Two weeks ago, after loss No. 7, Joe Gibbs talked about the Redskins having "certain principles that we live by," principles from which they had begun to stray. Everybody knew what he meant as far as the offense was concerned: The team wasn't running the ball nearly enough to suit him.
So in the next game, the Redskins went from 20 rushes and 34 passes against Tampa Bay to 37 rushes and 23 passes against Carolina. Lo and behold, they upset the Panthers to keep their incredible shrinking playoff hopes alive.
But then came Sunday's puzzling developments at FedEx Field. Gibbs didn't preach about "principles" following the 24-14 defeat by Atlanta, but he did express dismay that "we had a game plan set, but we just couldn't stick with it. ... We have stuff that we believe in. When we stick with it, I think we can win football games." Once again, his meaning was plain as the Redskins' all-white uniforms: Offensively, the team still wasn't committed enough to the run.
At least, that's how most observers interpreted his remarks. Yesterday, though, Gibbs issued a clarification. He wasn't trying to suggest he was dissatisfied with Al Saunders' play calling, he claimed. What he was referring to was the Redskins' inability to finish off the Falcons, to keep doing the things "that got us to the third quarter with the lead" -- such as putting the ball in the end zone, avoiding turnovers and not giving up big plays on defense. That's what they didn't "stick with," he said.
Maybe, like some of his players, Coach Joe's first impression of the game was simply mistaken. The view from the sideline isn't always the clearest. Then, too, locker room emotions -- especially after a game in which you've blown a 14-0 lead -- can be raw; in your search for answers, you often wind up grasping at straws.
Even Ultimate Redskin Rock Cartwright, never much for controversy, offered the opinion that "Ladell [Betts] ran the ball hard, T.J. [Duckett] ran the ball good and I thought we should have stayed with those guys. But instead we got away from it. It's something we need to learn from."
Let's take a closer look at Cartwright's charge, shall we? How much did the offense "get away" from Betts and Co. against the Falcons? And was it truly one of the keys to the game?
Here are the relevant numbers: When the Redskins took possession with 6:22 left -- at which point they trailed by 10 and were forced to throw -- they had run it on 32 plays and passed it on 18. That's pretty close to the ratio you're looking for when (a) your coach is partial to pounding the ball, and (b) you've got a young quarterback you don't want to overburden with responsibility. At this stage in Jason Campbell's development, one pass to every two runs is about right.
Heck, late last season -- how quickly we forget -- the Redskins adopted the very same approach with struggling Mark Brunell. Four times during the six-game winning streak that carried them to the second round of the playoffs, they ran the ball about twice as much as they threw it: against the Rams (40 runs, 22 passes), Cowboys (40, 20), Giants (43, 19) and Bucs (31, 16).
Which raises the question: Is Sunday's 32-18 run-pass distribution -- in the first 54 minutes, that is -- really out of whack? Not from where I'm typing, it isn't.
The series that had some folks scratching their heads was the one early in the second quarter. After running almost at will in their first two drives, the Redskins tried to go deep on first down from the Washington 48, but Santana Moss caught the ball just out of bounds. A 2-yard loss by Antwaan Randle El on an end-around followed, and then Campbell underthrew the wide-open Randle El on third-and-12, forcing a punt.
Why didn't the Redskins just continue to stuff Betts down Atlanta's throat? Well, they had just stopped Michael Vick on fourth-and-an-inch, and Saunders was hoping to catch the Falcons, already down 14-0, in a moment of weakness. It was your classic Jugular Call, the kind that's made all the time in these situations. Can't fault a coach for giving it a shot. Besides, had Campbell converted the third down -- and every quarterback, young and old, needs to be able to make that throw -- the play selection probably never would have been an issue.
But back to Gibbs. As important as offensive balance is to him, he's always been more than happy to run it 40 or 50 times if the defense will let him and save the passes for another day. Sunday was one of those afternoons when the defense might have let him. Betts had six gains between 11 and 15 yards, plus two 9-yarders. For the Redskins' running game, it doesn't get much better.
So don't be surprised, in these last four weeks, if the offense leans even more heavily on Betts and Duckett -- despite Gibbs' "clarification" yesterday. Coach Joe might even ask rehabbing Clinton Portis to prowl the sideline, like he did last year in Philadelphia, and scream at everybody, "It's 'gut' and 'power'! Do you want to win?" Those are the principles the Redskins still live by, for all of Saunders' pyrotechnics.