The Washington Redskins' weekly turnover mishaps have been well-documented, costing the team on the scoreboard and in the standings, particularly during consecutive losses. But the timing of those miscues has been equally detrimental to the club's overall offensive philosophy, forcing coaches to alter the game plan, stopping the progress of the running game and disrupting the balance that is typical of Joe Gibbs's teams.
The Redskins (3-2) have committed a first-quarter turnover in every game thus far, and have had a fumble, interception or blocked field goal on the first offensive possession in four of five games. That has forced them to play from behind early, throw the ball more and kept them from unleashing the grinding running attack that Gibbs has strived for since returning from his retirement. The Redskins aim to be a ball-control offense, and Gibbs is one of the all-time best at managing a lead (he entered this season with a .894 winning percentage -- fifth best among coaches -- when his team is leading in the fourth quarter), but early turnovers have been disruptive.
"The turnover undermines our identity," said offensive lineman Ray Brown, a member of Gibbs's last Super Bowl team and a 20-year veteran. "We're trying to be obviously a run-first team, establish the run early and get into some situations with the play-action downfield. That's what it's having an impact on -- who we can be and what we can do.
"Instead, we're almost all of a sudden playing to the other team's tempo after that early turnover. You've got to play catch-up in a lot of passing situations, and that's a really tough mix, especially on the road. I think once we take care of the turnover situation, we'll be able to try to establish an identity as far as being able to run the football."
The Redskins, coming off close losses at Denver and Kansas City, have the NFL's third-worst turnover ratio -- minus-8 -- entering Sunday's home game with last-place San Francisco. Both the Broncos and Chiefs translated Washington's first-possession turnovers into points, and the Redskins ended up trailing for the majority of both games (they never led at Denver and held a second-quarter lead at Kansas City). Washington has led by more than six points in only one game -- going up 14-3 on Seattle in Week 4 -- and has not been able to milk the clock and pound the ball on the ground, while also surrendering field position.
"I'll tell you, any time you have turnovers it's untimely," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "But particularly early in the game."
"Any turnover you have, especially when you are moving the ball, you lose momentum, and you give it to the other team," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "Giving up that momentum is the thing that bothers me more than anything."
While quarterback Mark Brunell is enjoying a renaissance, protecting him is paramount, and the Redskins would rather not have the 35-year-old throwing as much as he has lately. The winning script on a consistent basis, Redskins coaches believe, must involve more running plays. In Washington's three victories, it has rushed the ball 34 more times than its opponents, but in the two losses, the Redskins have carried six fewer times than opponents. In the three wins, the Redskins have run nine more times than they have passed (including a 14-13 win at Dallas involving two long touchdown catches within 71 seconds in the final minutes, an anomaly). In the two defeats, the Redskins have thrown 40 more times than they have run.
Since the start of 2004, the Redskins are 8-0 when they run more times than they pass, and 1-12 when they do not.
"We'd rather run for 150 [yards] than throw for 300," Brunell said. "Without a doubt, that is our goal. Keep the ball in your hands and keep the other offense off the field. It doesn't always happen, but that's what we'd like to do. We haven't had one of those big [rushing] games for a while. I think our biggest running game was the Chicago game, our opener [164 yards]. That's what we're trying to get back to."
The Redskins do not have a rushing touchdown this season -- they managed only six in all of 2004 -- and have not churned through defenses late in games, when fatigue tends to cause holes to expand for the running game. Washington averaged 4.8 yards per carry in Denver, for example, but trailed 7-0 after an early fumble, never led and ended up with just 11 rushes in the second half in rainy weather more conducive to running.
"We want to be known as being a physical team, and that comes from being able to run the ball," running back Ladell Betts said. "That's something we want to be able to do."
The early turnovers take a toll on Washington's defense as well. The Redskins have not caused a turnover in four games, but that could be related to the abundance of turnovers from the offense. While the Redskins are forced to open up their offense early, teams can run more frequently and play more conservatively against Washington's defense, and the cycle continues, week after week, with the Redskins eager to reverse it.
"If we possess the ball without turning it over," Brown said, "then we've got time of possession going for us, we've probably got a lot of first downs, and that other team has to play a little more loose and take more chances, because we're doing what we need to do to hold on to the ball and keep their offense off the field.
"Now they have to try a lot of long strikes, and we get chances to make plays on defense. It goes hand in hand. We've got to feed off one another and all of a sudden when we're playing at our pace, their offense has to take chances and all of a sudden we're picking it off and then were talking about being 5-0 or 4-1. We know that. Now what are we going to do about it?"