In Joe Gibbs's fantasy world, the Washington Redskins spend the preseason walloping a collection of small college teams, with an NFL lightweight or two thrown in, and spend August showcasing their revamped offense and inspiring confidence among skeptical fans. Instead, his offense has looked shaky in losses to two of the better defensive teams in the NFL -- Carolina and Cincinnati -- and will finish the preseason by facing the league's premier unit, Pittsburgh, tonight at FedEx Field, then travel to Baltimore to face that defense Thursday.
For Patrick Ramsey, a young quarterback trying to prove he is a worthy NFL starter, and an offensive staff looking to show it can produce a dynamic, modern attack, this is hardly a prescription for success. The Redskins are clearly placing a significant emphasis on this preseason -- Ramsey and the starters have played the entire first half of two games -- and Gibbs wants to take a confident team into the regular season after Washington's offense ranked 30th in 2004.
But logistics, finances and geography are considerations for league executives, who draw up preseason schedules, and Gibbs's dreams of rampant offensive fireworks in the exhibition games could suffer because of it.
"It's kind of like being the athletic director in college. They don't care; they're just trying to go for the money and the coach is like, 'Wait a second, I need to get me a couple of [teams] on here that I can get tuned up with,' " Gibbs said, making his point with a lighthearted tone. "I did a bad job of talking to the guys up front [in management] on that one. We certainly got dealt a tough hand.
"I tried to tell the players that you have to be realistic. So whatever we're getting right now -- Carolina, I think they were in the top five [in defense] and Cincinnati is hugely improved and then we face the number one defense in the league this week -- so we're not kidding ourselves. These guys are really good. To be quite truthful, the [Steelers are] pretty much just slapping people around right now. The first two games they were dominant on defense."
The Steelers, who went 15-1 last season, have picked up where they left off, at least on defense. They have allowed 10 points total in the first half of their first two games -- when starters are primarily playing -- yielding a grand total of 26 rushing yards in that span. During last season's trip to Pittsburgh in late November, the Redskins mustered no signs of life, producing a total of 156 yards in a 16-7 defeat. The Steelers were the NFL's top-ranked defense, and with Ramsey coming off a two-interception performance last week against Cincinnati, they will certainly be looking to blitz and confuse him.
"As a confidence builder, we've got to get out there and get a win," offensive lineman Chris Samuels said.
Reducing turnovers is Gibbs's obsession. Last season, Washington often handed over the ball early on and finished 6-10. Ramsey, in particular, has a tendency to force the ball at critical times inside the red zone, and Gibbs spent much of this week repeating his mantra on the importance of protecting the football.
The FedEx Field crowd quickly turned on Ramsey last week, and, with veteran backup Mark Brunell playing his best football since signing with the Redskins last year, the scrutiny of the starter will not expire anytime soon. Ramsey says he has been able to block out the jeering thus far.
"To be perfectly honest, I haven't really heard anything." Ramsey said. "I realize a couple of the mistakes I made last week, and I've been out here working to get that better. I know that's the answer that everybody would expect, but at the same time it's the truth. I haven't really paid attention to anything other than getting better out there."
More interceptions, and Gibbs's predilection for experience at this most important position could bubble to the surface sooner rather than later. For all of the gains the Redskins showed on offense last week -- piling up yards, finally displaying a deep-passing touch -- Gibbs has been focused on what went wrong. Turnovers and penalties could become an issue again Friday. Pittsburgh led the NFL with 39 takeaways last season and its defense has long been known for its physicality and opportunism.
"If you make a lot of yards and you turn the ball over, then you don't score points," Gibbs said. "So that's a tough lesson to learn. Maybe I'm looking at the good side of it Maybe it's good we get the lesson now. Last year, we started out the season and that's exactly what haunted us -- we turned the ball over and right now we're next to last in the league in terms of giveaways and takeaways."
Gibbs plans to split the snaps equally between his top three quarterbacks, but rookie Jason Campbell did not play last week and there are no guarantees that he will get in this game, either, particularly if the starters struggle. Teams generally play their starters the most in the third preseason game and then very sparingly in the finale, but given the importance of these games to Washington, there is no set script.