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This Squad Can't Even Defend Themselves

Michael Wilbon
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 8, 1999; Page D1

It's a good thing NFL teams aren't rated on the quality of opponents they beat, as college teams are, because the Washington Redskins would be in trouble. They've spent the first half of this season beating up on the weaklings of the league – as any good team should – but also getting thumped by their most worthy opponents. That should be troubling to any team with postseason aspirations.

You don't get to play the Bears, Jets, Panthers and Cardinals every week. Any time the Redskins have to play somebody their own size, they wilt: Twice against the Cowboys and yesterday against the Bills. It's 0-3 this season against the best teams the Redskins have faced; 0-3 against veteran quarterbacks Troy Aikman of the Cowboys and Buffalo's Doug Flutie, who directed the 34-17 rout of the Redskins.

"That's the step this football team has to take," Norv Turner said of the Redskins' failure yesterday to beat a good team with playoff aspirations of its own, directed by a veteran quarterback.

Of course, it is possible the Redskins could win nine games this season and still not beat any good teams, what with games against the Eagles (twice), Cardinals and overrated Giants remaining on the schedule. But I'm presuming the franchise has bigger goals than a winning season or overpowering bad teams or even simply making the playoffs. Until you can beat a good team, particularly at home, you're just treading water. Like a lot of NFL teams.

Turner said he told his players during the week that the Bills would be "the most complete team we had gotten ready to play. ... I thought we'd have to play our best game ... and it was far from that."

Turner's assessment was that his team was "unable to make it" a fight. Wow. Halfway into the season and the Redskins can't put up a fight at home against a good team? If you beat up on the lesser teams, but won't even put up a fight against a good team, doesn't that suggest you're a bully?

The Redskins' tendency to lose big games is now an annoying habit. Almost as annoying as a defense that finished the first half of this season as a classic underachiever. There are teams in this league that would dearly love to swap everybody on their defense for everybody on the Redskins' defense. There's not a scout in the NFL who would tell you the Redskins don't have the talent on defense to be good.

Yet, the defense stinks.

And there's no sign that it's getting better, which is why defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is sure to be miserable this week. The Bills are a veteran team that has been struggling the last three weeks. The wondrous Flutie has been having passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage left and right; running back Antowain Smith has been running so poorly he is now splitting time at his position and top receiver Eric Moulds has been in and out of the lineup with injuries. The Bills are a playoff team, resourceful as the day is long. But they shouldn't dominate you on your home field. Allowing Buffalo to score 34 points should be out of the question.

The Bills held the ball 41 minutes to Washington's 19. They converted an astounding 60 percent (9 of 15) of third downs. They gained 413 yards to Washington's 279. They picked up 24 first downs to Washington's 16.

So who do we blame for this, Nolan or defensive consultant Bill Arnsparger? If the talent is there and the results aren't, doesn't that indict the coaches? And is that why the Redskins invited a real defensive specialist, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, to handle the coin toss duties?

Dana Stubblefield, who hasn't been the force anybody expected on defense, said, "We don't know what it is." He wasn't being flip. He was giving an honest answer to the most important question of the day.

Stubblefield talked about specific breakdowns as they relate to over-running cutback plays and the like, then he said, "We're all physically gifted athletes on defense. I think it's more mental now."

Stubblefield recalled a sequence in the preseason when the Redskins' defense was so dominant. He remembered the hard-to-impress Darrell Green coming back to the huddle after a great defensive series, saying, "Man, we've got something special here." That was the prevailing sentiment at the end of August, that the defense was going to crush opponents.

It hasn't.

The defense, in fact, is getting crushed every week.

And a good quarterback, like Flutie, really knows how to take advantage of it. On fourth and five with the game tied at 10, Flutie shook Stubblefield and Sam Shade and went eight yards to keep alive the drive that made it 17-10 Bills. Soon after, Flutie dashed 14 yards to set up the score that made it 24-10. The next series, Flutie calmly converted third and six, then third and nine. It was 31-10. The Bills ran on first down, threw short on second down, and either threw again or trusted Flutie to convert on third down. It's the most predictable offense you'll ever see.

Don't get me wrong, Flutie has made a whole lot of tacklers miss.

It's one thing to beat the Jets' Rick Mirer, the Giants' Kent Graham, Chicago's Shane Matthews and Cade McNown, Carolina's Steve Beuerlein and Arizona's Jake Plummer and Dave Brown. But Aikman and Flutie are another matter and the Redskins apparently aren't up to that yet.

"Aikman and Flutie play two totally different games," Green said, "but they're both engineers. Those are the guys who manage their offenses. And it's a defense's job to manage the good quarterbacks. That's our challenge. Three times, we haven't done that."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
 

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