Middle Management

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."

One byproduct of the Redskins' bludgeoning style is a succession of close games. As Zorn's West Coast gets polished, maybe there will be blowouts. But, for now, every game seems to end with your breath held, like this one with the Redskins watching as a last-second 54-yard field goal to tie the game sailed barely wide right.

"These last two weeks have been tough. But in this league, you'll take any win," said Campbell, who was quite off-target at times and tweaked a groin injury in mid-game. "Fred Smoot calls these [low-scoring, violent] games 'Mississippi State football,' whatever that means. I told him, 'Let's not play Mississippi State football every week.' "

The Redskins' current ability to win such close games, not squander them, and play in a team concept, may trace back to Gibbs's ability to "pick high-character people." Or, in the case of Portis, perhaps change them a little. The man in the gold shoes arrived talking stats. Now, it's "team ball." The Redskins don't like to look backward at Gibbs much, despite last year's playoff run. His departure still stings. But most of the key players who have built this 5-2 start were his.

On defense, coordinator Greg Blache knows what he helped create in recent years, along with Gibbs and Gregg Williams. They had prepped a group that was on the verge of jelling into a scary unit. "We are an attacking defense, first and foremost," said McIntosh, who lives for contact. How Sean Taylor would have complemented this particular cast.

"Our defense stops the run week after week because they are just real physical," Jansen said with a leer. "They go up and hit people in the mouth."

That preference was exemplified in the fourth-quarter sequence that, in retrospect, decided this game. The Browns had first and goal at the 1-yard line. In a game decided by three points, they got zero, mostly because of Fletcher, the middle linebacker who is the intellectual and emotional leader of the gang.

On first down, the seemingly stubby 5-foot-10, 245-pounder catapulted himself entirely over the line like a giant frog. "I wanted to meet Jamal Lewis at the top," said Fletcher, but I actually jumped over him."

No, actually, he landed on top of him. Squash, no gain.

Next, the Browns called a flat pass. Fletcher smelled it out and hog-tied Derek Anderson for a two-yard loss. Finally, Cleveland tried to erase Fletcher on a pick play, throwing to Jason Wright on the right side. Fletcher avoided the pick and, along with Carlos Rogers, caused an incompletion.

"London is always all over the place. He's underlooked, but he's great," defensive end Andre Carter said. "That's our kind of game. It was bone on bone out there."

On fourth down, a play on which Browns Coach Romeo Crennel may, with hindsight, wish he'd taken a field goal, Anderson, who had several passes batted down by Redskins linemen, had his throw deflected by defensive end Evans.

For the Redskins, despite their fine record, every week is decided by a few hair's-breadth plays. "We could be 6-1 now," Portis said. And they could be less than 5-2, too.

"We have to keep grinding," McIntosh said. "We have to get back to practice and work. Coach Blache says, 'If you had eight hours to cut down a tree, wouldn't you spend six hours sharpening the ax?' "

The Redskins don't play like a sharpened ax yet. Maybe someday. For now, foe after foe, once Portis has trampled them while its own runners have been stuffed, feels like a Redskins tree has fallen on them.

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