Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs gathered his offensive players yesterday for an extensive get-together after grading the game film of Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The morning-after meeting was part instructional and part pep talk.
The Redskins have dropped to 1-4 despite a strong showing by the defense this season. The inept offense -- which was expected to be a high-powered unit after the offseason acquisitions of veteran quarterback Mark Brunell and Pro Bowl tailback Clinton Portis -- has left players and coaches searching for answers.
"We don't like our performance the last two weeks, so it's something that you're constantly studying, trying to say: How do we get out of this? Or what do you need to do offensively to score points?" said Gibbs, whose Redskins are averaging only 14.2 points per game and have produced only seven touchdowns this season. "You're constantly wrestling with it. We just haven't done a good job with it the last two weeks."
Washington's offense has regressed in recent weeks, dropping to a ranking of 26th in the 32-team NFL. Against the Ravens, the Redskins managed only 107 net yards, the franchise's lowest total since Nov. 26, 1961. Washington's offense is mustering only 4.3 yards per play, second worst in the NFL after the Miami Dolphins (3.9).
Nonetheless, Gibbs said yesterday he doesn't plan any significant changes, least of all a quarterback switch to Patrick Ramsey. "I don't think it's any one person," Gibbs said. "It's all of us, and I include myself in that."
Portis, who entered the season with a six-game streak of rushing for at least 100 yards, fell short of the mark for the fourth consecutive game. Washington's passing malaise has stifled the running game as teams crowd the line of scrimmage with extra defenders. And the feeble running production on early downs has brought dire passing situations.
"We're not rushing, either," Gibbs said. "They go hand in hand."
Brunell said yesterday the team remains upbeat. "At moments we've had some success," Brunell said. "That allows us to keep our confidence, and it should because I know we have some good players and potential, but it's not happening right now."
The most routine move in the NFL to bolster an offense is a quarterback change. Ramsey, the incumbent starter, lost his job to Brunell in training camp. Gibbs described Brunell's play this season as reflective of the entire offense.
Ramsey has a stronger arm than Brunell, but his weaknesses -- mobility and reading defenses -- are Brunell's strengths. However, Brunell has been criticized for no longer having a strong enough arm for Gibbs's offense, which calls for occasionally going downfield on play-action passes. Brunell is averaging only 5.6 yards per pass completion -- worst in the NFC -- and has completed only two passes for more than 30 yards.
Gibbs expressed concern yesterday about Washington's inability to produce long passes, but dismissed the notion that the left-handed Brunell's throwing arm lacked strength.
Brunell's passing options are more limited than most quarterbacks because of Gibbs's offense. After plenty of motion and shifts, Gibbs often sends out only two receivers, keeping extra blockers to maximize protection for the quarterback. It's almost the same scheme Gibbs used during his first stint in Washington. Nowadays, most teams have multiple receivers and employ adjustments for shorter routes to counter blitzes. Gibbs's approach is the opposite to that of predecessor Steve Spurrier, whose quarterbacks withstood hit after hit as the coach lined up multiple receivers.
"It's not a modern day offense. You're trying to stick a square peg in a round hole," an AFC team official, who requested anonymity, said yesterday. "You can't throw the ball the way they try to throw it in this league with two-man routes unless you have a vertical stretch. One thing [Gibbs] has added that I think is good is the quick screens to [Laveranues] Coles and Portis.
"But with all that protection, where are you going to throw the ball? Somewhere in between Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs is the right offense for that team. They haven't figured that out yet."
Brunell disagreed. "In those plays that we've called, there are opportunities," he said. "Our scheme is sound; it's proven, and we're going to stick with it. Maybe it's not a precise route [causing incompletions]; maybe it's a poor decision on my part."
Coles and fellow wide receiver Rod Gardner combined for only four catches and 34 yards Sunday. Gibbs attributed those numbers to Baltimore utilizing deep coverage. "We couldn't get it deep," Gibbs said, "because they [the Ravens] were deep."
The ideal runner in Gibbs's offense is a power back such as John Riggins, who was on the Redskins for Gibbs's first Super Bowl after the 1982 season.
Portis became only the third tailback in NFL history to amass at least 1,500 yards in his first two seasons. Portis is more speedster than bruiser, but Gibbs noted that he has won with various types of tailbacks.
"One of our first questions was how he [Portis] would fit into that system with the counter trey," an NFL general manager who requested anonymity said yesterday, referring to one of the Redskins' most prominent running plays. "He's a great back but he hasn't really had to read the play, and he was used to a lot of quick cutbacks in Denver."
Portis, who ran with swagger and certainty in Denver, appears uncomfortable in Gibbs's offense. "Nobody fears their vertical passing game so safeties are making a living on the run," said Rick "Doc" Walker, a talk-show host on WTEM-980 who played in Washington from 1980 to 1985. "But it's impossible to identify any one thing because the offense has dropped passes, missed wide open guys and been beaten at the line."