zorn's fourth-down fourth-quarter gambles (he also converted against the Saints, then ran out the clock) will not always work. And injuries can't simply be ignored, even though the defense stuffed Philly without three starters.

But for now, a team that was turned upside down in January when Joe Gibbs unexpectedly retired, has found -- or at least started to form -- a new identity at rare speed.

"We put ourselves in a great spot," said Cooley, who had eight catches for 109 yards. "Our goal has always been to win our division and continue on."

That now appears conceivable, though the Giants, who controlled the Redskins in their opener, are still unbeaten. "We're a very battle-tested football team from what we went through in our last four games last season," linebacker London Fletcher said of the playoff run last December.

However, with Zorn's arrival, the possibility arises that this project is only in its early stages. "We haven't done anything yet," Campbell said. "We haven't been division champions in I don't know how long. We haven't gone deep in the playoffs in I don't know how long. We need to improve. We have a lot of things to clean up."

The Redskins have already cleaned up the hardest part of their schedule -- all three NFC East road games. "I think the NFL was trying to get rid of us quick," Portis said.

Instead, the Redskins have easier tasks ahead, on paper. "When you're around for the bad times," Jansen said, "it's great to be a part of it when they're going right."

No matter what the season brings, few Sundays will match the last two weeks with bare-knuckle wins over old foes and the fresh air of a new coach.

Before this game, Campbell saw Zorn jumping up and down on the sideline. "Coach, wanna go play?" teased the young quarterback, learning fast, to the old one who finally gets to run a team of his own. "Just tell me if you want to swap shoulder pads or thigh pads."

Zorn just grinned. Things may work out better for him in a headset than they ever did in a helmet.

"This is the toughest division in football. We're certainly not the overriding favorite. We're just happy to be coming out on the positive end," Zorn said. "We're not a great team. But we're a good one."

That happened fast.

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