To Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, nothing is more gratifying than running the football through the heart of a defense. The crack of helmets at the line of scrimmage, the surge of the offensive linemen off the snap of the ball and the burst of a bruising running back into a hole defined his championship teams. They were notorious for being the most physical offensive units in football, powering their way to three Super Bowl titles.
But in the first three games of this season, the Redskins have been unable to gain vital yards on the ground at the most crucial junctures. The team has not had a rushing touchdown since Clinton Portis sprinted 64 yards on his first carry of the season in Week 1 and, of particular concern to the coaches, the Redskins (1-2) have been unable to run well in goal line situations. The Redskins enter today's game at Cleveland still looking to solidify their short-yardage ground game, knowing that a failure to run the ball effectively inside the 5-yard line probably cost them Monday night's game against Dallas.
The Redskins had three chances to score from the 1 at the end of the first half of the 21-18 loss and, after getting stuffed on a quarterback sneak, Portis's run off the right tackle and a batted down pass off a bootleg, had to settle for a field goal.
Washington has had to rely on rollout passes from quarterback Mark Brunell to score from close range this season -- such as on another goal line drive late in the Dallas game -- which is counter to Gibbs's goal line philosophy.
"To be truthful, we don't like to pass down there, we like to run," Gibbs said. "And I think you've got to be good with that. . . . You've got to get it in the end zone, and I probably hurt us with that [pass] I tried to run there. So that was kind of stubborn on what I thought would work, but you've got to find a way to get it in, that's the bottom line. . . . We kind of need to set our jaw and we can't let that happen again, basically, through coaching or playing or whatever."
Players said Washington's offensive line, a much-maligned unit a year ago that lost tackle Jon Jansen for the year when he tore his Achilles' tendon in the preseason, has not been entirely in sync on goal line plays.
"When it really counts we have a mistake here or there," left guard Derrick Dockery said.
For a short-yardage running play to succeed, everyone on the line must know precisely when the ball will be snapped and explode into the defensive line, creating a crevice for the runner to attack. Without that collective thrust and precision timing, the play likely will die at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield.
"It does look like just a scrum of 22 bodies," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said, "but there's a lot more to it than that. It comes down to being able to create a little bit of space down there."
In the past, Gibbs has employed a burly runner for goal line situations. Workhorse John Riggins was synonymous with Gibbs's teams of the early 1980s; a decade later Earnest Byner -- now the team's running backs coach -- was routinely replaced by the much bigger Gerald Riggs at the goal line.
Portis stands a modest 5 feet 11, 205 pounds, but Gibbs said he has no plans to substitute for him. "He's got power," Gibbs said, "That sucker plays tough." Portis says he has no reservations about diving in among the trees.
"You'll see me airborne, whatever it calls for," Portis said. "If it calls for me to go over the top or if it calls for me to crawl under the pile, I just want to get in the end zone."
Portis has 30 rushing touchdowns in 32 NFL games and has scored numerous times on goal line situations. It is conceivable that backup running back Ladell Betts (5-10, 222) or fullback Mike Sellers (6-3, 260) could get the call occasionally at the goal line. "Mike's been lobbying me since the [spring]," Byner said. '' 'Hey man, hey man, I just need one carry.' " But the coaches said they have not even discussed using anyone but Portis.
The Redskins have run 14 plays inside the 10-yard line this season, eight of them runs by either Portis or Brunell. Those eight carries have gained a total of seven yards. Four of those runs registered no gain or negative yardage, and Portis has six rushes for a total of six yards inside the 10 this season, with a longest run of three yards.
The Redskins have run only once on third down inside the 5 this season, when Brunell was stopped just short of a first down on a quarterback sneak in the opening victory over Tampa Bay.
Washington has started a series first and goal from the 1-yard line twice this season, and failed to gain that yard on four total running plays. The Redskins managed the field goal against the Cowboys and scored a touchdown in the Sept. 19 loss to the New York Giants when Brunell executed a pretty bootleg to his left and found rookie H-back Chris Cooley in the back of the end zone. The Redskins ran the same play to the right on third down from the 1 against Dallas and linebacker Dexter Coakley deflected Brunell's pass, which was nearly intercepted.
While the bootleg will be a staple of the playbook, Gibbs would much prefer to ram the ball over the goal line. That is in keeping with the hard-nosed identity he wants his team to forge.
"If you're a really good running goal line team down there, it does add a little swagger to your team," Breaux said. "It gives them confidence. So it's something we'll continue to work on and address."
"For an offense to really take the heart out of a defense," Byner said, "being in a goal line situation and being able to cram it down their throats even though they know it's coming is something that really can set a tempo and get your team going and pump up our defense."
For the opposing defense, on the other hand, a stop on the goal line is a huge morale boost. "All we talk about as a defense on the goal line is penetration," inside linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "There's a line drawn and we want to cross it."
A productive goal line running game stems from winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. If a defense is able to fire ahead and penetrate through the line, getting into the end zone becomes nearly impossible. On Brunell's sneak and Portis's two runs from inside the 2-yard line Monday, Dallas defenders broke into the backfield, leaving the ballcarriers with nowhere to go.
"They crashed inside knowing that we wanted to run inside," Portis said. "We felt like that's our strength and they crashed to it and they just had the perfect call on our quarterback sneak and on our handoff."
The Cowboys usually had six players along the goal line and seemed to predict what was coming, immediately accelerating to Portis on the final run of the first half and collapsing on the right side, where he was trying to run behind lead blocker Sellers and Cooley and between guard Randy Thomas and tackle Ray Brown.
"We got defeated on that play," said Brown, a 19-year veteran. "On that run we should score 100 percent of the time, because that's just big guys on big guys. . . . We needed to score a touchdown rather than a field goal there, and that probably cost us a ballgame."
A similar scenario unfolded against New York a week earlier when Portis tried to score by running to the left side. He was unable to make it back to the line of scrimmage on successive attempts near the goal line because of linebacker penetration. "It takes a certain type of person to play goal line," Sellers said. "We've got some really, really physical guys out there, and for us not to get in from the 1-yard line, that should never happen. That's something we have to fix."
Portis's speed makes him a viable option on a pitch or sweep at the goal line -- plays Washington has not displayed to this point -- but Gibbs favors a more straight-forward approach.
"We've got some outside running plays," said Brown, who played for Gibbs during his first coaching stint. "But we tend to be more of a downhill, smash-mouth team on the goal line. That generally plays to our strengths."
The frequency of passing attempts in goal line situations has not deterred Portis. Gibbs has shown a preference to throw on third down -- running out of timeouts forced him into a pass on Washington's final play of the first half against Dallas -- in part feeding off the success of the bootleg play that produced a touchdown against the Giants.
"I feel like we have things put in that are going to put us in a great situation," Portis said, "whether that's giving it to me or throwing it up to Rod [Gardner] or L.C. [Laveranues Coles]."
Gibbs has criticized himself for not getting Portis more carries in the two losses -- he ran 29 times in Week 1 and has 43 rushes since -- but the Redskins fell behind in the first half of both games, putting more of an emphasis on passing.
There was only one sequence Monday when Portis carried the ball more than two straight times, but that could change drastically today, particularly when the Redskins are nearing the goal line.
"I've never known a Joe Gibbs-coached team to struggle and have a lot of trouble in running the football," said Browns Coach Butch Davis, who coached Portis for a season at the University of Miami. "It's been a huge forte of theirs and every team I've ever watched him coach. [Their goal line problems] may just be a temporary thing where somebody on defense made a great defensive play and they got penetration . . . but I'm sure they'll work their situation out."