The Washington Redskins seem to have accepted that this is the way they have to play if they are going to make anything of this season. At the midway point of the season, it's clearly a waste of time to expect the passing game will be great anytime soon. But that's not such bad news when you can hold a team to 10 points on the road, when you can down punts inside the 5 three different times, and when you can hand the football to Clinton Portis 34 times and watch him get 147 yards.
The Redskins have an identity now, and while it's not in the tradition of Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann and Doug Williams, there's nothing wrong with defense and running. The Redskins, while they're still just 3-5 after beating the Detroit Lions, 17-10, at Ford Field, have three-quarters of a team. They can do everything except throw the ball down the field, but that does not preclude winning.
"There is a formula there, and you can try and go with [it]," Coach Joe Gibbs said after Sunday's game. Gibbs did go with it. Just because Mark Brunell struggled (again) through a 6-for-17 passing day that produced an unthinkably low 58 yards didn't mean the Redskins had to give in. So Gibbs played it accordingly. "I kind of decided that once we got the lead we weren't going to beat ourselves," he said. "I tried to play it fairly cautious."
That meant throwing only when necessary, which was virtually not at all. It meant trusting a defense that, come Monday morning, should still be the No. 1 defense in the NFL. It meant embracing the field position game and trusting that Tom Tupa would punt his butt off. And most of all, it meant riding his Big Horse, Portis, who makes up for whatever he lacks in size with fearlessness and ferocity.
Not only did Portis run for 147 yards with no single carry for more than 21 yards, but his option touchdown pass to Laveranues Coles was the only time the Redskins' offense got into the end zone. Look, the Redskins have won three games this season: against Tampa Bay, when Portis ran for 148 yards and the only touchdown, at Chicago, where Portis ran for 171 yards, and in Detroit, where he went for 147 against a Lions defense that had not allowed a back to rush for 100 yards this season.
I don't want to hear a word the rest of the season about who got the best of the Champ Bailey deal or how many backs run for 1,000 yards or more in Denver, or whether the Redskins could have saved the money they paid Portis and drafted a running back. Portis is a beast. He's 208 pounds and plays like he goes 238. He makes the tough runs, never asks out of the game, always wants his number called, blocks like a fullback and throws it into the end zone if asked.
"He was calling for it for eight weeks," Gibbs said of the option touchdown pass to Coles. "He swore to me that he could throw the football. After we threw it, he wanted to throw it again. He told me they wouldn't be expecting it the next time. I told him he's right, they won't expect it because we're not going to throw it."
Gibbs, of course, was beaming. So was Portis, who said, "It was a dream of mine" to throw a touchdown pass, "it started when I was 8. . . . I needed this, for my quarterback rating."
Does winning in Detroit mean the offense is fixed? Absolutely not.
What it means is the Redskins can win without much offense, that they can win when Brunell throws for fewer than 100 yards, that they can muscle up a victory the old-fashioned way. Something fundamental might have changed here in Detroit. For at least the first four games, the lack of offense was stunning, mostly because Gibbs's offenses for his first dozen years as head coach were pure genius. Maybe he took a back seat to Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach, but nobody else in his day. The next few weeks, players and coaches were searching for answers that weren't immediately forthcoming.
Now? The Redskins seem to have accepted, from Gibbs on down, that there's no haymaker in them. They're not going to be able to knock out anybody early. Every game is going 15 rounds. "Baltimore did it in 2000," cornerback Shawn Springs said. "It's not like it hasn't been done before. I'm fine with it."
In another corner of the Redskins' locker room, cornerback Fred Smoot said, "Didn't Baltimore just show people you can win this way?"
And by "this way" he meant knocking the snot out of people with hard-hitting defense and relying offensively on a great runner.
No, the Lions aren't a great team. They're a team that got to 4-3 by forcing turnovers and scoring off them.
(The only thing that should matter about the Lions to people who live in D.C. is where the Lions play. Their home is Ford Field, an indoor football stadium next door to Comerica Park, where the Tigers play baseball. The two buildings, built with public and private financing, sit on a parcel of land just off downtown, about three-quarters of a mile north of the Renaissance Center and just off Woodward, a street that meant something to Detroit decades before Eminem made "8 Mile" recognizable beyond Michigan. And believe me, the area where Ford Field sits now was a dump, bombed out and burned up. It had been an eyesore since the riots of 1968. It looked a lot like that parcel of land off South Capitol Street back in D.C. on which Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Major League Baseball agreed to build a new ballpark. Now, it's the center of Detroit's new universe. Buildings abandoned for 35 years are finally being converted to lofts. New townhouses are sprouting within walking distance. Ford Field itself will house a luxury hotel. Yes, there was some civic opposition to any public funding of the ballyards, but smarter heads ultimately prevailed. Instead of taking the word of university economists who make generic pronouncements about what a new ballpark can do, maybe D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp ought to come to Detroit just for an afternoon and see for herself.)
Anyway, the Lions should simply be a prop for the Redskins to have learned how it is they have to play the rest of the season. "Our passing game, we're not getting what we want. I kind of went conservative there," Gibbs said, walking back into his locker room after the game. "Every point we get is cherished, really. Every yard is huge. Every exchange of punts. That's the kind of team we've got right now."
It has set in with Gibbs. It had set in with the defensive players weeks ago. Clearly, Portis has no misgivings about this new formula. There are tough teams coming up. Philly twice and the Giants one more time, at Pittsburgh, at the Cowboys. What the Redskins ought to know they have now is a way to be in every single game at the end, to have a chance every Sunday to win. And if the method is three yards and a cloud of dust, they should plan on plowing every single week.