Thursday, October 14, 2004

What's Wrong with the Redskins?

A lot it would seem. At 1-4, the fabled team looks like a sleek new automobile with all kinds of systemic failures. Joe Gibbs' return to the NFL sidelines has not been smooth or productive, and quite honestly Joe looks a little lost out there. He's still learning how to challenge a referee's call, and the team has otherwise had time-management problems that seem to be the result of bad communication from sideline to the field. These gaffes are correctable, and one assumes that once Gibbs gets his sea legs again, after a 12-year absence from the game, he'll know how to use the clock and work the challenge system. Now if he can only do a serious tune-up job on his offense.

It's funny. Brian Billick was brought in to coach the Ravens years back on the strength of his reputation in Minnesota as an offensive coordinator. Ever since, the Ravens have been known as a brutalizing defensive team with pedestrian offenses.Then Tony Dungy was brought in to Indianapolis on the strength of his reputation in Tampa Bay as a defensive guru. Now the Colts are an offensive juggermaut with a fairly porous (though possibly improving) defense. Same with Gibbs. Hailed as an offensive genius through the '80 and '90s, leading his Redskins to four Super Bowl appearances (winning three of them), Gibbs now oversees a team with a tough-minded defense but an offense that is going nowhere.

The off-season signing of veteran QB Mark Brunell looked smart at first. Gibbs took a serious meeting with the former Jaguars star, supposedly to probe his character and see if D.C. might be a good place for him to rejuvenate his career. (Brunell's got serious stats, dating back to 1993. As of this writing, he's thrown for 26,610 yards with a 60% completion rate and a fabulous TD/INT ratio.) Maybe Joe channeled the Lord, and was told that a big, strong guy named Mark, who played his college ball in the state of Washington, could lead the team to the Super Bowl, just like Gibbs' "other" Mark--Rypien--did after the 1991 season. Whatever the reason, Gibbs didn't have enough faith in third-year pro Patrick Ramsey NOT to sign Brunell. Now the 34-year-old lefty QB is helming a popgun offense characterized by awful dinks and dunks, which usually follow yet another abortive run by hotshot off-season acquisition Clinton Portis.

At one point in last Monday night's game against the Ravens, I counted nine straight plays in which Portis got the ball: eight runs, one pass. Uh...pathetic. Then Brunell dumps a 5-yard pass off to rookie H-back Chris Cooley. More pathetic. Gibbs should ask the Lord to tell him where in the heck are Rod Gardner and Laveranues Coles, the team's ace receivers. This engine needs a new transmission; the 'Skins can hardly get out of first gear.

The Portis situation is a problem, but for a different reason. The guy's a huge talent. His stats the past two years with Denver don't lie. But Gibbs is running him into the ground. Besides this being strategic folly, Portis is gonna get beat up that way. Portis is not a big back. He's not small, but he's no John Riggins either. It's getting to be "cringe time" every time Portis takes a handoff. The Ravens especially hammered him, and Gibbs kept sending him into the line. Scary stuff. This offense needs to at least ATTEMPT diversification, if only to take the heat off Portis and give him a chance to be effective.

The Redskins defense actually looks pretty good, now under the direction of Gregg Williams, formerly the Bills head coach and the defensive coordinator of the Titans' 1999-season Super Bowl team. The 'Skins are playing aggressively under Williams' tutelage, even without Lavar Arrington, the All-Pro linebacker hobbled by injury. However, they're not a great defense by any means, and this team needs an effective offense to even begin to think about winning consistently.

Is Brunell washed up? The thought crossed my mind Monday night. He wouldn't be the first 34-year-old athlete to simply "lose it." The Ramsey option still intrigues. He's young and strong and he's got a pro arm. He seemed to be a pretty tough character the past two years, as defenders constantly harassed him. Ramsey would fend off incoming linebackers, then bravely step up into the pocket, often taking a hard lick as he released the ball. Alas, consistency was a problem. Can he handle the supposed intricacies of a Gibbs offense? Maybe not. On the other hand, he certainly can hand the ball off to Portis, which is all that Brunell is doing presently.

When Gibbs first came to Washington in 1981, the team had a disastrous 0-5 start. He was 40 years old, full of evangelistic zeal and a lot of offensive ideas, and he turned the team around fast. They finished the '81 season winning 8 of their last 11 games, and the next year went to the Super Bowl, beating the Dolphins when Riggins made a now-storied game-breaking touchdown run. But it's no consolation to think that Gibbs has "been here before." That's not the way it was supposed to be. Fact is, it's a lot harder to cut an icon any slack. Gibbs' postgame comments are amazingly bland and generic, and you gotta wonder what's going on here. You can bet petulant team owner Little Danny Snyder is.

'Skins fans hope the Lord is on Gibbs' side, and I guess he gets a pass for a little while. But here's the $64,000 question no one wants to ask: Has the game passed Gibbs by?

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