Joe Gibbs was one play from a postgame inquest, with the Washington Redskins failing to score a touchdown in the first 116 minutes of the season and on the verge of being shut out by the Dallas Cowboys. The situation was desperate, with the Redskins trailing by 13 points with less than six minutes to go, so the Hall of Fame coach turned to a formation he had long shunned.
Twice in 71 seconds, quarterback Mark Brunell lined up in the shotgun and picked out wide receiver Santana Moss, Washington's primary offseason acquisition, on deep patterns for touchdowns that left the Cowboys stunned and beaten, 14-13, and lifted the Redskins to 2-0 entering their bye week. But before those precision strikes, it appeared that Gibbs was primed for a major offensive crisis with the team unable to move the ball inside its opponent's 20-yard line, still bogged down by penalties and turnovers. When it mattered most, though, the drastic overhaul of Washington's attack produced scintillating results.
The deep passing that was missing in 2004 resurfaced Monday night. The Redskins' decision last winter to take a $9 million salary cap hit and trade disgruntled wide receiver Laveranues Coles to the New York Jets for Moss, considered by many NFL teams to be a solid, but No. 2 wide receiver, has reaped immediate dividends.
The controversial decision to bench quarterback Patrick Ramsey in favor of Brunell looked like a smart move after Brunell found Moss on scoring catches of 39 and 70 yards, Washington's longest gain since 2001. Implementing the shotgun -- something Gibbs rejected last year -- looked brilliant as Gibbs's players drenched him in ice water in the aftermath of a shocking comeback victory.
"I think what happened in the end was both those were calls that had big portions built into them," Gibbs said, "and they're kind of designed for coverages where they're playing soft. To his credit, [Moss] got behind them and then Mark just made two great throws. I think the Lord blessed us with some great plays there at the right time."
The Redskins, who were in a 1-14 funk against the Cowboys and winless in Dallas since 1995, already have three passes of 39 yards or more this season -- all to Moss -- after generating only five in 16 games last season. Their longest scoring reception was 18 yards last season, a mark Moss and Brunell shattered in the final four minutes Monday. Their longest completion last season -- when Washington ranked 30th in the NFL in total offense and 31st in yards per passing attempt -- was 51 yards; Moss has two catches of 52 yards or more in his first two games with the club. Moss is tied for second in the NFL with 255 receiving yards -- two behind Oakland's Randy Moss -- and, following his 159-yard game against the Cowboys, leads the league with 28.3 yards per reception.
"He's a real big-play guy," Brunell said, "and we're very fortunate to have him."
Brunell had only two passes over 40 yards last season -- a span of 237 attempts -- and threw for more than 200 yards only twice in nine starts in 2004. He posted 291 yards Monday in his first start of the season. After misfiring on long passes throughout the game, Brunell hooked up with Moss in the clutch. Both times he placed the ball perfectly, hitting Moss in stride well behind the defense.
"Those two throws, absolutely you couldn't throw them any better than that," Gibbs said.
Brunell's feet actually kept the Redskins in the game before his arm did. Washington faced third and 27 at its 21 with less than five minutes to play following a sack, and, with nowhere to throw the ball, the quarterback took off. "Like a chicken with its head cut off," Brunell said, "you just run around there and hope you get lucky."
Brunell made a cut at the 32 to elude a tackler and dived head-first two yards short of the first down. "That was big time there," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "I thought he got hurt."
Brunell converted on fourth down with a pass to James Thrash, then quickly faced fourth and 15 from the 39. He dropped into the shotgun with the Redskins in a three-receiver set and Moss wide to the right. Dallas's defense sagged, with cornerback Aaron Glenn allowing Moss a 10-yard cushion after shutting down Washington in tighter man coverage most of the game. "We got the coverage we wanted in the right situation," Brunell said. "So we were very fortunate." Moss ran a post pattern, pivoted inside and out, gaining inside position on Glenn while safety Roy Williams turned the wrong way. Moss hauled in the ball five yards deep in the end zone, with Williams late to react.
"I wasn't able to get the right position," said Williams, a Pro Bowler. "I take total blame for that."
The Redskins duplicated those dramatics just over a minute later, this time 70 yards from the end zone. Moss again lined up wide right, and sprinted downfield, splitting Glenn and Williams. Brunell dropped back to the 23 and pumped the ball over 50 yards. Moss snatched it as Glenn dived for the ball and ran the final 23 yards for the game-winning score. "That's a play that I normally make," Glenn said.
"That was probably three of the best plays I've been around for a quarterback in one quarter," Gibbs said of the scramble and touchdown passes.
Just like that, nearly eight quarters of ineptitude were erased.
Washington amassed 156 net yards on those scoring drives, but had 145 net yards on its first nine possessions (seven punts and two turnovers). Brunell was sacked five times for 49 yards, the team committed three false-start penalties and three holding penalties and totaled 12 infractions for 80 yards, continuing a trend. The Redskins again lost the turnover battle -- they are minus-3 on the season; only five teams are worse -- yet have two wins by a total of three points. They did not run a play inside Dallas's 20-yard line -- the red zone -- Monday night and have scored 23 points in two weeks.
"You've got to make sure you cover all of the things you did poorly," Gibbs said, "because sometimes in a win like that you have a tendency to say you played great. Penalties were definitely a problem. We turned the ball over. We also had a turnover when we're looking at a field goal. Those things are upsetting. If you keep putting yourself in that box, we're going to get in trouble. I think you've got to hammer that home."
Still, for the Redskins, silencing Texas Stadium and remaining unbeaten could not be a sweeter feeling. And the team already accomplished something it could not do all of last season: win two consecutive games.
"It was a hard-fought game," Bugel said. "Dog on dog the whole way; a typical Dallas-Redskins game. Stink the joint up and win, but we'll take it."