To what degree are the Redskins becoming a typical Joe Gibbs team? And to what degree are they still falling far short?
Deep into the second season of Gibbs II, what is the progress report? And, with three games left, is this Washington team inculcated with enough of Gibbs's teachings, toughness, talent and temperament to make a true playoff challenge?
The first and perhaps most essential element of a Gibbs team is chemistry. Without that, nothing truly good can follow. Contrary to Redskins mythology, not all of his earlier Washington teams had such harmony, but all of the best ones did. This may be the only area in which the current Redskins measure up to Gibbs's standards. If you had to pick a strength, you could hardly choose a better one, though team spirit has never won a world title.
Game after game, Gibbs praises his players' effort. To him, football "character" is a combination of physical toughness and refusal to quit in the face of either mid-game adversity or two- to-three week streaks of bad play. Such qualities might seem a minimum NFL requirement, yet many teams lack them.
In his first term in Washington, some Gibbs teams heard the dreaded phrase "not ready to play." This season, Gibbs has repeatedly gone far out of his way, as he did again after Sunday's ugly but crucial 17-13 win over Arizona, to underline that his team's commitment seldom droops even though its performance occasionally stinks.
"A lot of things didn't go well for us early on. Our defense kept us in it. . . . That's happened a lot this year. We didn't get discouraged," Gibbs said. Translated, this means that the Redskins could hardly have looked worse for 30 minutes, trailing 10-3, as Mark Brunell's three interceptions negated four forced turnovers by the Redskins' defense.
After Gibbs reworked the Redskins' play-calling patterns at halftime, emphasizing more runs and trying different approaches to blocking the Cardinals' blitzes, the offense drove 80 yards in 13 plays to tie the game at 10. "We had a great drive to start the second half," said Gibbs, beaming.
Picture-perfect halftime adjustments were always a Gibbs trademark. Since his return, his halftime touch has seldom been as obvious as it was in this game. With games at home against the Cowboys and Giants the next two weeks, Gibbs's ability to reinvent his game plan on the fly will surely be tested again, just like the old days.
"We focused up, changed some things in our line play and blew them off the ball," said tackle Chris Samuels.
During Gibbs I, the Redskins always emphasized superior special teams play, often keeping less talented -- but more reckless or unselfish -- players who pretended to love the suicide squads. Four weeks ago against Tampa Bay, Ladell Betts returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and was virtually untouched on the play. The game-winning play against the Cardinals was a similar 91-yard kickoff return by Antonio Brown, who also was untouched. In fact, he was so far ahead of the pack that, with several yard stripes still to traverse, Brown blew kisses to the crowd.
"We got a great play from Antonio," said Gibbs, "but we also had several good plays on our own [kick] coverage."
Until the past month, there was little evidence that Gibbs-quality special teams play had returned to town. A trend?
From '81 to '92, almost every playoff-bound Redskins team was determined to pound the ball down the throats of opponents. Since the battle plan was undisguised, it was even more intimidating if successful. Yet, ironically, it's only in the last two weeks that the Redskins have convinced Gibbs that power running, even with a 205-pound tailback, is their best attack.
In St. Louis, the Redskins pounded a weak run defense for 257 rushing yards to move up to No. 6 in the NFL in rushing. At Sun Devil Stadium, Clinton Portis managed 105 yards on 26 carries. Every team that runs the ball successfully in the NFL gains confidence. Or, better yet, arrogance. Are the Redskins beginning to regain theirs?
"If we don't turn the ball over and make penalties [on offense], people can't play with us," Portis said. "We keep playing these close games, I'm going to have an early heart attack. Let's blow somebody out." Perhaps it's a good sign, with the tough Cowboys on deck, that Portis can even conceive of a blowout. However, the great Gibbs teams seldom talked the talk.
"Coach Gibbs is great at developing a team's belief in themselves," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "To be good, you have to believe that you are tougher, stronger and better than you really are."
Ah, constructive brainwashing.
For nearly two years, Gibbs has tried to get inside his team's head -- with little luck -- in two crucial areas: the ability to protect the ball on offense, building a positive turnover-take-away margin; and the knack of finishing off games decisively. Against the Bucs, Raiders and Chargers, the Redskins performed disastrously in those areas, blowing second-half leads in all three games.
"The single biggest thing we need to improve is not turning the ball over," Gibbs said in his office after this game. "If we had a positive [turnover] ratio this year, we'd have quite a bit different record."
Yet, typical of Gibbs, he used this season's losses -- and the manner of those defeats -- as teaching tools.
"A lot of teams might have been crushed by those three [straight] defeats," Williams said. "But Coach Gibbs made it clear that mistakes are a necessary part of growing into a better team even though it hurts. 'The toughest man wins,' he always says."
Perhaps the Redskins' most apparent weaknesses this season have been their predictability in third-down situations and injuries to a defense that was expected to be first-rate. Only Santana Moss is a true threat at wide receiver. So many options in the passing game are limited. That's not going to change. On the other hand, the defense is healing nicely.
"We're finally getting healthy late [in the season]. This is the right time," said Williams, naming Sean Taylor, Phillip Daniels, Cornelius Griffin and rookie Carlos Rogers as key players on the mend. By next week, LaVar Arrington should return.
The current Redskins should in no way be compared the Gibbs teams that dominated most teams in the '80s and often had the sport's most innovative offense. Those days are gone. But these days are slowly looking better. The results of the next two weeks will carry huge weight in measuring how far this incarnation of the Gibbs Redskins has come and how far it still must go.
"We've survived on the road the last two weeks," said Gibbs. "Now we can go home and play a big game."
Like a teacher whose pupils were about to face their final exams, Professor Gibbs seemed eager to see the grades.