As victories elude the Redskins and the season grows shorter, Joe Bugel has been asking players to gauge the team's morale. The question from the Redskins' assistant head coach-offense is not an innocent one, designed to keep chins up and spirits high during troubled times. More, it's a serious inspection of the team's psychological state, part of an organization-wide search for potential cracks in the foundation.
With the Redskins facing the prospect of undoing a season that began with such promise, the team's veteran coaching staff says it recognizes the stakes surrounding the final five games of the year. Chief among them is avoiding the type of implosion that not only tears teams apart but also could undermine Coach Joe Gibbs's two-year effort to restore the franchise.
Bugel has been coaching in the NFL for 28 seasons and he's seen it happen, quickly and destructively. Teams lose games they should win, and the sniping begins. Productive players criticize teammates who they believe have cost them games. Factions harden: The offense turns on the defense for not making enough plays; the defense attacks the offense for its inability to keep it off the field. The head coach second-guesses his assistants, if not himself. The players lose confidence in each other, the coaches and the team, and any hopes of saving the season disintegrate.
"I ask them, 'How's the locker room?' " Bugel said. "Because once you lose the locker room, it's over for you as a coach. You need the leaders. If you don't have good leaders, you're going to be a split football team."
It was a fear echoed this past week by Gibbs, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, running backs coach Earnest Byner and a host of players as the team prepared for today's game against the St. Louis Rams.
Coaches and players say they have not lost confidence in each other, but they acknowledge that the strain of six losses in eight games is challenging their resolve. Some players wonder privately how a team that started 3-0 finds itself one game under .500, and the tension of losing has begun to show in the locker room.
"You have to confront it," Byner said. "You can't let it fester. If you don't deal with it, it will explode."
The Redskins, coaches say, are on a precipice, desperate for a win while needing to avoid the impulse to assess blame for past losses. With five games remaining, teams in the Redskins' position have a choice: They can allow the desperation of their position to produce better performances or allow the resentment of lost opportunities to rip them apart.
"We're a family," said wide receiver James Thrash. "Now isn't the time to turn your back on people you spend so much time with. You wouldn't turn your back on your brothers or your sisters, so we don't do that now. This team stays together."
Williams has seen the dark side, for he was on the sideline during one of the most infamous examples of an offensive-defensive rift in recent NFL history. It was Jan. 2, 1994. Williams was a linebackers coach with the Houston Oilers. The Oilers were 1-14 at the time, and a destructive rift had grown between an above-average defense and a below-average offense. During a Sunday night game between the Oilers and New York Jets, Houston defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan punched offense coordinator Kevin Gilbride on national television.
"It happened right behind my back," Williams said. "I was driving home when someone called me and told me what happened. Then I saw the replays a thousand times. I told myself if I were ever an NFL coach I would never, ever let something like that happen."
With such combined institutional memory, Gibbs and his coaches did not wait as the losses mounted. Instead, the Redskins' leadership has moved proactively, looking preemptively for fractures.
Bugel has been seeking out veterans, asking them to talk to their teammates. Gibbs called a veterans-only meeting Monday following last Sunday's 23-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers to take the team's temperature. What he found was an introspective offensive unit that realized its own shortcomings and the position it put the defense in.
"I think about us offensively," offensive lineman Ray Brown said of the Chargers game. "We put the defense out there three times when we had an opportunity to win the game on our side of the ball. We've got to be honest with ourselves about what we could have done to win the game, and I'm sure the defense is probably saying, 'Okay, if the offense isn't going to do it today, then we've got to go in and do it.' And they thought they had made the play to get it done. I think it's honesty. And guys know at this point. The film doesn't lie."
The potential fault lines are apparent. During the losing streak, the defense has outperformed the offense but has given up huge plays that have turned games. Since a 52-17 destruction of the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 23, the offense has scored just two touchdowns in the fourth quarter while the defense has improved its performance over the course of the slide.
"If you're not careful, you have one side of the ball saying to the other, 'Just don't screw this up,' " said Jimmy Johnson, the former Cowboys and Dolphins coach who is now an television analyst for Fox. "But if you get to that point, you're not much of a team in the first place."
Gibbs, 65, said he feels the urgency. He is perplexed by a season that began with such dedication and determination yet, barring a big finish, could quickly become one of recrimination in which everyone wonders how so much preparation has not produced better results. With three straight losses, the amount of time to turn the season around is dwindling.
"We have guys that take it hard because they put a lot into it. They worked extremely hard in the offseason. They paid a price. Then [they had] three tough losses like that. It comes down to not something I'll say, [but] something that comes from them," Gibbs said. "We've had three tough weeks. It's going to be interesting to see how we bounce back from that. It's an emotional thing. We put a lot into it."
Gibbs also is buoyed by another fact not insignificant when a team is on the edge, and it gives him hope: During what he calls his toughest stretch in his career, the Redskins haven't descended into the football version of civil war. Gibbs seems all the more convinced that the players still believe in each other.
"It happens when you have tough losses. The defense all meets together. The offense meets together, the special teams meets together, so it's easy on a football team when one group doesn't play well one or two weeks for one group to say, 'We're doing our part. What's wrong with these guys?' All it would take is for one guy in there," Gibbs said. "It's tough. People don't like hearing that a football team is like a family, and they make fun of it, but if you're on a good football team that sticks together, that's what it's like."
Bugel believes the biggest reason the Redskins haven't splintered is Gibbs. "It starts at the top. He's not a screamer. He doesn't lie to his players," he said. "During this rough spot, he hasn't changed one iota. If you're picking on this unit or blaming another, that's how a team fractures."
Former Chicago Bears defensive end Richard Dent, who was named Super Bowl XX most valuable player on Jan. 26, 1986, against the New England Patriots, says even championship teams are faced with overcoming divisions when either the offense or defense is underperforming. To Dent, confrontation is inevitable.
"You can see it coming," he said. "You have to come together, because we know the worst case is, I'm pointing at you. You're pointing at me. It's the players against the coaches. It's a team effort, yes, but in football it's three teams within a team. What we did was compete against each other. We used to tell our offense, Just hold 'em till we can catch our breath. Get us two first downs and we'll be fine. Six downs of rest. That's all we asked."
Ozzie Newsome, general manager and executive vice president of the Baltimore Ravens, recalls a similar situation with a championship-caliber team. During the 2000 season the Ravens boasted the greatest defense since the 1985 Bears but had a below-average offense. At one point the Ravens lost three straight games when the defense gave up 14 points or less; it was in the middle of a stretch in which the offense did not score a touchdown in five straight games.
Newsome recalled tight end Shannon Sharpe seeking out defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to ensure that the locker room would not disintegrate into factions. "If one side of the ball is doing everything it can to help you win, you have to have respect for them. If you're really a team, you have to adopt a 'big brother-little brother' attitude," Newsome said. "The year we won the Super Bowl, the defense was the big brother. Shannon used to ask Marvin, 'How many do you need?' Marvin would say, '10,' and the offense would go score 10 points and we'd win the game. It's all about being able to provide the other side with enough to win. In 2000, the defense used to say: 'We'll carry our three-fourths of the load. You do your one-fourth.' "
The Bears and Ravens were winning teams, able to deal with their divisions through victories. But the challenge is greater for a team such as the Redskins, which last week slipped under .500 for the first time this season.
The difference, experts say, is how the successful part of the team responds to the side of the ball that is struggling. When the Detroit Lions fired coach Steve Mariucci last week, the fissures the Redskins have worked to avoid erupted in pubic when cornerback Dre Bly criticized struggling quarterback Joey Harrington.
"I feel like there is one guy in particular who I felt like is the cause of this whole thing," Bly told the NFL Network. "It's not hard to figure out. The quarterback here has been bad. He hasn't gotten the job done since I got here."
Newsome, Dent and Bugel agreed that what keeps any team from self-destructing is success. The Lions (4-7) likely are finished this season. The Redskins have a chance to save their year. Ultimately, players and coaches say, words such as family and team unity must be buttressed by results on the field.
"It is a question of responsibility. You can't play the blame game because there's always a finger pointing back," Dent said. "At the end of the day, it's saying to yourself that we let ourselves down. Take it upon yourself to make something happen. It comes down to taking responsibility for the result, as a team."
Williams spoke in much blunter terms. "If you want to feel that way, then go run track," Williams said. "Go join the WWF. You can't act that way or think that way in a team sport."