His critics claim he creates robots instead of players, that his play-calling is too stereotyped, that he generally disdains the long pass.
But if Joe Walton, the offensive coordinator of the Redskins, is so predictable and his offensive concepts so sterile, how did Washington average 22 points over that first stretch in 1978 and 30 in the home stretch last year?
In his small, usually darkened (better to watch film by) office at Redskin Park, Walton tries to isolate himself from the controversy that has swirled around him almost from the day he became the Redskins' offensive coordinator two years ago after 11 seasons as a pro coach, including four on George Allen's Washington staff.
His ia a unique position. His boss, Jack Pardee, is a defensive specialist who feels he can't also be a full-time offensive coach. So he has put Walton in day-to-day charge of that aspect of the Redskins' game plan, but only after dictating the philosophy and the parameters within which Walton must operate. Ultimately, Pardee takes responsibility for the offense and the plays that are run during games, a point he has emphasized publicly on more than one occasion.
But Walton puts together the weekly offensive game plan, and Walton, standing on the sideline, baseball cap turned backward, talking constantly into his headset, sends in the plays to quarterback Joe Theismann. Pardee vetoes some ideas and makes the crucial decisions -- field goal or go for the first down? -- but he still has given Walton considerable leeway.
And with this freedom has come both praise and criticism. As much as Pardee and Walton attempt to define the offense as "the Redskin offense, not Joe Walton's," the effort has not worked. When the offense bogs down, as it has frequently this season, Walton absorbs the brunt of the criticism including some from the owner's box. And when the offense shines, as it did during a three-week period in October, Walton gets the credit.
The result is that Walton has emerged as the best-known assistant on the Redskin staff. Just a few hours of listening to radio talk shows conversation verifies his notoriety. He has never been a head coach, but he already has had a sampling of the heat.
"My aim is to be a head coach," he said, "and I guess this is preparing me for it. But if you can't stand the heat, you shouldn't be in this business. Sure, I can get uptight when things aren't going right. And no one likes to hear criticism. But I believe in what we are doing, because I know it is sound and it will work. That enables me to keep going."
And what is this multiple-set offense that blows hot and cold and never seems to satisfy Redskin fans completely?
In its simplest form, the Redskin offense is designed to control the ball, reduce mistakes, take advantage of good field position and capitalize on what Walton and Pardee feel are the safest, most reliable plays in football.
The offense is complex, no matter how you view it. The playbook can contain as many as 25 formations, each set up to run dozens of plays off of. There is plenty of motion and relocating of backs. And much depends on precise timing. Redskin receivers don't merely run down-field and work to get open. On many plays, the length of their pattern depends on the number of steps Theismann takes to drop back.
The underlying theme of the offense is this: the Redskins do not want to beat themselves through errors and gambles. Pardee is conservative by nature and Walton is conservative by design. Both men cringe at the San Diego Charger offence. Why? The Chargers' lack of balance between the run and pass, and quarterback Dan Fouts' habit of throwing into coverages and regularly tossing deep passes, violate the basic foundation of Pardee's thinking. So what if the Chargers score a lot? In the long run, Pardee is convinced, the flaws of their approach will overshadow their success.
"We'd rather go to the open man short than throw into the teeth of the defense," Walton said. "We like the high-percentage pass. When you start thinking long a lot, your percentages go down. If you become proficient at the short passing game, the long pass will come. But the high-percentage pass is very important for ball control.
"The key is to get the ball to the guy who can do something with it. Then the yards will come. You get the ball short to a back who can run and he'll turn the pass into a long gain, the same as a long pass.But your margin for error is reduced.
"If you have super personnel, you can overcome a lot of things. You think all of those passes by San Diego and Pittsburgh are designed? Heck no, their receivers can do great things. But on most teams, the offense is like a machine. If you make mistakes, or get injuries and start missing parts, things break down.
"Our offense is designed to bring out the best in all players. If we have truly exceptional players, there don't have to be any adjustments. I'd like to think everything is already there, ready to be tapped, in the offense."
There are some factors even his critics admit have worked against Walton this season:
There is a glaring lack of quickness and speed among the whole unit. Except for Art Monk, the Redskins have no game-breaking threat at the skill spots, especially halfback. Obviously the Redskins do not have the talent of, for example, Dallas or Philadelphia.
The offensive line is not among the best in the league. The Redskins can't have Theismann drop deep in the pocket consistently and wait for long-developing patterns because the protection isn't consistently sufficient. Nor are the Redskins a spectacular rushing club.
The unexpected loss of John Riggins threw the offense into turmoil at the beginning of the season. Injuries to linemen and backs increased the difficulties. The offense had to be simplified and it became easier for opponents to defense.
Still, Washington's offense is not the worst in the NFC. While the team's record is ninth out of 14 clubs, the offense ranks eighth in total yards, ninth in rushing and eighth in passing. Theismann is having a decent year, Monk is ranked among the top 10 receivers and Clarence Harmon has emerged as one of the conference's most reliable utility backs.
Until last week's debacle against Minnesota, the offense had exceeded 300 yards four straight games. But any time Theismann gets off to a slow start, as he did against the Vikings, and the team gets behind, the Redskins are in trouble.
"We are not a good catch-up offense," Pardee said. "That's why we have to stay close in games. Once we are forced to pass all the time and go long, it's not in our favor."
But why the inconsistency?
"I think it comes from the balance in the league," Walton said. "Teams with super personnel can overcome mistakes and be about the same every week. The rest of us can be hurt by injuries and lots of errors. I don't think you'll see too many teams that play the same way week in and week out. There is just too much room for error.
"When things are going right for us, we are tough to defense. The motion and different sets keep defenses off balance. It's a way of trying to get an edge.You've got to look for all the help you can get."
Why don't you pass more on first down?
"We pass on first down about one-third of the time, which is about the average around the league. To make play-action and roll-out passes work, you have to run the ball first and try to keep the defense off balance. Earlier in the season, when we were struggling, we deliberately ran more on the early downs. It was the only way to bring back some stability to the offense and make us tougher."
Why don't you throw more long passes?
"Because before we can go long, we want to make sure we have a pretty good chance of completing it. Otherwise, we will come up with too many third-and-10 situations, which we don't want. We are just not a long passing team, but we throw enough to keep the defense thinking about it."
Why do you throw to your backs so much, especially over the middle?
"Our backs are good receivers; it's a safe pass, and when you catch it over the middle, you have the best chance of breaking a big play. If you catch the ball on the sidelines, you normally go out of bounds."
But aren't defenses stopping the short passes?
"Clarence Harmon has cought 30 passes this year and most of those are over the middle and no one seems to be stopping them yet. Until they shut them off, why not keep going with it? Just because a receiver catches a lot of passes, does that mean you stop throwing to him?"
Why didn't you throw more to your wide receivers?
"Our leading receiver (Art Monk) is a wide receiver and our leading receiver last year (Danny Buggs) was a wide receiver. And if you put together the catches of Ricky Thompson and John McDaniel, who alternate at the other wide receiver, they'd be tied for second with Clarence."
How much is John Riggins missed?
"Anyone would miss a 1,000-yard rusher. But there's another reason. With John gone, it took Wilbur Jackson and the other guys longer to come along. Wilbur had to learn the system and it slowed us down. If we had known John wasn't going to play this season before training camp, we could have approached it differently. And it put more of a burden on Clarence Harmon."
Why do you run so often on third and long?
"We'll run to avoid a sack or an interception. We have to be conscious of field position. This is a team game. We work in coordination with the special teams and defense. Why not be safe and punt the ball on the next down and make sure the defense has good field position? If you can move the football, control the clock, avoid mistakes and put enough points on the board to win, what's wrong with that?"
Joe Walton is friendly, polite and intelligent. He also can be stubborn, emotional and, as his players will attest, not hesitant in criticizing them when they make mistakes.
He is a perfectionist. There is one way to do it: his way, and don't bother to argue, please. His stubborn nature rubs some people the wrong way; and in his attempt to reduce the margin of error inherent in offensive planning, he has outlined exacting pass routes, quarterback throws, running plays and blocks. It takes weeks even to start getting any real grasp of his playbook.
An offense so structured could inhibit some players, particularly a young talent such as Monk. Walton responds:
"I think we give our players enough freedom within our concept to take advantage of what they can do. That's why we encourage them to let us know when they think they can run a certain pattern or play. There is something in the book to cover it. But if you have everyone running around, going to spots and not knowing what anyone else is thinking, you are going to have mistakes, interceptions and sacks. And you are going to lose."
The roots of Walton's offensive thinking originate with the old Giants teams that employed him as a player and then as a coach. He learned bits and pieces from many people: Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, Tom Landry, Allie Sherman, Alex Webster. Tittle had the earliest influence: Walton, a tight end by trade, learned the rudiments of quarterbacking from the balding master. Tarkenton's exploitation of the short passing game had a profound effect. So did the use by Laundry, a defensive specialist, of shifts and motions on offense with his Dallas team.
"You can only do what your talent tells you you can do," Pardee said. "If we can't protect the quarterback, what's the sense of having him stand back there and get killed, just to throw long? Everything we do begins with protection. Will the protection hold up, is it solid?
"When we put together the offense, Joe's ideas on passing fit what we thought our personnel could do. I liked his concepts; they included motion and shifting, things teams were doing to confuse defenses. That's why we junked so much of the old Redskin offense, which I didn't think was conceived properly."
But as NFL teams lean more on passing because of recent rule changes, the Redskins continue to talk about the need for balance in their offense. Walton was asked if this approach would change as the club added better players.
"I think you could gamble a little more if you had personnel like San Diego's," he said. "Your percentages of success would increase. But I'm convinced that nothing can replace balance. If you go too heavily to either run or pass, you are helping the defense.
"I've been around too long and I've seen and coached too much football to think we're wrong in our approach. But fans don't want to hear about injuries and personnel and mistakes. They expect you to score and win, and I can't blame them.
"But we can't let fans coach this team," Walton said. "We have to. In the long run, we're going to be proved right, I'm convinced of that."