If Paul Warfield and I had been playing in this system, it would have made us so good we would have been outlawed. -- Charley Taylor
It's a common sense approach. It seems so logical. You wonder why more teams don't use it. -- Joe Theismann
Bit by bit, as if it were a gift on Christmas Day, the Redskins are unwrapping the "Offense of the '80s."
The more they see of it and how it allows them to capitalize on the defense's mistakes, the more eager they become to use the whole package.
"You can feel the excitement when everything clicks and it works," said quarterback Joe Theismann, even more enthusiastic than usual.
It's an offense designed to make everyone happy, not just quarterbacks who love its abundance of passing plays.
Ask a receiver about it and he can't wait to talk about its flowing pass routes and built-in long-play potential.
Ask a lineman about it and he'll go on and one about its aggressive blocking and its emphasis on reducing sacks.
Ask a running back about it and he'll praise its versatility and the way it produces opportunities for open-field dashes and one-on-one coverage.
"Besides," said receiver Ricky Thompson, "we know it works. We saw what San Diego did with it."
Joe Gibbs was in the press box, calling the plays for San Diego, as the Chargers made a shambles of the NFL record book the past two seasons. Now he is head coach of the Redskins -- and the San Diego playbook, the foundation of the "Offense of the '80s," is being read eagerly by the Washington players at training camp.
The months ahead loom as a major test for Gibbs' potential masterpeice. Can refined defenses catch up to its innovations? Is it dependent on superior talent, such as receivers John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, for success or can it be adapted by a less-gifted club such as the Redskins? Is it destined to go the way of the "Offense of the '70s," which fizzled out quickly, its architect, Hank Stram, soon fired from two jobs.
"I think one of its strengths is its ability to adjust to different personnel," said Dan Henning, the Redskin assistant head coach who is getting his first full exposure to the offense after coming over from the Miami Dolphins. "We may not resemble San Diego that much in what we do but that is because our personnel is different
"But that is one of the beauties of this offense.It's so flexible that it can be effective whether you want to run a lot, pass a lot or do both the same. People sometimes don't understand that."
There's a lot to misunderstand about this offense. It sounds so complex, so different. Henning laughed.
"What we are doing has all been done before, but not in the way Joe has packaged it. He has taken a number of philosophies and come up with a product that is uniquely his."
It is a product of the new rules, which allow much more movement in the secondary. And it is a product of a wave of young, college-oriented coaches who have joined the professional ranks, bringing new thoughts about passing and how an offense should be constructed.
It also is a product that changes constantly.
"What we are going to do this year is 30 to 40 percent different that I was doing two years ago," gibbs said. "We can change at least 40 percent each year offensively, which would mean a complete turnover every three years. It's not that extreme, because you hold into some successful fragments forever."
Gibbs' schemes answer the wishes of every armchair quarterback who has ever sat before a television set and wondered -- screamed aloud -- why his favorite team is so predictable.
Why does everyone in the NFL have to run on first down, run on second down if the first play was fairly successful, then, in desperation, pass on third down? Gibbs asked himself that question a long time ago and couldn't come up with an adequate answer.So he tossed predictability out the locker room door.
He substituted aggressiveness. His premise is that an offense should be on the attack, instead of letting the defense be the intimidator. He worries less about what bad things can happend to his wide-open approach and more about the rewards that will result.
"I don't want to be predictable," Gibbs said. "I don't want them (defenses) to ever be able to think they know what we are going to do. I want it so that, in its ultimate, the defense plays as if it had no game plan, as if all its preparation for the game suddenly became meaningless. I want them to start from scratch.
"We will run on passing downs, and pass on running downs. I'm not saying that this is the only way to do it. Green Bay won going about it completely different. But I think there are 28 different ideas in this league about how to win. This just happens to be my way."
This almost total disregard for what coaches call the two Ds, down and distance, makes this offense different.
"The priority becomes," Henning said, "what the defense will allow you to do, not where you are on the field or what down it is. You have an offense with passes that are as consistent as running plays, so on third and two, you don't need to send the fullback off guard. You can pass for the first down instead."
Quite simply, Joe Gibbs has learned to love the pass, not fear it. He has learned to see its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses He has ignored the adage that only three things can happen when you throw, and two of those are bad.
This offense eliminates static and multiple formations. Players are positioned in different places on almost every down and someone usually is on the move before every snap. The goal: to make it impossible for the defense to key on certain plays and particular players.
Henning: "In static football, where a flanker is always a flanker and a split end is always a split end, the defense will set up and take away your big guys and you go to your lesser lights all the time. (Gibbs' offense) allows you to get the ball to your best people in critical situations."
But other offenses use numerous formations and put men in motion. Gibbs, however, advances his philosophy one more step, and that is where his thinking becomes unique.
He wants to force the action at all times. To do that, he puts extraordinary emphasis on one of the shortest parts of any game: the time between the snap and the release of the football.
"If you accept the logic that you want to be correct in your play calling," Gibbs said, "then it follows you would want to be able to make as many adjustments as possible after the snap, in order to guarantee your success.
"That's the key, the way we adjust to what the defense does after the snap. Everything we do before the snap, the motion, the different formations, is designed to get the defense into certain alignments that will allow us to be successful. But we want more, we want to refine it better than that.
"Our aim is to always go into the area where there are the fewest number of defenders. That gives us the best chance of being right more often. By being flexible after the snap, you can adjust and swing the play into this ideal area.
"The ultimate for us would be to have the entire game played after the snap."
The flexiblity Gibbs is seeking is achieved, especially on passing plays, by not limiting the play-calling to specific patterns and players. Instead, all receivers run coordinated routes on every play. From the time of the snap to the moment of passing, the quarterback and the receivers are coached to adjust to coverages, so nothing needs to be forced. The quarterback looks over his options and picks out the best opportunity, not necessarily his favorite target or a predetermined pattern.
"Put it this way: the quarterback really has two packages on every play," said Taylor, the leading receiver in NFL history who now is helping coach the Redskin receivers. "He can look strong side, and he can look weak side. He knows what is being run out there and he just has to make a decision where to go with the ball. The odds are with you that someone will be open."
This is where the big-play philosophy that makes this offense so spectacular comes in. Within almost every series of routes on these passing plays there's at least one long pattern. It, too, becomes an option the quarterback can take, if he sees the receiver coming open deep. If the receiver is covered, the quarterback looks for short-range targets.
"You shouldn't have to guess when to take a big play," Gibbs said. "If you call it beforehand and send it to the huddle, you are trying to predict ahead of time what defense they will be in.
"Our way, the big play is there, to be used if it is open. If he never comes open, then you could go a whole game without long passes. It just depends on how the defense is playing. But the threat is always present."
Look at it from a defense's perspective.
There is only a handful of patterns that any offense can run, but this offense may run those patterns out of 15 formations. One formation may look like another, yet once the motion starts and adjustments are made on the fly, a totally different look is presented. And to complicate things further, four or five receivers are scooting around, all possible primary targets for the upcoming pass. "Secondary receiver" is a forgotten term in this offense.
Gibbs' aim is to keep the defense guessing, to confuse it, to run so many formations and looks in a game that predictability is no longer a factor. He feels that the only way for the offense to gain the upper hand and keep it is to put the defense on, well, the defensive.
"A lot of coaches tell you not to force the ball and then they expect you to throw it 15 yards into the heart of the coverage to a certain receiver," said rookie quarterback Tom Flick. "Here, they use common sense. You have enough receivers on every play that you just have to find which one is open.
"There is no need to force the pass. Things happen so fast that there is no way the defense can cover everything all the time."
To put all the pieces of this package together, the quarterback must bear a special burden.
It is his knowledge of defenses, his ability to read his keys, his judgement of where to throw the ball on each play that determines the success of the offense.
"The quarterback is the final statement of judgement," said Henning, a former quarterback himself. "We give up the stability of a quarterback running a set offense looking at a stable defense. When you have so much movement and so much emphasis on adjusting after the snap, his role becomes enormous.
"It comes down to a gray area, the quarterback's ability to perform under pressure. Does he recognize that the long pass is covered and take a controlled shorter pass, or does he force it into the coverage? Can he think on the run? Can he handle decisions when it means the difference between a first down and punting? Will he settle for little pieces or does he want it all every time?"
"Gibbs: "Take one play, let's call it 844. I could talk about parts of that play for 30 or 40 minutes to a quarterback, going over the various adjustments that could be made. The quarterback needs to know all of it very well. He's got to be familiar with every possible alternative in every play."
Theismann: "I have to know the route, who is running it, his own individual characteristics, how each pattern can be adjusted, what keys on defense I'm looking for. You have to decide what to do in, what, two seconds or less? But this system makes so much sense, it's so logical, that things fall into place."
Although the coaches maintain this offense is simple to understand, Gibbs admits that a typical game plan of perhaps 50 passes and 15 running plays represents only about 25 percent of the playbook.
The quarterback alone has multiple series of passes off four drop backs: three steps, five steps, seven steps and what Gibbs calls a continuous drop back where the quarterback can release the pass at a number of points while fading from the scrimmage line.
And receivers and running backs aren't limited to a few routes. Many must learn the patterns of several other positions because Gibbs thinks nothing of having a tight end line up as a flanker or a halfback become a split end. And if the defense relaxes even a little, he loves to toss a quick screen to fill the void.
"We are running our patterns different that we did before," Thompson said. "Before, we were instructed to stop at a designated spot in our route and then make our cut crisply. Now, we do everything on the run, no stopping allowed. All the jerkiness is gone. The cornerback had a shot at you when you stopped; now he doesn't have as much time to recover if you always are on the move."
Henning: "This system lends itself to everyone intellectually. Plays are called simply and it's very logical, so everyone can advance together pretty quickly. Yet it is so flexible that it can be adjusted constantly. The worst thing that could happen to any offense is to be so inflexible that you can't move when the defense moves."
Take the play called 844. From those three numbers, the players know the depth of the quarterback's drop (five steps), the patterns (one of which will be deep) and the cuts (even numbers mean cuts to the middle). A three-digit call automatically means it's a pass, and the line knows its designated drop-back protection.
To make the offense work, timing between the quarterback and his receivers and between the line and the running backs must be precise. Gibbs says he knows everything is functioning correctly when "the quarterback shuffles away from the line and, boom! he delivers the ball in one motion. When there is hesitation, when there is a pause, something has broken down.
"When it runs right, you cut back on sacks considerably. It's hard to get to the quarterback when he doesn't have to hold onto the ball that long."
But timing can be thrown off by a pressing, tight-covering secondary that disguises its coverages as well as Gibbs disguises his formations.
Then it becomes a cat and mouse game that can swing quickly away from the offense. If the defense can disrupt the quarterback's keys and confuse him once the ball is snapped, the offensive edge is gone. San Diego found that out last year against the Redskin secondary, which uses the most complex philosophy in the league. Quarterback Dan Fouts became confused with his reads after the snap and Washington soon as dominating the game.
"Any offense is only as good as the people in it and the way it is executed," Gibbs said. "But we are never afraid to go after people. That's what is so important for our players to remember. We want to move the ball and score.
"No one is ever going to accuse us of being timid."