Last year, one word sent chills down the Redskins' spines: "Blitz!" They couldn't stop it. And they couldn't do it.
In an era when the whole NFL is blitz crazy -- from subtle zone blitzes to flood-the-box jailbreak blitzes -- the Redskins were hopelessly out of step on both offense and defense.
Coach Steve Spurrier thought that "protecting the passer" meant making sure that his quarterback had remembered to wear his helmet and shoulder pads. Beyond that, you're on your own, son. Just try to pitch it and catch it before they decapitate you.
Rookie defensive coordinator George Edwards's signature decision was to move LaVar Arrington, who had 11 sacks in '02, from weak- to strong-side linebacker. Why? Who knows? Every NFC East rival cheered. Now big tight ends could block LaVar.
As a result, the Redskins spent an entire season ducking and covering. Opponents had 43 sacks to the Redskins' 27. The Redskins' offensive linemen, often confused by multiple audibles on the same play, came offsides and missed assignments. No defender had as many as seven sacks and highly paid -- and since-departed -- Jeremiah Trotter had 1.5.
Now all that has changed.
New assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams would rush 12 men on every play if he thought officials couldn't count past 11. The man is a blitz freak, a pressure junkie, a chaos cultist. On the first play of minicamp with players in helmets but no pads, he blitzed all 11 defenders against a nine-man offensive unit. "The defense always cheats," said Joe Gibbs, who agreed with Williams's suggestion that the 11-on-nine blitz would be a "tone-setter" for the defense.
And Arrington? The team's highest-paid player is back on the weak side where he can roam and wreak havoc. "Man, move me away from that strong side," said Arrington at training camp yesterday. "Coach Williams is blitzing us from all kinds of directions. . . . His defense is just no-holds-barred. He's coming. He doesn't care if you know. Just so you feel uncomfortable."
Williams can sum up his defensive philosophy in five words: "Always attack. Dictate to them." Of former Bears assistant coach Buddy Ryan he speaks reverently, except to add, thanks to the zone blitz, defenses can go ballistic even more often. "We'll be as aggressive this season as our personnel will allow us to be," said Williams. "I hope LaVar has the best year of his career."
Every Redskins defensive move during the offseason has been to add speed and increase ability to rush the passer -- from all angles. The Redskins chose Sean Taylor with their No. 5 overall pick in the draft because, in a wild-and-woolly defense, a fast, hard-hitting, physically gifted safety is a prerequisite in the last line of defense, where he can erase mistakes or cause turnovers.
"Keep your eye on number 53. He's a big-time player," Williams said of linebacker Marcus Washington, who had six sacks last season, more than all but one Redskin.
What about that supposedly inferior defensive line? Pressure always starts in the pits. "We'll play defensive lines in waves to stay fresh. We think of all seven as starters," said Williams, in what may be an admission that the Redskins must hope they can make up in quantity what they lost in quality. "For them to go 75 percent on even one play is a crime."
"When I started, you might play one defense that was very aggressive, then the next week you'd face somebody who backed off," said veteran quarterback Mark Brunell. "Now you can expect it from almost everybody every week. That's the defensive trend in the league -- create chaos. Dallas is a perfect example."
Yes, even Bill Parcells has converted.
To defeat such defenses, you need an offense that puts a premium on pass blocking, keeps assignments relatively simple and depends on a strong running game to make play-action fakes credible. Then you have to be willing to hold back one or two eligible receivers so that your quarterback won't be swamped into bad decisions and turnovers.
In other words, you need the antithesis of the complex, pass-first, everybody-go-deep Fun 'n' Gun. And who would that stylistic opposite be? What coach made his name by running John Riggins off tackle 35 times a game so he could soften you up for a few play-action bombs with only two or three receivers in the pattern? Who loved to see opponents blitz so that he could throw deep fades to Gary Clark or even little Alvin Garrett, who once caught three scoring passes against blitzes in the same playoff game? What coach always drew up his pass-blocking schemes for every play before he designed his pass routes?
The name escapes me.
But a lot of offensive linemen who were embarrassed last season, especially tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels, look very happy these days as Joe Bugel schools them in the old-time pass-protection-is-next-to-godliness canon of Joe Gibbs.
"Bugel is doing everything he can to simplify things for the front five," Jansen said.
In other words, just the opposite of last year's complexity?
"Oh, and you saw how well we picked that up," said Jansen, laughing ruefully. "I'm going for 'simple' right now."
It's Samuels, once a potential Hog-quality star but a bust in '03, who probably needs the new regime most. Never a chiseled specimen, he's at just under 300 pounds for the first time.
"Sometimes last year we just felt like we were taking blows," said Samuels of the constant blitzes against the under-protected Patrick Ramsey. "What we missed in the past was somebody who would get on us about details. If you mess up [with Bugel], the next day he will replace you. That's how he throws it at you. I love somebody on me. It just drives me."
Jansen and Samuel arrived with hopes of having careers comparable to Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm. Yet just eight months ago, they wondered if their Redskins careers would be forgettable. Now they seem rejuvenated.
"Bugel has those [offensive] guys on a whole different program," said Arrington. "They're fighting, scratching and pawing just like we are. They got the better of us this morning. He creates a situation where you like him so much you don't want to disappoint him. Your effort level has no choice but to go up. Oh, you can tell the difference in those guys already."
Or as Samuels says of his new (but old) offensive coaches: "Watching them is like seeing a family reunion -- the uncles, the grandfathers. It's wisdom, man. They walk around with chips on their shoulders."
And rings on their fingers. Ex-Hog Jeff Bostic flashed one of his oversized Super Bowl arm-stretchers at Arrington.
"Let me see that," said Arrington as Bostic took off the ring.
"You want it?" said Bostic.
"No, I need my own," said Arrington, wearing the magnificent monstrosity.
"They don't sell those things in a bubblegum machine," said Bostic.
"I hear people around here say they're not going to wear their rings," said Arrington, referring to Gibbs, who says the old days are gone and won't wear his jewelry. "If I get one, they won't be able to get it away from me. I'll be wearing it in the games."
You can buy the bling bling, but not the ring rings.