Joe Gibbs is reluctant to attach too many adjectives to this year's version of his Washington Redskins. They are clearly "good," as a 5-3 record at their season's midpoint would suggest, but the Hall of Fame coach will not go much beyond that. Like everyone else who has watched this team, Gibbs is unsure what the second half will bring, or precisely what to make of the season thus far.
There are certain undeniable facts, however, such as a 2-1 record in the NFC East, a 4-0 mark at home and a 5-1 conference record. All of that puts their playoff hopes in good standing. The offense is much improved over 2004, but has scored more than 21 points only once (against lowly San Francisco). The defense is not nearly as dominant statistically as it was a year ago -- slipping considerably against the run -- and has allowed big plays regularly, yet still ranks seventh overall with a largely workmanlike cast. The Redskins still lose the turnover battle on an almost weekly basis, and are prone to fundamental lapses at times, but are one win from matching their 2004 total.
"I don't know how to rate it, I just know that being 5-3 right now is pretty good," said Gibbs.
A year ago, the Redskins were 3-5 and trying to unearth a modicum of offensive success, lacking a deep game all season long. As they were then, they are competitive in virtually every game but have found a way to win close games in Gibbs's second year back. "It's a huge difference," H-back Chris Cooley said. "It's a completely different attitude. Last year I think we were all down and we didn't want to be around here too much."
Whether it be two late, long touchdown passes to shock Dallas in Week 2, or beating Seattle in overtime the following week after the Seahawks missed a game-winning field goal attempt, or guard Derrick Dockery following the play upfield and pouncing on Cooley's fumble at the 6 on Sunday night, one play prior to Clinton Portis scoring the game-winning touchdown, the team has been much luckier than it was a year ago.
"Situations that last year went the other way, we're getting to go our way this time," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said.
Said Gibbs: "I like our attitude. I like the fact that we have a lot of fight to us."
Save for consecutive blowouts -- the Redskins became the first team since the 1977 Seattle Seahawks to follow up a victory of 35 points or more with a loss by that same margin or more -- every game has come down to the final drive or two, with four games decided by a field goal or less. Gibbs does not expect that trend to change. "It's going to be that kind of a year the rest of the way," he said.
The players are adopting his understated tone. No one is bragging about the first-half accomplishments, although several players could.
Few expected quarterback Mark Brunell, 35, to thrive after being replaced midway through last season, or for Santana Moss, a secondary option with the New York Jets, to be the NFL's second-leading receiver after a trade to Washington, considering how weak this offense was a year ago. The loss of key free agents Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot has not undermined the defense to any large degree.
But for all of their gains, flaws remain on both sides of the ball. The power, ball-control running game that was supposed to provide the offense with its identity has showed up only sporadically, and rarely for an entire game, with Portis, a former Pro Bowler, unable to score or break off long runs at the rate he did in Denver. The defense often lacks for big plays -- sacks and turnovers -- and is yielding 120 rushing yards per game. Hence the reserved attitude around Redskins Park.
"We're not in any position to make any proclamations because we're only halfway through," Brunell said. "All we can say is we're pleased with where we're at, 5-3. It could be better; it could be worse. You are what you are and we're a 5-3 team halfway through. Probably the overall feeling is that we feel pretty good about ourselves. We've been in tough games and won them. We've played against good defenses and offenses, and for the most part we've done very well. But it's hard to say at this point."
Some tendencies have come to light. Washington is 10-0 when it runs at least as many times as it passes the last two seasons, and is 1-13 when it does not. The Redskins must also avoid a problem from last year that is their biggest pitfall -- turnovers. Their minus-nine turnover ratio is tied for second-worst in the NFL. "The single biggest thing we can improve for us offensively is to do a better job of protecting the football," Gibbs said.
Penalty problems have recurred occasionally as well, most notably in a loss at Kansas City last month.
"I think we've learned about how we can win games here, and how we lose games," tackle Jon Jansen said. "And going into the final eight games I think if we can control the turnovers and we can control penalties and always go out and play physical, we're going to be sitting pretty good at the end of the year."
In order to do that, the Redskins will have to reverse other trends as well. They have suffered on the road, but face big conference games with playoff implications Sunday at Tampa Bay and on Dec. 4 at St. Louis. And the Redskins are just 9-24 within the NFC East dating from 2000. The final three games are against divisional opponents, a stretch that could well define the outcome of the regular season.
"We're trying to make a different statement as far as our record in the NFC East," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "The last couple of years since I've been here it's not been very good, so right now we're trying to win a lot more games in the NFC. And we just have to find a way to keep it going and win on the road."