Middle Management

After an unsettling loss in their previous game, the Redskins rebound, holding on for a 14-11 victory over the Cleveland Browns at FedEx Field.
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 20, 2008

When Joe Gibbs returned to rebuild the Redskins, he said his signature would be the same as it was of old: "Run and stop the run." So, over his four seasons and two playoff trips, those were the kind of players he assembled on both offense and defense. Now, all of them are healthy, some of them have grown up and Jim Zorn is winning with them.

Sometimes a new coach arrives with his own tricks and twists, his own motivational skills and freshness, but he also, accidentally, inherits more talent than he thought. Veteran offensive linemen like Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas may be injury-free again. Violent young defenders like Rocky McIntosh, Kedric Golston, Demetric Evans, Lorenzo Alexander and LaRon Landry, when mixed together, suddenly create a critical mass of chaos.

"Run and stop the run -- it does sound a lot like Coach Gibbs kind of football," middle linebacker London Fletcher said after the Redskins escaped the Browns, 14-11, on the strength of a 193-102 superiority in rushing yardage and an old-time goal-line stand in the fourth quarter keyed by three plays by Fletcher. "Coach Zorn likes to throw the ball."

But the new coach also knows the hand he's holding. The ace is Clinton Portis, whose 175 yards on 27 carries put him further ahead in the lead in the NFL in rushing yardage. That's a pace for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns, perhaps an unsustainable rate, but one that might project to MVP.

" 'Ground Zorn,' man,' " Zorn said, chuckling at how he's reversed his own gunslinger image.

So far this year the Redskins have, except for their opener, consistently dominated both lines of scrimmage, building a huge 1,107-605 rushing advantage, roughly doubling the ground yardage total on almost every foe.

"The smash-mouth West Coast offense? I supposed we could coin a new phrase," Jansen said.

"They might kick Coach Z out of the West Coast college if we keep running the ball like this," center Casey Rabach said of the offense known for its cute short passes, its yards after catches and gadget-play pyrotechnics. "Seriously, he understands what we have and he knows how to use it."

If anything, Gibbs's elephantine personnel, like 280-pound fullback Mike Sellers, may actually work better in Zorn's play-calling, a skill Gibbs had lost. The league has no book on Zorn but expects trickeration. When he keeps running off-tackle, it's almost cheating.

"We continue to attack," said Zorn, who doesn't abandon the run the first few times it doesn't work. This game's horrid 0-0 first half -- 11 punts and a botched 36-yard field goal by the Redskins -- did not dissuade Zorn from doubling down on Portis: in the first half, 75 yards; in the second, 100 more and a tough, close win.

That emphasis on the ground game has helped reduce turnovers; the Redskins again had zero interceptions against Cleveland. By rushing 234 times to only 157 for opponents, the Redskins have dominated time of possession and kept pressure off quarterback Jason Campbell who, after 13 lost fumbles and 11 interceptions last year, has none of either.

"I think C.P. is an absolute workhorse," Zorn said. "Teams are coming to stop our run, but we are sticking with it."

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