- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

The eyes of Washington Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels wander every now and then in his meeting room at Redskin Park. On the board, he sees the Redskins’ schedule. A “one-game-at-a-time” veteran if there ever was one, Daniels can’t help but glance toward the latter part of the season, where the toughest tests await.

“It gets hard not to,” Daniels conceded yesterday. “But you don’t ever want to overlook the team that’s in front of you.”

In front of Washington this week are the Detroit Lions (4-3), who are maturing a bit more quickly than expected. But Detroit is a relative trifle. Looming in the season’s second half are two games against the Philadelphia Eagles (7-0), as well as games at Pittsburgh (6-1), against the Minnesota Vikings (5-2) and at archrival Dallas, where Washington has won once in its past 12 tries.

In fact, it appears coach Joe Gibbs faces long odds in averting his first 10-loss season. After losing five of six to settle at 2-5, the Redskins now enter the rigorous part of a generally modest schedule. While their first seven opponents are 23-27, their last nine (counting the Eagles twice) are 40-23.

Quite frankly, things could get ugly.

“It’s been ugly for us all the way,” Gibbs responded. “Yeah, we’ve got a tough schedule, a tough deal.”

That Washington appears unlikely to improve much, if at all, upon last year’s 5-11 record is striking considering the expectations that swelled during the offseason. Besides re-hiring Gibbs, the architect of the organization’s three Super Bowl wins, the Redskins went on another wild personnel spree, compiling an NFL-record payroll in the $110million range.

By the time training camp opened in late July, there was talk Washington might make a playoff run. Such an achievement now seems all but impossible. Players, however, aren’t quite ready to start refocusing their goals.

“Basically, what we’re trying to do is win a game by any means necessary,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “We don’t care how we win — ugly win, pretty win. It doesn’t really matter. We’re trying to get on the right track.”

But after engaging in a discussion of “rebuilding years,” Smoot decided that this should, indeed, be considered one. That perception hasn’t taken hold largely because, under owner Dan Snyder, each of the past six seasons has been hyped as a playoff year. In retrospect, Smoot believes everyone should have known better about 2004.

“When people saw Joe Gibbs coming back, bam!” Smoot said. “But come on, Coach hasn’t coached in awhile. He’s got to get back and catch up with the times. From that, here comes the new players. The players have to learn him. People thought, ‘We’ve got the championship-maker back.’ But he had to come in and find out which players he wanted. I think it is a true rebuilding year.”

Gibbs wasn’t willing to engage in semantics yesterday, saying he’s too focused on this week to worry about whether this is a rebuilding season. But the distinction could be crucial. Although there aren’t a lot of positions at which Gibbs could start inserting younger players, there is a key one — and fans let him know it last weekend.

In Washington’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, fans chanted for third-year quarterback Patrick Ramsey. Gibbs continues to defend veteran starter Mark Brunell, and yesterday the coach again showed no sign of considering a change — even when presented the more oblique question about a general shift toward youth.

“We’re pretty young already,” Gibbs said. “And to me, I want to get that core group of guys that we’re going to build around. Through all this heartache and pain, you study guys, and I’m going to be loyal to that group. I’m looking to take that group — and however many [players] that is, I think we’ve got a bunch — and build around it.”

Brunell, for one, claims literally not to know what opponent follows Detroit (the Marvin Lewis-coached Cincinnati Bengals). As for refocusing this season’s goals, Brunell emphatically said it’s not time to give up on the playoffs.

“Not at all,” Brunell said. “At some point perhaps. But now is not the moment.”

To be sure, teams have rallied from similar points. The Tennessee Titans, for example, rebounded from a 1-4 start in 2002 to reach the AFC Championship game by winning 10 of their final 11 games. And Daniels’ Chicago Bears last season went from 1-5 to 7-9. If not for a pair of two-point losses in November, Chicago might have made the playoffs.

So Daniels holds out hope — even as fans chant for a quarterback switch, talk of a rebuilding year grows and a veritable Murderers’ Row sits on the board in his meeting room.

“We’ll continue to take it one game at a time and see what happens,” Daniels said. “If it was meant to be, it’ll happen. If not, we’ll come back next year even stronger.”

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