There's still a way for the Washington Redskins to get into the playoffs and be competitive with anybody: run the football. There's one thing the Redskins are great at, one thing they do as well as any team in the NFL, and that's run the football. Even with all the terminology, all the complex formations and men in motion, sometimes the best thing a team can do is so simple: Hand the ball to the running back and let him run behind a bunch of guys who are good at smashing somebody in the mouth.
Stephen Davis and his linemen reminded us yesterday that they are the strength of the team, and that if used properly the Redskins can be pretty darn good. A week after Davis was barely used, Norv Turner gave him the ball yesterday, and Davis carried it 37 times for 189 yards in a 28-3 old-fashioned smash-mouth NFC East victory.
It's exactly the way the Redskins ought to play the rest of the season. Even though the Cardinals' defense against the rush was next to last in the league entering the game, it would be silly to doubt Davis's impact at this point. He's the third-leading rusher in the NFL, trailing only Tennessee's fabulous Eddie George and Colts rookie phenom Edgerrin James. Davis is 19 yards away from breaking the Redskins' club record for rushing yards in a season. The Redskins are the No. 4 rushing team in the entire league, and the No. 1 rushing team in the NFC, primarily because of Davis. As great as Brad Johnson and Michael Westbrook have been this season, Stephen Davis is the best thing the Redskins have going for them. Any strategy that doesn't start with Davis and smash-mouth football is seriously flawed.
"Pass blocking is part of our responsibility, yes," guard Tre Johnson said. "But why would you want to be passive and have to react all the time to them bringing the blitz and teeing off on you? Let's point at a guy and go after him. Let's dictate to them, let's make them play the game on our terms. Let's mash them, let's wear them down."
Running the ball isn't just a strategy, it's an identity, it's a badge of honor and toughness. A team that can line up and put the defense on its butt gains more than the yards. A great running game literally destroys a defense, humiliates it. Worked pretty well for John Riggins and The Hogs, didn't it? "To me, it's the single most important factor in establishing what kind of team you're going to be," Tre Johnson said.
Even late in the game, with Davis headed past 35 carries and toward 40, the linemen couldn't wait to break the huddle and get to the line of scrimmage to hit somebody. "Yeah, Stephen was tired. We all were," Tre Johnson said. "But he never stopped going north and south, he never stopped hitting the hole hard, he kept getting six and seven yards a pop, didn't he?"
It's not just Davis's preference. Smash-mouth football is the personality of the linemen. Look at them. Cory Raymer, the center, went to Wisconsin, a Big Ten school, a running school. Jon Jansen, the right tackle, went to Michigan, another Big Ten school, Bo Schembechler's school, an original three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust school. Andy Heck, the starting left tackle, went to Notre Dame, where the forward pass wasn't introduced until the 1980s. Keith Sims, the left guard, went to Iowa State, a school that like its neighbor, Nebraska, finds more than 10 passes a game to be an affront to manhood. And Tre Johnson, while not a good Midwestern boy like the others--he went to Temple--is just a tough, in-the-trenches, workboots-and-T-shirt kind of guy.
Running the ball is who they are. And they were right to say publicly after last week's underuse of Davis--only three carries in the second half--that Turner should call more running plays. This wasn't insubordination, it was desperately needed injection of common sense. It was good to hear Norv take a clever swipe at himself yesterday when he said, "We got [Davis] rested up a week ago, so he was ready for 37 carries today."
Davis was ready for 37 carries even though he suffered from flu and was throwing up during the game while finding it difficult to breathe through a stuffy nose. "The coaches kept asking me, 'Do you feel better?' and I said yes, even though I didn't," Davis said. "It's my job. Sometimes you've got to go to work sick."
He was ready to carry 37 times last week too, but when penalties and Turner's play-calling kept his carries down to 12 the entire game.
Jets wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson is a guy who'll tell the coaches, "Give me the darn ball." Davis isn't. Asked if he asked the coaches for more carries, Davis said, "No, I didn't. It's not my style to do that. Some guys tell coaches to let them do more, I try to show them I'm ready to do more. What we did today is something I wanted to do. It's something every offensive lineman wanted to do. We thrive on it. Their mentality is to run the ball; they stay on their blocks very well."
Davis isn't a smooth-talking guy you'll see providing flash sound bites. But if you want on-the-mark analysis, he makes good common sense every single week. And there are so many pieces of evidence to back up his case. By running the ball so well, the Redskins held on to the ball more than 17 minutes longer than the Cardinals. They outgained the Cardinals 226 yards to 53 on the ground. By running the ball so well on first and second downs, the Redskins stayed out of third-and-long situations, which helped them convert 63 percent (12 of 19) of their third downs for the game.
If you can run the ball like that well, it keeps your defense off the field. It keeps the other team's offense off the field. And it reduces the number of shots your quarterback takes because he doesn't drop back as much. There's no downside whatsoever to using Davis and the running game (including Brian Mitchell and Larry Centers as change-of-pace guys) to set up Brad Johnson and the passing game.
The line and Davis played all day like they had a chip on their shoulders. Dan Snyder calling private meetings with some players earlier in the week and having a players-only meeting were fine ways of showing a sense of urgency. But running the football with some attitude the way the Redskins did could be a major breakthrough. "From the players' perspective," Tre Johnson said, "running the ball, that's our point of confidence. If we're allowed the opportunity to do it, we'll make it work."
One would hope the coaches, particularly Norv, are listening.
"We've got a really tough game coming up next week," Davis said of the Redskins' date with the Colts in Indianapolis. "You know if their offense is on the field, they're going to make plays. So we have to keep them off the field. There's one way to do it."
Run the ball.