Two months ago, the Redskins were 3-0.
They weren’t that good.
Now they’re in the midst of a 2-5 swan dive.
They aren’t that bad.
No, as Year 2 of Joe Gibbs Redux goes into the final turn, the Redskins are in the dreaded middle of the pack — an even-steven, .500 ballclub. But the real issue, the Final Jeopardy question, is: Why are they still stuck in neutral, despite the second coming of Coach Joe and the continued spending of Dan Snyder’s many millions? After all, at this point in Gibbs’ first term, the club was on its way to the Super Bowl, the first of four trips. What did the Redskins have then that they don’t now?
(Besides Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk, the Hogs, Dave Butz and Dexter Manley, I mean.)
Well, a balanced approach to team building, for starters. Had the current Redskins placed a little more emphasis on the draft and a little less on free agency, the injuries that have hit them in various areas — the secondary, defensive line and now wide receiver — might not be affecting them to the extent they are.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last decade, it’s that you can’t live by free agency alone in the NFL. It’s too darn expensive. You need to draft well, bring in a steady stream of reasonably priced talent, if you want to compete year in and year out. The Cowboys have five rookies — five — making significant contributions this season. When running back Julius Jones, their No. 2 pick last year, was laid up for a few weeks recently, they replaced him with Marion Barber, their No. 4 pick this year … and kept right on going.
The Redskins have had no infusion of young talent since Gibbs resumed command. And here’s the reason: He loves free agency. Not only can it speed up the rebuilding process — which has obvious appeal to a 64-year-old coach — it also reduces, he says, your margin for error (because the players have already shown they can play in the league.)
You have to remember, Gibbs’ last Super Bowl winner, in 1991, had six defensive starters who were former free agents: Jumpy Geathers, Fred Stokes, Martin Mayhew, Brad Edwards, Danny Copeland and Wilber Marshall. They completely transformed the unit into one of the best Richie Petitbon ever had. It’s easy to understand why Coach Joe would try the same approach the second time around — even though the free agent marketplace is a good deal pricier.
But as the season wears on — and the injuries mount, as they invariably do — you begin to see the problem with such a strategy. The Redskins have so much money invested in their front-line players, many of them ex-free agents, that when David Patten goes on IR and James Thrash pulls a hamstring, the depth just isn’t there. And this cripples the passing game because now opponents can double-cover Santana Moss with virtual impunity.
You know why the Patriots could afford to let Patten go? Because they had drafted David Givens and Bethel Johnson to eventually take his place. Gibbs, though, hasn’t taken a single receiver in the last two drafts; Taylor Jacobs, the Plan D he had to resort to in Sunday’s loss, is a bust left over from the Spurrier era.
On defense, meanwhile, Gregg Williams is trying to generate a pass rush with mirrors and a smoke machine. But in the last couple of weeks, with Cornelius Griffin ailing, it’s started to catch up to him. The Redskins couldn’t get to Chris Simms late in the Tampa Bay game, and they couldn’t get to Kerry Collins in the second half against Oakland. I don’t mean to keep bringing up Dallas, but Bill Parcells added some serious Young Legs to his front seven this year in the persons of Demarcus Ware, Marcus Spears and Chris Canty, the erstwhile Virginia Cavalier. What has Coach Joe done, draft-wise, to help the rush? Answer: Zippety-do-dah.
Frankly, it’s hard to believe Gibbs is getting so few sacks out of his defensive front and hasn’t responded to the situation in some way. One of the trademarks of his earlier teams was their ability to rush the passer … in waves. His ‘84 club racked up 66 sacks, the third-highest total in history — and not one of the sacks, I’ll just point out, was recorded by a defensive back. Nine different players that year, six linemen and three linebackers, had at least four sacks.
Last year’s Redskins, by contrast, had only two linemen or linebackers with that many sacks, Griffin (six) and Marcus Washington (41/2). This year it’s been pretty much the same. The game has changed, but it hasn’t changed that much. The pass rush still begins up front.