Against anything other than an abysmal offensive football team with a rookie fourth-round quarterback making his first NFL start, all of the Washington Redskins' foibles yesterday might have been too much to overcome. Many of the hallmarks of the second Joe Gibbs era were prominent again -- an offense that could not score a touchdown, shaky special teams, too many turnovers, untimely penalties -- yet the Redskins escaped FedEx Field with a 9-7 victory over the Chicago Bears, leaving the Hall of Fame coach pleased with the result but exasperated by its accoutrements.
Washington's first three drives ended because of fumbles or interceptions, marking the end of starting quarterback's Patrick Ramsey's day and the start of a quarterback controversy many in these parts have long anticipated. Return specialist Antonio Brown turned the game by fumbling away the opening kickoff of the second half. Unnecessary penalties on special teams tilted the field in Chicago's favor, and a lack of big returns left Washington pinned deep far too often.
In the end, three John Hall field goals were enough for a victory on an offensively-bereft Sunday -- the Bears ranked dead last in offense last season before quarterback Kyle Orton's indoctrination yesterday; Washington ranked third-worst, but continued performances like this will not improve the Redskins' chances of improving on their 2004 record (6-10).
"It was extremely discouraging to us," Gibbs said of the repeated penalties and turnovers. "That's one thing that we still have not grasped for ourselves as a team: You really should not win the ballgame when you are on the minus-side on the give-away-take-away ratio. We've stressed that. We've watched films on it. We talked about it as a team, trying to detail all of those things, and we still turned it over today. We can't do that."
As usual, Washington's defense was the difference between winning and losing, as that unit dominated the Bears, produced two turnovers, and committed just one minor five-yard penalty. Following a sloppy preseason, and a 2004 campaign in which turnovers put the team in a 1-4 hole and the Redskins set a modern franchise record with 1,047 yards in penalties, a return to sound fundamentals is in order.
"We looked at everything that happened in the preseason," Gibbs said, "and let all of our players look at it and try to learn from it. We're taking a different approach on some of those things now in practice, and, film-wise, we're trying to put a real emphasis on penalties. And somehow we've got to get it across to ourselves on the turnovers, too, because that just kills you."
The opening drive ended with an interception, Ramsey fumbled to end the second drive (Washington recovered), and the third appeared to result in a touchdown pass to H-back Chris Cooley. But Cooley was called for pass interference on the play -- Gibbs expressed reservations with that call -- and on the ensuing play Ramsey was crushed by linebacker Lance Briggs, fumbled, and the Bears took over at their own 19. Ramsey, prone to turnovers by forcing passes and holding on to the ball too long, suffered a neck sprain but said he was plenty healthy to return ("I wanted to go back and play," he said). Gibbs stuck with veteran Mark Brunell, and should that change become permanent, the rate of give-aways might subside.
Brown made way for Ladell Betts on kickoffs following his blunder, and while Gibbs said he will defer to special teams coach Danny Smith on the permanency of that move, he added: "Ladell did a real good job last year, and he slammed that one [25-yard return yesterday]."
Things could have been worse yesterday, but when Clinton Portis lost the ball at the end of a nice run in the third quarter, it popped right back in his hands (the Redskins went on to kick the game-winning field goal on that drive). And when Brunell mishandled a snap in the shotgun formation with less than five minutes to play, but the ball bounced perfectly to him and he hit Santana Moss for a key 15-yard gain.
"Obviously we're happy with this win," said tackle Jon Jansen, who recovered Ramsey's fumble. "But there are things we have to work on and continue to improve on, and [turnovers] are definitely one area."
There is no easy cure for the penalties, either. Special teams remains a primary culprit. Rookie Andy Groom booted his first NFL punt 45 yards, but Betts's holding penalty forced a re-kick; the second punt traveled just 36 yards and Washington lost 19 yards of field position overall. An illegal shift, which haunted the offense last season, returned on the second drive, and safety Sean Taylor, whose intensity often gets the best of him, picked up a 15-yard penalty for an illegal crackback late in the third quarter, allowing the Bears to start a potentially game-winning drive from the 42.
"On special teams, sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot," said linebacker Khary Campbell, a stalwart with those units. "I think a lot of guys are out there trying to play hard, and as long as we keep that effort, I think we'll overcome a lot of those penalties and a lot of that stuff."