When the Washington Redskins walked to the line of scrimmage Sunday night in Phoenix, their offense had a familiar look -- two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back.

That formation had been one of the trademarks of Coach Joe Gibbs's 10 seasons in Washington. It had helped take the Redskins to three Super Bowls and established a distinctive style of 300-pound linemen and the bruising, drag-me-down-if-you-can running of John Riggins.

It also was the formation they abandoned at the end of last year when they resurrected their season with a damn-the-torpedoes passing game. Their offense rolled up 429 yards a game during a 5-0 stretch run and was so successful that Gibbs said he'd use that three-wide-receiver formation about 60 percent of the time this season.

All that glitters isn't gold, and the Redskins limped through the first three games averaging 15.7 points. Receivers dropped passes, quarterbacks missed receivers and the running game went nowhere.

When Gibbs went back to two tight ends and two wide receivers, and overwhelmed the Cardinals, 38-10, was he abandoning his original plan?


Gibbs said, yes, he did want to reestablish the run and that even when the Cardinals put seven and eight men on the line of scrimmage, the Redskins ran anyway. Gerald Riggs got 95 yards, Earnest Byner 56 and the Redskins had 179 rushing yards, their best day in nearly a year.

Gibbs admitted later that he'd gotten too far away from the running game, and with quarterback Stan Humphries making his first start, it was a good time to reestablish basics.

But he said: "That was the only package we hadn't shown this year."

The Redskins had begun two games in a three-wide receiver set and one in a four-wide receiver set. Gibbs said he wanted the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles to see more than one look and to realize the Redskins could play three distinct styles.

But Gibbs emphasized that the shift away from three wide receivers isn't permanent.

"It'll depend on the game," he said. "Up until now, we've probably run three wides more than 60 percent of the time. We ran some of it last year against the Giants. Now, it's a matter of how much we want to do it this year. It's also how successful you are. In some games, you might be able to run the two-tight end set and have success. Other games, the defense isn't going to let you."

What the Redskins won't say publicly is that the three-receiver package is on the sideline for about another nine days -- until the New York Giants come to RFK Stadium.

The Giants have the No. 1-ranked defense in football. But with an outstanding line playing in front of superman Lawrence Taylor, the Giants essentially have allowed nothing on the ground -- 191 yards in four games. Only the San Francisco 49ers (224) are close and they've played one fewer game.

However, the Giants have allowed 702 passing yards, ranking only 12th. The Redskins caution that much of that yardage came after the Giants were comfortably in front and teams were passing every down.

Redskins coaches say that, even Riggins were in his prime today, they'd still have trouble running the ball as they ran it then. They say defenses have shifted in so many directions, and offenses are being forced to change.

"You can't ever go back to the way we ran it six, seven years ago," guard Russ Grimm said. "Back when Riggo was here, you went into a game and knew that team would run a 4-3 defense. Or a 3-4 defense. That's what you prepared for and that's what you got. Now, they'll show you all kinds of looks. You'd better be able to do some different things."

Gibbs said that at his best last season Riggs was as good as any back he has had. But even Riggs, who would like the ball tucked into his gut 40 times a game, says that kind of offensive football may be impossible, at least for now.

"The thing about this year is that everyone is going to eight-man fronts and defenses are built around stopping the run," Riggs said. "You have to do so many things to get a team out of those looks, but once you do, you can keep them from going back into it. Those defenses are the rage around the league this year."

Yet the Cardinals stacked seven and eight men on the line and the Redskins ran anyway.

"That was different," Riggs said. "We had to do something because our running game hasn't been up to snuff. Coach Gibbs decided we were going to run the ball regardless."

One result of all this is that Gibbs may have a tough time juggling all the talents and egos in his offense. Riggs carried the ball 19 times against the Cardinals. He had 21 carries in the first three games.

Ricky Sanders caught seven passes a week earlier against Dallas. He was shut out against the Cardinals.

And what about Kelvin Bryant, the third-down specialist? He has three receptions, two of them against the Cardinals.

Gibbs spoke to his players about that very thing yesterday and reminded them that if the Redskins are winning, everyone ought to be happy.

"None of them is going to get {the ball} as much as they like," he said. "I realize that. There are different weeks and it won't happen for everybody every week. The important part is for us to win, and I think they all feel that way. At the same time, you've got to watch that. Sometimes your own desires cause you to get upset."

The only receiver who has been busy every week is Gary Clark, who has caught at least three passes a game and has three touchdowns.

No one else has been overworked. Art Monk caught just one pass against the Cowboys and then got four for 23 yards against the Cardinals. His longest catch in Phoenix was for eight yards. He and Sanders have a touchdown apiece.

"You have to be a team player," Sanders said. "The game plan last week was the regular offense. Gary and Art are in there on that. When we're in heavy or three wides, I'm in there. That was just what Coach Gibbs decided to go with.

"It doesn't bother me. All the receivers want to get the ball. The week before I had 12 balls thrown to me. The week before that I had eight or nine. It averages out. "