Despite the glitches that made Sunday's 20-17 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Eagles closer than it should have been, Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner plans to stick with what has helped get his team to its 7-4 record and status atop the NFC East standings.
That means turning up the wick on the running game, ranked fourth in the NFL, by virtue of the 1,095 yards and 16 touchdowns scored by Stephen Davis.
It means continuing to coach wide receiver Albert Connell through his flashes of inexperience and impetuousness--such as his failure, in the final seconds of Sunday's first half, to step out of bounds on two receptions during a frantic two-minute drive. His lapse cost his team what could have been a crucial scoring opportunity.
It means sticking with a plan to have Brian Mitchell and James Thrash alternate duties on kickoff returns.
And it apparently means counting on place kicker Brett Conway to regain his form even though he has missed six of his last 12 field goal attempts--including a 28-yarder with five seconds remaining that would have won the game in regulation.
The Redskins hung on to win the game on Conway's 27-yarder 4 minutes 34 seconds into overtime.
"He's a good kicker--a very talented kicker," Turner said. "He's not the first guy to go through this. You've got to fight through it, keep your confidence and rely on your technique and your ability."
Asked if Conway's job was in jeopardy, Turner said: "He made the kick, so we don't have to answer that question, do we?"
After a day spent studying videotape, Turner proclaimed the victory "as close to playing a complete game as we have."
It was a game in which the Redskins offense "got over a hump," as Turner put it--showing patience and, for the most part, poise as the Eagles defense took away big plays and forced the Redskins into measured, methodical marches downfield.
Players were given yesterday off. The privilege, Turner said, came at a good time and afforded coaches more time to prepare for Detroit, also 7-4, a team Washington last faced in 1997.
When players return to Redskin Park today, they will learn that Turner awarded game balls to fullback Larry Centers, who led the team in receptions (nine); safety Sam Shade, who led the team in tackles (nine); and Mitchell, whose 45-yard kickoff return gave the Redskins a chance to win in regulation.
"Probably the thing that lit the fire was Brian's return," Turner said. "They kick off and--bang!--we return to the [36-] yard line. You don't have so far to go, and it gets you going."
Thrash was tapped to return the kickoff in overtime. With Mitchell as his lead blocker, Thrash ran it back 48 yards, setting up the game-winning drive.
The changeup, Turner said yesterday, delivered just what he had hoped.
"I think the fact that James is back there with him and we're a little more two-dimensional back there and can mix up our returns probably is creating a little bit of a problem for coverage teams," Turner said.
Both returners benefited from better blocking. The Redskins' special teams lineup isn't as big as many other teams' but has gotten a punch from recent acquisitions Curtis Buckley and Eddie Mason, as well as rotating starters, such as Shade and Leomont Evans.
The decision about which player fields the kickoff is made at the moment, based on the feel of the game, special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel said.
"Brian is a veteran that has good vision, as far as knowing how to run returns," McDaniel said. "James Thrash is a fast man. . . . It gives you an opportunity to give people a different look."
After the Redskins took a 17-3 lead, defensive lapses let the Eagles back in the game. The defense, which has moved up to 29th in the NFL (29th against both the run and the pass), allowed the Eagles to rush for 142 yards, including 71 by quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles also converted 40 percent of their third downs and all three of their fourth-down attempts.
On offense, Davis gained just 61 yards. But Turner attributed the modest total to the Eagles' blitzing and their burly defensive tackles. On those occasions when a lane opened up, Davis hit it hard, Turner said.
"If anything, we're going to crank Stephen up and get him going in the stretch run," Turner said. "He's going to get the ball."
Centers also should figure more prominently in future games. With Connell and Michael Westbrook often double-teamed, quarterback Brad Johnson funneled most of his throws to Centers, who fought for yardage after each catch.
"That's exactly how I expected to be used," said Centers, who was signed in the offseason after a standout career with Arizona. Centers now is tied with Westbrook as the team's second-leading receiver, with 45 catches. Connell has 47.
Sunday's final margin wouldn't have been so close, in all likelihood, if Connell hadn't mismanaged the clock and stayed inbounds on his two receptions late in the first half.
"There's no question, he knows he should have gone out of bounds both times," Turner said. "He got caught up in it. We're going to keep coaching Albert. He's going to keep working at it, and he's going to eliminate those kinds of mistakes."