After Washington's woeful 17-13 loss Sunday in Cleveland, running back Clinton Portis asserted that his problems gaining yardage were at least partially attributable to the Browns' defense somehow calling out the Redskins' plays before the team could run them.
But after poring over game tape with his assistants and players, Coach Joe Gibbs discredited that theory yesterday and again blamed turnovers, penalties and mistakes for his club's third straight loss, one in which it accrued just 265 net yards.
"We went through the film," Gibbs said in his weekly news conference, "and we went through it all together sitting there looking at it. I think you've got to understand something about football. . . . Everybody says they know what you're running and you say, 'Why?' And they say, 'They were yelling screen, draw, run and pass.'
"In this case in this game there were two plays I felt like [the Browns defenders] were pointing to something as if to say we were going to run the football, and we did run the football and we made four yards and eight [yards]. I didn't see anything like that on the film and I studied it real close."
Gibbs's offensive system has yet to take hold in his return from an 11-year retirement, and the Redskins (1-3) rank 25th in scoring through four weeks. The lack of a consistent deep passing game has resulted in opponents stacking extra defenders near the line of scrimmage to thwart Portis and the offensive line, leaving the team struggling to run or pass effectively for much of Sunday's game.
Washington managed a total of 73 rushing yards -- held to under three yards per carry -- with Portis producing 58 yards on 20 carries. Portis, who declined to comment yesterday, has failed to rush for 100 yards since the opening game, which was the team's only victory. Gibbs's attack is based on weakening a defense with a bruising offensive line and power running game, but that steady sequence of four-yard gains has been lacking for much of the season. Portis, a smaller back at 5 feet 11, 205 pounds, has been willing to run hard inside but rarely had a hole to hit Sunday; in addition, his speed is his primary weapon, which may be best utilized on outside plays.
When Gibbs was leading the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles from 1981 to '92, there was little doubt about his primary offensive philosophy, but his superior line and rotation of quality runners usually prevented opponents from stopping the ground assault.
Gibbs pointed to a sequence in the fourth quarter Sunday when the Browns essentially knew he was going to use a running play called 40-Gap: He called it anyway and the Redskins gained six yards on first down. But on the next play his blockers failed to account for an onrushing linebacker and Portis was knocked for a four-yard loss; those types of setbacks have been common as the team continues to try to fill the void left by a season-ending injury to right tackle Jon Jansen.
"We dropped back rushing and hurt ourselves on penalties and made some key mistakes in there," Gibbs said. "That's not good enough. Yeah, we're not where we want to be rushing the football."
Quarterback Mark Brunell completed only 17 of 32 passes for 192 yards and has been held below 200 yards passing three times this season. He has been at his best when throwing on the run -- particularly on bootlegs -- and he thrived in the first half Sunday when given the chance to call his own plays in a no-huddle offense. Washington adopted a West Coast approach on two scoring drives, getting to the line of scrimmage quickly, utilizing short drops and 5- to 10-yard routes with its receivers. Brunell, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, pumped the ball to receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner during those two series -- which resulted in 10 points -- and completed 9 of 12 passes on those drives for 96 yards. He was 8 for 20 for 96 yards during the rest of the game.
"We tried packages there that were no huddle," Gibbs said. "We stopped ourselves on two of the first drives [with penalties] and after that we had two really good drives with that. I think we averaged something like six yards per attempt with it, so I thought it was good."
Gibbs likes setting a fast tempo with the no-huddle sets and preventing defenses from making substitutions, but said he will use that approach judiciously. ("We kind of pick our spots on some of that stuff," he said.) The receivers are enthused about the opportunity to try a West Coast style again if possible Sunday night against Baltimore's stout defense.
"I think it would work," Gardner said. "We were moving the ball down the field. I think it was a good offense. The way we let Brunell call [plays] from the line, I think it was a good change-up. . . . I wish we would have kept it going, but, I mean, at the time, I don't know if Coach wanted to run the ball. I don't know what adjustments we made."
Receiver James Thrash said: "Every time Mark was out there in that situation, the offense moved the ball extremely well. I think he does a great job with that, being the leader out there and coordinating everything and having everyone lined up in the right place."
The entire offense slumped on third down against the Browns, however, going 1 for 11 on conversions. Brunell was 1 for 9 on third-down throws Sunday, but Washington needed an average of over seven yards on third down in that game, allowing the defense to key on the pass. Brunell is 9 for 14 with two touchdowns when he throws on third down with four or fewer yards needed, and has produced six first downs on those plays. But it takes a strong running game to put the team in those more advantageous situations and they rarely have clicked in the same game.
"It's big, and it's hard to overcome," Gibbs said of the repeated third-and-long scenarios.
Besides poring over film and putting players through a brief practice, Gibbs also spent yesterday gauging his team's attitude. Players are down after failing to meet expectations through the first quarter of the season, he said, and the coaches tried to keep their spirits up during their weekly team meeting.
"We're 1-3, and it's a tough thing in football when you're going through that," Gibbs said. "But life a lot of the time is that way, too. Football, to me, is a lot like life. . . . There's two things that really test us -- adversity and real success. We're being tested right now, and we'll have to see how we work our way out of it."