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It’s a first step, but that’s all

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

HOUSTON -- As get-well cards go, the Houston Texans rank right up there with Florida International. And did the Redskins ever need an opponent like that yesterday, one that would pull them out of their 0-2 funk.

Against the hapless Texans, the running game finally gained traction and every passing play worked. Well, almost every passing play. It wasn't until the last minute of the third quarter that Mark Brunell, after completing his first 22 attempts (an NFL record), actually missed a receiver.

"The only time I was nervous was when I looked up [at the scoreboard] and saw Mark was 18-for-18," Clinton Portis said. "I was afraid he'd throw me a pass and I'd mess it up for him."

Yes, a good time was had by all in the Redskins' 31-15 victory at Reliant Stadium. Especially by Portis, who turned a shovel pass into an improbable 74-yard gain and scored an excuse-me touchdown just before the half on a draw play from the Houston 30. As Joe Gibbs put it, "We were trying to set up a field goal, and he broke it all the way." Good thing, because only two seconds were left when Clinton crossed the goal line. Had he come up short, the Redskins might not have had enough time to stop the clock.

Having Portis back in the lineup made all the difference. The offense struggled mightily against the Vikings (when he was at half-speed) and again against Cowboys (when, at Coach Joe's insistence, he rested his ailing left shoulder), but yesterday the unit piled up the yards (495) and the points.

For the first time all season, there was balance, and No. 26 had a lot to do with that. When you can run the football -- and Portis and Ladell Betts racked up 210 yards between them -- it opens up everything, the whole playbook. Just about everybody had a hand in this win ... even long-lost David Patten, whose leaping 25-yard grab on third-and-9 set up Portis' TD.

Still, it was a much more conservative attack than we envisioned when the Redskins hired mastermind Al Saunders. Most of Brunell's throws were layups -- screens, flips into the flat, quick hooks and the like. His 23-yard touchdown to Antwaan Randle El was a swing pass completed well behind the line.

Indeed, the offense looked a lot like the one the Redskins ran last year, when Gibbs was calling the plays. Problem is, you're not going to play the Texans every week. Better defenses will take away the short stuff and force Brunell to throw downfield, which he's clearly not as comfortable doing.

"This is what we are," Santana Moss said. "You don't have to beat somebody deep every game. I'm not here to run down the field on every play. I'm here to take advantage of the opportunities I get." Most of those opportunities so far have been of the short or intermediate variety. After specializing in big plays a year ago, Moss hasn't had a catch this season longer than 37 yards. Yesterday he had six receptions for 50. If this is what the Redskins are, it's troubling.

(Sorry, I don't mean to be a killjoy. But the team didn't give big contracts to Randle El and Brandon Lloyd with the idea of throwing the ball horizontally.) Besides, the road is about to get a good deal tougher for Your Heroes. Next on the agenda is Jacksonville, which held Peyton Manning and Co. to 14 offensive points six days after shutting out the Steelers. The week after that, the Redskins travel to New York, where they were shut out last year. Two weeks after that, they're in Indy, and the Cowboys and Eagles soon follow.

They're not likely to complete any 74-yard shovel passes against those defenses -- or to score on any 30-yard draw plays with two ticks to go in the first half. Let's be honest, Houston's defense is shockingly bad, forever out of position; every time you looked up, Portis or Betts was finding a huge crease up the middle.

"That was ugly today," rookie coach Gary Kubiak said, "Some of the things that happened out there are inexcusable."

What yesterday was for the Redskins was a first step -- but only that. After getting beaten up, down and sideways for six weeks, after going 0-4 in the preseason and 0-2 to begin the real season, they were finally able to exhale.

"It was a tough week last week for a lot of us," Brunell said. "A lot of things being said. To bounce back like we did says a lot about the guys we have on this team."

It will say a lot more about the guys the Redskins have if they continue to bounce back against the Jaguars. The Jags are the real thing, not Florida International in NFL clothing.