With Sunday's 48-22 defeat of the Chicago Bears, the Washington Redskins climbed atop the NFC East and solidified their claim to the league's most prolific and productive offense.
But in the wake of the victory that boosted their record to 5-2, Coach Norv Turner and quarterback Brad Johnson, the player most responsible for executing Turner's strategic vision, sounded a similar, surprising theme: The NFL's highest-scoring offense, which is averaging just under 35 points per game, can be better still.
Johnson made the point immediately after the game, in which he threw his 13th and 14th touchdown passes and scrambled for another score.
"It gives us lot of things to work on," Johnson said of the victory. "We were a little bit off at certain times. We had some three-and-outs. We weren't as smooth in certain parts of the game. . . . But it's nice when you say you can play better. We have that type of potential. We can take this thing to another level."
Turner stressed much the same in talking with his players after reviewing film.
"We've got a lot of room to grow and improve," Turner said. "There are a lot of plays to be made out there that we are close to making that we're not quite making. There is a lot of room for improvement. If we will approach it that way--as individuals and as groups, whether linebackers, receivers, offense, defense or special teams--we can become a real good football team in the next two months."
Such talk stands in sharp contrast to Redskins teams and Redskins quarterbacks of the recent past, typically content after a big win to accentuate the share of plays they did make, rather than the opportunities that were lost. But as fullback Larry Centers put it, the 1999 Redskins are focused on the big picture--playing well throughout the season--rather than fixated on the previous week's accomplishments.
There was plenty Turner saw in Sunday's victory that was heartening.
The run defense improved, with the Redskins holding Chicago to 74 yards rushing. Turner credited better play by the Redskins' young linebackers, who are filling gaps they once missed, and safety Sam Shade, who paced the defense with eight tackles.
On offense, the Redskins were able to run the ball outside against a Bears defense that is resilient up the middle. The outside lanes aren't running back Stephen Davis's preferred route, but with creative play scripting by coaches and effective pulling by guards Tre Johnson and Keith Sims, Davis ran 76 yards for the Redskins' first score just 25 seconds into the game.
"When you can attack a team with something that's not your lead," Turner said, "that means you're getting better in a number of areas."
What also helped was the Redskins' ability to hang onto the ball. Their turnover differential, plus 11, leads the NFC and is second only to Kansas City (plus 13).
Spurred by early offensive fireworks, the crowd of 77,621 responded with the kind of energy and noise, Turner said, that translates to a palpable home-field advantage.
The Redskins also got a boost from recent acquisitions cornerback Mark McMillian and linebacker James Francis. Turner liked McMillian's coverage ability and the physicality of Francis, who isn't yet in "game shape." But both convinced Turner they can help next week as the Redskins face the daunting task of containing Buffalo quarterback Doug Flutie.
Turner expressed his satisfaction by buying his players lunch: a delivery of 50 pizzas. He awarded game balls to defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who returned an interception 88 yards for a touchdown; Davis, who rushed for a career-high 143 yards; left tackle Andy Heck, for stalwart blocking against his former team; and safety Matt Stevens, who had two interceptions.
But he didn't overlook the shortcomings.
The Redskins reduced their penalties, but still committed three for 15 yards (including a false start that helped bring a first-quarter drive to an early demise).
The special teams unit failed to recover a single one of Chicago's four onside kicks.
Johnson bobbled snaps twice, but turned both into positive plays (a touchdown run and a five-yard completion). Rodney Peete also had trouble with a snap late in the game.
The offense twice went three plays and out. And though the Redskins reduced the number of third-and-long situations, they still found themselves in the precarious spot five times--converting twice.
"We had penalties," Johnson said. "I'd like to be a little bit crisper in our passing game. When you go three and out, you put yourself in a bind at times. We can play much better."
Tre Johnson agreed.
"We're playing better than we have been, but the little things--the little extra effort things--can make us phenomenal," Johnson said. "Things like picking up that one blitzer who may not be our responsibility. Our picking up a blitz that we haven't seen but we should have known."
Despite Redskins officials' aggressive push to add a marquee player earlier in the season, Brad Johnson, for one, said he is convinced the team has the weapons to get the job done.
"This offense has every player intact that we need," Johnson said. "Sometimes it may be a missed blocking assignment. Sometimes, something else. There are a lot of little things we can work on and improve."