Joe Gibbs called the Washington Redskins' season opener against the Minnesota Vikings one of the biggest games of his career.
That's hard to believe, considering Gibbs has coached teams to four Super Bowls. Still, a victory for the Redskins tonight would quell fears that a listless 0-4 preseason is a harbinger of a disappointing fall.
No one in the NFL thinks preseason means much, especially once the backups take the field. But history says it isn't meaningless, either. Since 1980, only five of the 40 teams that failed to win in preseason reached the playoffs.
The Redskins certainly could use a confidence-restoring victory -- particularly considering they play in the stacked NFC East and face the archrival Dallas Cowboys on the road in just six days.
"Some people are more optimistic," said Gibbs, who is 8-0 against the Vikings but just 7-7 in season openers. "I don't think anybody is talking about high expectations from us. We just want to win a game."
The Redskins are considered true contenders. They ended a five-year playoff drought last season and in the offseason added associate head coach-offense Al Saunders, receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El, defensive end Andre Carter and safety Adam Archuleta.
But Saunders, to whom Gibbs has ceded playcalling duties, kept his offense under wraps in August. Lloyd and Randle El combined for just six catches, and the starting offense failed to score on any of its 14 possessions. On defense, Archuleta struggled in pass coverage, and his one sack was one more than Carter produced.
"All [during training camp] we were working on the plays that we're going to be running this week," center Casey Rabach said. "We scaled it down for games, but we know what we can do. We've seen it in practice against our defense, which is pretty darn good. And we've seen it in the past with what coach Saunders has done in the league."
Saunders guided the NFL's most productive offense the past five years with the Kansas City Chiefs. On the other side of the ball, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams ran one of two NFC units that ranked in the top 10 in each of the past two seasons. That defense returns nine starters this season.
"We're not near as good as everybody says we are," said Williams, whose starters allowed 44 points on 18 series in August.
Losing running back Clinton Portis, cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive linemen Cornelius Griffin and Phillip Daniels to injuries for much of preseason didn't help.
Griffin and Daniels are back, however, and Portis is set to play a reserve role behind Ladell Betts. Kenny Wright -- a starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars' fierce defense in 2005 -- will fill in for Springs against the mediocre Vikings receivers.
"People want to look at their record in preseason, but I don't see that team," Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson said. "I see a dominant defense that disguises things well ... and really doesn't give up a lot of points.
"You have to have your head on a swivel [against the Redskins] and treat every play like a blitz."
The Vikings felt under siege at 2-5 last fall, losing quarterback Daunte Culpepper to season-ending knee surgery and enduring the embarrassment of the infamous "Love Boat" incident. A 7-2 finish wasn't enough to save coach Mike Tice. The Vikings practiced in pads every day during training camp under new coach Brad Childress and went 2-1-1 in preseason, outscoring their opponents 90-43.
"It seems like they have a new sense of urgency," Gibbs said. "They fly to the football. Their front seven [on defense] is as good as anybody's. They're very sharp on offense. They certainly played better than we did in preseason."
While the Vikings unquestionably are strong on the left side of the offensive line and at defensive tackle, the Redskins figure to be stronger overall, despite last month's respective results.
"Preseason is a little different," Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington said. "You don't know exactly how long you are going to play. Sometimes you don't know who you are going to be out there with. You don't game-plan a team. Once the season starts, you're going to be out there the whole game. You see these guys all week. You almost get to know them a little. It makes it a lot easier."
And as Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell said, all the hype about the enhanced offense and all the gloom about the poor preseason won't matter come 7 p.m.
"It's not what's in your playbook; it's how you execute those plays," he said. "That's what we need to focus on, not the new plays, playing our best football on Monday night."
By Elaine Donnelly
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