Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs occasionally stacks a cluster of receivers on the right side of the offensive line. Sometimes the three wideouts are on the left. During Monday night's 21-18 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Gibbs introduced another unusual formation for short-yardage situations -- four tight ends.
The offensive alignments are often preceded by multiple player shifts, with H-backs and ends moving from one side of the line to the other or going in motion to confound the defense before the snap.
During his first stint as Redskins head coach from 1981 to 1992, Gibbs garnered a reputation as an offensive innovator, and his teams scored a lot of points. But in three games this year, the Redskins' offense has had trouble implementing Gibbs's sophisticated packages -- and at times has looked confused before the snap.
That problem haunted Washington against Dallas, especially in the second half, when the Redskins were forced to spend two of their three timeouts to make sure they had the proper offensive set. It was a major reason that Gibbs was out of timeouts as the game ended on the Dallas 21-yard line, with wide receiver Rod Gardner unable to get out of bounds to stop the clock and give the Redskins time for a possible game-tying field goal.
Gibbs said yesterday that he intends to make the offense less complicated to help out his players.
"I've got to simplify some things we're doing there, package-wise and everything," Gibbs said. "We're trying to do too much and I've got to simplify that because we shouldn't get caught in those situations, and we did."
In the second half against Dallas, the Redskins had used all three of their timeouts with 13 minutes left in the game. Two were used to fix mix-ups in offensive packages, and the other was lost after Washington unsuccessfully challenged a fourth-quarter touchdown by Dallas.
After Gibbs retired in 1993, the NFL reduced its play clock -- the amount of time an offense has between plays -- from 45 seconds to 40 seconds. Those extra ticks have often been the difference in sending in the appropriate personnel on time.
Gibbs used the offseason to adjust to the reduced play clock. Beginning in his first minicamp in March, he simulated the clock while using referees to call infractions. During practices, Redskins players generally responded well to the quickened pace of getting aligned.
Gardner has said that the receivers moved "100 miles per hour" during preseason to get it right. Darnerien McCants added yesterday: "In practice we look fine. It's game time out there for the most part."
But that wasn't the case Monday.
Washington used its first second-half timeout with 5:38 left in the third quarter when it faced fourth and one at the Dallas 41. Teams often use timeouts in such situations to make sure all the players understand the play being called. Gibbs called a pass, and it went incomplete. However, the drive was kept alive because of a roughing the passer penalty.
Three plays later, with a first and 10 on the Dallas 16, the Redskins had to call a timeout again because they were not in the right formation.
Washington was left with no timeouts two minutes into the fourth quarter when it challenged whether Cowboys wide receiver Terry Glenn had caught Richie Anderson's fullback option pass inbounds at the back of the end zone. The trick play gave Dallas a 21-10 lead, which seemed insurmountable the way Washington's offense had been struggling.
Normally, Gibbs said he depends on on his replay official, Larry Hill, a former referee who was hired during the offseason as a full-time officiating consultant, before he challenges a play. Hill sits in a booth far above the field, where he can watch the television feeds and replays.
But on the Glenn reception, Gibbs didn't wait to hear from his assistant, Gibbs said yesterday. He said he challenged the play himself.
"That was a huge play," Gibbs said of his decision. "It put them up by a ton, and so if it was close I wanted to try and at least take our shot. I'd sure hate to be sitting here today saying that thing was out of bounds.
"I felt like where the game was right there, I needed to do it. So that one goes with me. That's my mistake."
McCants said that the Redskins receivers will welcome the scaled-down schemes.
"Sometimes it's overload. It's so much info in the brain," McCants said. "You hear 'zip, zap, zoom, zig, zag.' And you go, 'huh?' Game time, some guys can handle it, and to some guys it gets a little confusing."
Quarterback Mark Brunell said that he can do a better job making sure players are in proper alignment and calling the plays faster. But yesterday, Gibbs took virtually all the responsibility for the team's miscues.
"When we practice those packages in practice lots of time, we have specific people practicing them," Gibbs said. "So that's an example of me not doing a good job of getting everybody on the same page, making sure the right person is in there. So I think I need to back off some. I think I can help ourselves there."
Washington's offensive woes go beyond proper alignment and clock management. The Redskins are averaging only 16 points as the offense looks out of sync -- running and passing. Washington's pass protection has regressed since preseason.
"We're just not real smooth over there," Gibbs said.
But Gibbs praised Brunell, who struggled for most of the game Monday night before coming alive in the fourth quarter. Brunell finished with 325 passing yards for two touchdowns, with no interceptions.
"I thought the guy had a heroic game," Gibbs said. "I think he made tons of plays. I'm excited about the way he played, and I told him so afterward."
Gibbs bemoaned the officiating in the game, and said he had sent two plays to the league office for review -- a 40-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Walt Harris that led to Dallas's first touchdown in the first quarter and a pass to Gardner in the end zone early in the fourth quarter when the receiver was apparently bumped by a defensive back.
"Two awful calls," Gibbs groused, "and both of them went against us."