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Redskins priority: Moving football

They couldn't run, so they've gotten bigger. They couldn't get deep, so they've gotten faster. They've added an assistant with a background in the unfamiliar West Coast and shotgun schemes. But the question remains: Is the Washington Redskins' offense any better?

Of course, it can't get much worse. Last season the offense was, frankly, offensive. Despite the ballyhooed return of a Hall of Fame coach (Joe Gibbs) and the presence of Pro Bowl performers at quarterback (Mark Brunell), running back (Clinton Portis), receiver (Laveranues Coles) and left tackle (Chris Samuels), the offense scored just 24 touchdowns, 50 percent below the NFL average.

Only bottom feeders San Francisco and Miami averaged fewer yards a carry. Only Baltimore averaged fewer yards a completion and only Chicago scored less. It took the Redskins 12 games to manage even 20 points.

"We struggled early and not only did we struggle, we turned the ball over for four scores," lamented offensive coordinator Don Breaux, one of five offensive assistants who had been part of the Super Bowl-filled glory days in Washington under Gibbs from 1981 to 1992.

"We recognized that our defense was playing real well and we said that until we got the offense straightened out, we could win by not making mistakes," Breaux said. "We played a little bit conservative. We prefer not to play that way. We didn't do that when we were here the last time."

Not hardly. When the Redskins set the then-NFL record with 541 points in 1983, they reached last season's total of 240 at midseason. Washington averaged at least 21 points a game in all 12 years of Gibbs' first tenure compared to an average of 15 in 2004.

However, even the hiring of former Jacksonville coordinator Bill Musgrave, with his history in non-Gibbsian approaches, hasn't changed the basics.

"The ideas are the same," said quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who inherited the starting job from faltering veteran Brunell last November. "It's the way we combine them that's different, the way we read things or protect things. We'll try to play to our strengths: [glue-fingered H-back] Chris Cooley, our speed at receiver and obviously, Clinton, especially outside the tackles."

Guard Randy Thomas agreed that the offense isn't much different.

"It's more emphasizing technique," Thomas said. "When you're comfortable with what you're doing, you feel better about it. People talk about opening things up, but it's a Joe Gibbs offense. We're going to run the ball. But we've got to take more shots downfield and complete more of them. If we don't, they're going to bring eight or nine in the box and dare us to throw."

Aggressive defenses were the exception during Gibbs' first Redskins tenure, and the coach has acknowledged that he had to get up to speed with how to handle those last year. However, Breaux, like everyone else associated with the offense, won't divulge how much Gibbs has tweaked the scheme for this season.

"Certain things have stood the test of time," Breaux said. "You build on them and you move on. We've added some things, and we hope to execute better some of the things we ran last year. Hopefully, we've learned a lot more about our personnel. We've always tried to take advantage of what our people do best."

This year that's supposed to be big plays. Portis reeled off runs of at least 24 yards in 13 of his 28 starts for Denver, but after dashing 64 yards for a touchdown on his first carry as a Redskin last year, he never gained more than 22 yards.

Coles pouted his way back to the New York Jets. Fellow wideout Rod Gardner was sent to Carolina at his request. Their replacements, Santana Moss and David Patten, are a combined five inches and 33 pounds smaller but considerably faster. Moss' 18.6 yards a catch was second among all receivers with at least 36 catches in 2004. Patten was third at 18.2.

"The receiving corps we've got, they might all be midgets, but they get up and go," Portis said. "They're explosive. That's going to open a lot of stuff up. People will be reluctant to put nine in the box."

Defenses certainly don't stack the box against Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James and the NFL's most prolific offense even though the Colts' top three receivers don't top 6 feet or 200 pounds.

"We want to attack," Breaux said. "We want to get the ball downfield. Are we huge? No, but in the past we had receivers who weren't that big either. You have to be able to make chunks [of yards]. That involves good protection, being able to deliver the ball and being able to get open. I feel better about all those areas, but we've got to go out and do it."

That's especially true of the strong-armed Ramsey, whose first three seasons were as uneven as the stock market.

"This is Patrick's opportunity," said Gibbs, who used a first-round draft pick on the quarterback of the future, Jason Campbell. "Patrick needs to progress in a lot of ways."

Portis, despite his disappointing 3.8-yard average last year, is more of a known quantity. Breaux, who coached Hall of Famer John Riggins, said Portis is the best back he has had.

"We're going to get Clinton on the edge," Breaux said. "We're going to run draws. But a back has to run inside and outside. A guy who gets as many yards as Clinton has to be versatile."

To that end, Portis has added 20 pounds to better withstand the pounding that comes with more than 300 carries. And both Portis and Ramsey should benefit from the return of stout right tackle Jon Jansen, who missed all of 2004 with a torn Achilles tendon, and the addition of athletic center Casey Rabach.

While the passing game looked sharp last week in practice, that was against a secondary minus three of its top four cornerbacks. Against Baltimore in Saturday's scrimmage, the offense was inert. Of course, Gibbs is notorious for not showing his hand before the games count.

"The defense played extremely well last year," receiver James Thrash said. "They make it look so easy, I feel like I can go out there and play defense. We want to hold up our end of the deal."

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