A sign posted inside the locker room at Redskins Park succinctly summed up the task at hand for this spiraling football team. "Five in a row, or we don't go," referred to the Redskins likely having to win the remainder of their games to have any hope for the postseason, a scenario made all the more difficult by their repeated fourth-quarter meltdowns.
Washington blew a lead in the final quarter again Sunday, falling 23-17 to San Diego in overtime, to suffer its third straight loss. Over the last five games the Redskins' offensive production has neared 2004's dismal proportions, and an inability to protect leads and put opponents away in the second half have threatened to doom a once-blossoming season. The offense is struggling for creativity with defenses adjusting to the deep passing game. This team lacks a killer instinct on offense, various players said, and failing to put away another opponent Sunday despite a 10-point lead at home has only exacerbated the problem.
"Obviously, we haven't put anyone out yet all year, so, yeah, we do" lack a killer instinct, H-back Chris Cooley said. "We lack it big time."
"It seems that way," center Casey Rabach said. "I don't know if it's a physical thing or a mental thing. But whatever it is, it's come to bite us the last three weeks in a row now. It really has."
Coach Joe Gibbs said he spoke at length with owner Daniel Snyder on the phone Sunday night, and informed the players today of the owner's support. "He thinks the world of our team," Gibbs said. "He thinks we've got heart and fight, and I think that's what we've got. We just need to find a way to close games and win football games."
Gibbs said there is no easy way to cultivate late-game success in his offense, however. "I think it's a process you go through," he said. "Now, when you come out of there and start doing things and getting it done, I don't know. I know we're here for the long haul, so at some point we have to start getting it done if we're going to win football games."
Nine days ago, the Redskins were outmuscling Oakland in the running game and the passing attack was faltering, yet Gibbs called twice as many passes as runs in the second half and a 13-3 halftime lead became a 16-13 loss. Sunday, quarterback Mark Brunell was soaring through three quarters (15 of 21 for 180 yards, a touchdown and a 113.2 rating), leading Washington to a 17-7 lead, while the Redskins were averaging just 2.8 yards per rush against the Chargers' second-ranked run defense.
On the Redskins' two scoring drives -- the last of which came with about three minutes remaining in the third quarter -- they exposed San Diego's secondary, calling 10 passes to five runs. Brunell went 8 for 10 for 131 yards on those drives, accounting for all but 23 of the team's yards. But in the fourth quarter, with the Chargers mounting a comeback, Washington ran 13 times, trying to milk the clock as expected, but gained a grand total of 36 yards. Brunell threw just six passes. Minimal run production, and tight end Robert Royal's dropped passes, resulted in another fourth quarter full of quick three-and-outs.
"Our goal is to try to hold it on offense in that situation, and don't give it back," Gibbs said of the fourth-quarter play-calling. "Run time off the clock and protect the lead. We need to average more than that when we're rushing the football."
Gibbs has relied on many of the hallmarks of 2004 -- wide receiver screens, occasional bootlegs -- while integrating the shotgun formation and overhauling the receiving corps. After Santana Moss was dropped for an eight-yard loss on a reverse on the opening play Sunday, the Redskins stuck to more routine plays ("Anything like that could have an affect on you," Gibbs said). Brunell, tackle Chris Samuels and others said the coaches are putting players in a position to succeed, and the offensive system is much improved from last season, but people are not making plays when called upon.
"I think we have a better game plan" than last year, Cooley said, "and we're doing a lot more things. I think everyone likes the offense, it's just come to a stall a couple of times, and we've got to keep moving."
Over its last five games, Washington has averaged 275.6 yards per game; last year the Redskins averaged 274.8 yards per game, which ranked 30th in the NFL. They have scored just seven offensive touchdowns in that span -- three came in a 36-35 loss to Tampa Bay -- and endured a funk of 82 plays and 42 minutes 47 seconds of offensive possession without a touchdown over parts of three games until Brunell found Moss in the second quarter Sunday (91:03 of game time expired in that span).
"We can't continue the way we're going," reserve running back Rock Cartwright said. "We're not moving the ball too good in the second half. We've got to go in and see what adjustments we can make to get this back on the right track, because this don't look too good right now."
Last year, the Redskins averaged 15 points per game, second-worst in the NFL. This season, excluding their 52-17 thumping of lowly San Francisco, Washington has averaged 16.5 points. Overall, the offense has been more evolved and more diverse than last season, yet the Redskins topped 17 points just once in the past five games.
"It's a marked improvement over last year," Brunell said. "We just find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now. We're getting to that fourth quarter and we're just not getting it done."