Joe Gibbs was there, striding the sideline with his clipboard in hand, staring at the field through those wise-seeming spectacles, his face faintly sepia-toned as befits a legend, and creased with that reassuring seriousness of purpose. Gibbs was there, and so was his "aura." So what went wrong?
The Gibbs "aura" was supposed to prevent this. One thing the Redskins wouldn't do under Gibbs was beat themselves, it was said when the Redskins hired him to return as their head coach. Gibbs's teams don't make mistakes. And yet that's exactly what the Redskins did against the New York Giants. They beat themselves repeatedly, over and over again, committing such a catalog of hapless mistakes that their seven turnovers -- five shared between quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey, plus the two fumbles by Clinton Portis -- were just part of it. That's not counting the fumbled snaps, dropped passes, seven penalties, a missed field goal and other miscues and acts of self-sabotage. "We made so many mistakes today," said a clearly baffled Gibbs. "I think back and I don't know that I have seen that many."
Here's the deal on auras: Auras can't complete passes. Auras can't catch passes. Auras can't make tackles or bat Kurt Warner passes down in the end zone. Auras can't hang on to the football.
"The coach preached all week," Portis said. "He kept telling us, 'Let's not turn the ball over.' Then we come out and turn the ball over seven times."
So how about we give Gibbs a break on this whole aura thing, and take a hard look at how good this team really is, or isn't. Because when the aura wears off, what the Redskins are left with is themselves, and in the end even the great Gibbs will be only as good as they are. A Hall of Fame coach can do a lot, but he can't trump his personnel and their inherent weaknesses, or at least not for long.
Anybody who thought Gibbs was going to accomplish a presto transformation with the Redskins was deluding themselves. The question is, what's achievable. With this roster? They should be happy with 9-7. They should be thrilled with 10-6. They could be looking at 8-8. It's too early to make sweeping declarative statements about them, and they have plenty of time to get better or worse, but based on their 1-1 record and their performances so far, that's a reasonable projection.
Watching the Redskins mess around against the Giants, playing one-step-up-and-two-steps-back, they resembled the same team that was coached by Steve Spurrier a year ago. The schemes and a lot of the faces were different, but the unevenness was the same. How could that be? One reason may be that the Redskins are so continually a team in flux. Gibbs is their fifth head coach in five years. Last year the Redskins turned over a third of the roster, and this year 25 of their 53 players are new. The best antidote to mistakes is continuity and that's one thing the Redskins perennially lack.
Is there such a thing as a good loss? Maybe. The Redskins will now do some serious self-examining, and take a sober look at what's correctable and what's not. But the problem is that this is a team with a $110 million payroll, studded with veterans and free agents, who are playing in a division that's there for the taking, the NFC East. The Giants were on the verge of total disarray coming into the game, but now their confidence is partly restored. The Redskins had a golden opportunity to make a deep impression on a division rival, and they failed to. What's obvious is that for all of the roster and coaching changes, the Redskins still aren't any better at some positions.
It's not just the quarterbacks, either. Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey were just short of dreadful but they were only the most obvious weakness. The Redskins' offensive line at times did them no favors. "They got hit too much," offensive lineman Ray Brown said.
If there is a significant difference in the Redskins between last season and this one, it's their attacking defense, which kept them alive by stuffing the Giants in the fourth quarter, when one more touchdown would have put it away. The Redskins' best asset may be assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, who is doing a terrific job of stoking his unit with aggression. But he's hiding some weaknesses, too. They have a great linebacker corps, but there are members of their secondary who can be had and their line is just okay -- as Kurt Warner demonstrated, when he had all the time in the world to throw to a wide-open Tim Carter, who beat Matt Bowen on a 38-yard scoring strike in the second quarter. Still, the defense gave the Redskins every chance in the world to win it -- and if even a single possession went differently, we'd still be talking about the Gibbs aura.
"That we still had a chance to win was kind of encouraging," said LaVar Arrington. "The biggest thing I'll take away from this is that a lot of guys stepped up and gave us a chance."
There is another difference between this season's Redskins and last, and it's trust. They trust that Gibbs is a proven NFL winner. "You take a year ago, with seven turnovers they probably give up," Portis said. "But nobody ever gave up, the will to win was there. Everybody believed."
That's something to build on. But the Redskins need solid, substantive improvements too. And they need sensible expectations, that are not a matter of aura. Last week the Redskins looked promising, this week they look doomed. Which team are they? Both. This is who they are, realistically, both the good and the bad.