Rarely a day goes by without Coach Joe Gibbs reinforcing the importance of eliminating penalties and turnovers to his football team, and this week will be no exception. The Washington Redskins will get a daily affirmation of this mantra as they prepare to host the Chicago Bears in Sunday's season opener, and it appears to be needed now more than ever.
The Redskins again had a poor turnover differential this preseason -- worst in the NFC, in fact -- and committed too many penalties despite those areas being primary points of emphasis. Last year, the Redskins went 6-10 and lost several close games; in many of them, unnecessary penalties and undisciplined miscues proved to be the difference.
"It's a real concern," Gibbs said of the penalties. "It's a problem. We've got to get it corrected because you won't win games up here turning the ball over and I'd still say those are two areas where we have not showed the kind of improvement I'd like -- turning the ball over and penalties. So it's something for a real focus from now until game time. In the regular season, we've got to try to find something to fix it."
Gibbs is quick to point out various statistics about NFL winning percentages when teams commit a certain number of turnovers or penalties, or have a fumble or interception returned for a touchdown. With three Super Bowl titles and a coaching career spanning from the early 1980s, he has ample historical context, and sloppy football is a particular pet peeve.
Sound fundamentals are at the core of Gibbs's essence as a teacher, yet that message has not appeared to resonate since he returned to the Redskins last season. Washington was penalized 115 times for 1,047 yards in 2004 -- the most yards in franchise history since the league went to a 16-game schedule, surpassing even the preceding two seasons under former coach Steve Spurrier.
"We have a smart football team, and they understand," Gibbs said. "They know the percentages of turnover ratio; if you're minus-1, they know exactly what it is, or minus-2, they know exactly what it is. I think on penalties, they know.
"I think what you've got in the NFL is somebody busting their hump trying to make a block, and do you get in the wrong position trying to do something as hard as you can and as aggressive as you can? Somehow there has to be that balance. 'Am I [being] smart?' 'At what point do I let the guy go?' "
In the preseason, the trend continued, with 34 penalties for 245 yards, including Thursday's loss in the exhibition finale in Baltimore (15 penalties for 118 yards). Given that performance, the players are bracing for an earful this week.
"I know that's something we're certainly going to focus heavily on this week," quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. "What exactly he's going to do to stress it, I don't know, but I know for certain he's going to do that. The first couple of preseason games we didn't have as many penalties, but unfortunately we regressed."
Penalties last season often forced Washington to begin drives deep in its own territory, compounding the misery for a fragile offense. "You're not going to score a lot of points doing that," Gibbs said. "Unless you're getting the ball turned over or get the field shortened in the NFL, it's rare that you drive the ball long distances."
On defense, the penalties often stemmed from over-aggression -- unnecessary roughness penalties and personal fouls -- but the tenacity of that unit usually overcame the problem. Gibbs said the coaches are exhausting new ways to hammer across the import of these transgressions, through drills and reminders in practice, since the verbal approach has not been effective.
"We're going to try a couple of other things this week," Gibbs said.
Last season, the Redskins scaled back much of the pre-snap motion that led to illegal-procedure and delay-of-game penalties, and there should be familiarity with the overall offensive system in Gibbs's second season. Getting plays called more quickly is essential.
The offensive line was a source of constant concern in 2004, and the expectation is that with tackle Jon Jansen back after missing all of last season with an Achilles' injury, and free agent center Casey Rabach in the fold, the slew of false starts will cease.
"We've done some things to eliminate those penalties," Jansen said. "I don't think we're going to need to worry too much about offsides and what not. I think a lot of that just comes with the confidence of knowing the offense. There's no, 'Who do I got? When is the ball going to be snapped?' sort of deal."
Washington's preseason turnovers were troubling as well. Ramsey threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns (4-2), the defense, for all its superior play, still produced few turnovers, and the Redskins had a minus-8 take-away rating, with 10 give-aways in just four games, worst in the NFC. Last season, the Redskins were minus-1, but essentially ended their season early by committing nine turnovers to two take-aways (including a seven-turnover disaster in New York) in the first four weeks, when they went 1-3.
A similar start this September, and the 2005 season could begin slipping away as well.
Redskins Notes: The Redskins signed seven players to their practice squad yesterday, and are expected to add one more today. Linebacker Robert McCune (fifth-round pick), offensive lineman Jon Alston, running back Jonathan Combs, tight end Robert Johnson, defensive lineman Aki Jones and wide receiver Rich Parson (Maryland) had all participated in Washington's camp, while defensive back Christian Morton was not on the training camp roster but had worked out for the team recently.