The Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers played a preseason game so ugly it deserved to be deluged by rain. Instead, even the remnants of Hurricane Charley refused to show.
The tropical storm, and about half a stadium of no-shows at FedEx Field, missed a contest that was a 3-3 mess well into the second half when almost every starter had departed. Who would have guessed the first home game of Joe Gibbs's return would drive TV watchers to the arms of synchronized diving from Athens?
"I like their spirit. They have a lot of heart. . . . They are laying it out there," Gibbs said after his Redskins had lost in overtime, 23-20, to the defending NFC champions. "But we are making way too many mistakes on offense, all across the board. We have some concerns. We are not running the ball [successfully]. . . . You cannot turn the ball over that many times. . . . It's disappointing."
The expected torrential downpour never arrived yet the teams couldn't have been more ragged for the first 40 minutes, when Carolina led, 10-3, if they had played all night in rain that was blowing sideways.
If you love punts, followed by unforced turnovers, followed by more punts, this was the game for you. Yes, it's early. But it's not March minicamp either. And running between the tackles, which the old Gibbs teams did at will and his current club hasn't done worth a lick, is strictly fundamental blocking, precise execution and violence. A dozen years haven't changed that.
"We're vanilla right now. We're not showing a whole lot [of the playbook]. It's early. But there are no excuses," said Mark Brunell who, after an interception and a fumble, closed his night with an excellent 61-yard touchdown bomb up the left sideline to Darnerien McCants to tie the game at 10.
This game's conclusion produced similarities to Monday's 20-17 win over Denver in Canton, Ohio. With third-string quarterback Tim Hasselbeck at the controls, the Redskins scored 10 fourth-quarter points to lead 20-17. However, this time Hasselbeck's Cinderfella fantasies ended before midnight as he threw two interceptions that helped the Panthers win.
In both these exhibitions, however, it would be more accurate to say the Redskins were competitive, but trailing -- 9-3 and 10-3 in the third quarter -- by the time almost all of the high-paid talent for both teams had left the field.
In their first game after a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers have excuses: rust and a lack of motivation. The Redskins had fewer explanations. They already played, and won, on Monday. Perhaps the short week of work hurt them. That's reasonable. But the Redskins also used many of their offensive starters a full quarter longer than Carolina, but still managed only three points and three first downs (excluding penalties) in the entire first half.
Patrick Ramsey, ostensibly in a competition for the starting quarterback spot with Brunell, had a second straight homely performance in Gibbs's system. Ramsey fumbled snaps from center twice in the first quarter. That makes three in two exhibitions, plus all the snaps he's fumbled in practice. Such deeds make Gibbs's hair curl.
Patrick, this is your center, Lennie Friedman. Lennie, this is Patrick. Can we work this thing out? No more high school mistakes are allowed. They were supposed to leave town with the last administration.
Lots of things drive the meticulous Gibbs crazy, few more than fumbled exchanges. However, Ramsey also underthrew Laveranues Coles, who had a step deep for a potential touchdown bomb. Instead, Ramsey was intercepted. That's high on Gibbs's list of sins, too. Ramsey finished 4 of 11 for 62 yards and a quarterback rating of 18.0.
"I don't think I saw the field well and I don't think I threw the ball well," said Ramsey. As for the fumbled snaps, "It's something I have to do [better.]" Other than that, a heck of a night.
All summer the Redskins have crowed about the running game they hope to have with Clinton Portis running behind what the Redskins believe can be a first-rate offensive line. The loss of injured Jon Jansen, damaging as it is, should not shut down an entire running game, even against a defense as fine as Carolina's. Washington averaged 1.6 yards on 12 carries in the first half and didn't have a quality running play until the Panthers emptied the bench. Tackle Kenyatta Jones, getting the first shot at replacing Jansen, allowed one sack of Ramsey to Julius Peppers, a fate common to many, but still not reassuring.
"Mistakes are killing us," said tackle Chris Samuels, echoing an issue that has recurred for the last -- let's count on our fingers and toes -- about 12 years. "But we'll pick it up. Right now, we're holding a lot back. [Other teams] know the plays we are going to run."
The full, often exotic Gibbs offense will arrive in time, perhaps with plenty of new wrinkles. Then a real verdict will arrive. Still, mistake-free execution is a prerequisite before frills. And current execution is far below Gibbs's standards.
In Monday's feisty win over Denver, the defense of new boss Gregg Williams distinguished itself with its gambling pressure. This time, the pressure returned occasionally. But it also came at a huge price. Twice in the second half, Carolina wide receiver Keary Colbert caught ridiculously uncontested touchdown passes of 42 and 68 yards.
On the first score, a blown defensive assignment left Colbert alone by 10 yards with no Redskin in his vicinity until he dove over the goal line. On the second, safety Ifeanyi Ohalete probably wishes he could claim he didn't know what defense he was playing. Colbert turned him inside out so badly that he was open deep by more than five yards -- the NFL equivalent of a country mile. No wonder Williams spent much of the game with a perplexed expression.
While the Redskins have been as "rough" in these two games as they've been in practice, they are also playing with extremely high energy and clearly have a revived sense -- at least for now -- that they can compete with winning teams. At the minimum, a Redskins team that lost 10 of its last 12 games, and was utterly dejected, is playing with a sense of purpose and commitment.
Years from now, if the Gibbs II Era goes well, all that will be remembered is that the new/old coach immediately "inspired" the Redskins to a win and an overtime battle with a Super Bowl team in his first two exhibitions. What obvious progress! If matters don't go so well, then tapes of these games can be exhumed to document a ragged mistake-riddled Redskins operation that still has considerable work to do. And only four weeks before the opening game to do it.