A year ago, with the Washington Redskins lacking offensive balance and unable to throw and run the ball effectively, running back Clinton Portis claimed that the Cleveland Browns knew precisely which plays the team was calling after one ugly defeat.
A year later, the Redskins are 4-2, not 2-4. They have the NFL's second-ranked offense after Sunday's 52-17 crushing of San Francisco and, with the team now able to spread the ball to all quadrants of the field, Portis has become Coach Joe Gibbs's biggest cheerleader.
"Things are working for us," Portis said. "Coach mixed it up [Sunday]. We knew early on we were pounding the ball [in the running game], pounding the ball and then he threw deep to Santana [Moss], and that caught everybody off-balance and we're all in the huddle like, 'Yes, perfect play-calling.' So as a team, everybody did what they had to do."
Just in time, too, with the Redskins traveling to New York for a key NFC East matchup Sunday against the 4-2 Giants, who have the NFL's 31st-ranked defense.
Mark Brunell and Moss have become the most dangerous quarterback-receiver combination in the NFL -- Brunell is tied for the third in the league with a 98.3 passer rating, while Moss is the NFL's leading receiver. Their ability to beat defenses downfield has given Gibbs the ability to fully use his playbook. Moss has caught at least one pass of 30 yards or more in each game -- he has 10 catches of that length in total, matching Washington's output from 2004 -- and as defensive coordinators double-cover him, other players become targets and space opens up for Portis in the backfield.
"Up here, the best thing you can have is good balance, and if people respect the passing game, it gives you more chances to rush the football, and if they think you can rush it, then obviously the pressure is on, because at times they have to get somebody else involved in the box up there to stop your running," Gibbs said. "That's what you look for in your running game: You want safeties to go in there to try to stop the run, and if you can do that, and you've got threats on the outside, then that helps your passing production."
Gibbs is always quick to caution that much could change over the next 10 weeks, but even he concedes that the offense is having a breakout season. Opponents no longer can put eight or nine defenders at the line of scrimmage, showing no fear of being beaten through the air.
H-back Chris Cooley and wide receiver David Patten are benefiting from Moss's presence on underneath routes, feasting on intermediate passes. Moss has already taken a screen pass 78 yards for a touchdown, causing defenses problems on short routes, as well. The offensive line -- boosted by free agent acquisition Casey Rabach at center and the return of right tackle Jon Jansen from season-ending surgery -- is no longer badly outnumbered on most plays, and, given their unpredictability, the Redskins are able to run effectively out of four-receiver sets, for instance, and make timely completions even from what appear to be running formations.
"The biggest difference is the ability to be effective with the run and pass," Brunell said. "We were one-dimensional last year. We ran the ball very well, I thought, but our passing game was lacking of course, and so when you can have that balance you're more efficient, you keep the ball in your hands and you score more points. It's a big difference, obviously."
"With the amount of weapons showing up on this offense, it seems like the defense is always scrambling to cover all the bases, and it gives a lot of people opportunities to make big plays," Rabach said. "That's just what's been happening."
Washington ranks fourth in rushing yards per game and eighth in passing yards per game, and, as a result of that versatility, has become the league's second-most efficient team on third down. The Redskins do not face as many third-and-long situations, have been productive even in those situations and sustain long drives on a regular basis.
"Oh, yeah, you can tell we've got [defenses] guessing a little bit now," veteran offensive lineman Ray Brown said. "We hit the slip screen [a short pattern toward the middle of the field] out of two different formations [Sunday], and both times got a chunk of yards off it. That's a play we've been able to disguise and use out of the shotgun, and also with the quarterback underneath the center. Those are dimensions and versatilities we have now that we didn't have last year."
Last season, the Redskins said it all with their body language on offense, with wide receiver Laveranues Coles often hanging his head and declining to celebrate his only touchdown of the season. The group appeared lost and directionless in many games while mired in an ultraconservative scheme, but now it is opposing defenses heading to the sidelines mystified.
"They've been frustrated and guessing, a little bit of both," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "I think that's the big thing. You can just look in their eyes a lot of time and you can just tell when you're getting the best of them."