- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

The Washington Redskins wake up today with a belly full of turkey and the season’s final six games stretched out before them like I-95 on, well, the day after tomorrow.

It might be Thanksgiving weekend, but shivering Pilgrims had less reason to be glum. Once again, under Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, the Redskins are 3-7. Several busts have surfaced amid a blockbuster free-agent haul. Top draft pick Sean Taylor is hocking loogies and refusing Breathalyzers. The offense is impersonating the proverbial blind squirrel. And salary-cap jail looms just a few years down the line.

Still, even the storm clouds that seem to hang perpetually above Redskin Park have a silver lining. On this day after Thanksgiving, with yet another Redskins season shot and Opening Day 2005 nearly 10 months away, The Washington Times has a lucky seven reasons for the Redskins to be thankful:

1. Brunell experiment over

Gibbs’ most egregious error was acquiring quarterback Mark Brunell. His second-most egregious error was sticking with Brunell so long. By the time the switch finally came Nov.[ThSp]14, the Redskins were well on their way to a sixth loss in nine games.

Fortunately for Washington, Brunell is in the rear-view mirror. Sure, he might surface in reserve situations and even hang around as the 2005 backup. But Gibbs finally has sobered up, ditching the veritable beer goggles that caused him to give Brunell, against all evidence, chance after chance after chance.

2. Portis at peace

Early this year, Clinton Portis used his singular burst to run mostly into the backs of his blockers. The bottom came in early October, when Portis rushed for just 111 yards in two straight losses.

Now the Pro Bowl rusher has learned to wait for holes in Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme, and coaches are spreading out formations and giving Portis more options. Throw in the fact that Portis does all the little things that feature runners sometimes ignore, and Washington truly has a back to build around.

“We really believe that,” assistant head coach for offense Joe Bugel said. “We think he’s a hard-nosed kid who can hit the home run every time he touches the football. What’s impressive about him: He’s a good pass-blocker, he’s a good route-runner, and he can catch the football. He’s the type of back you keep on the field the whole game.”

3. Defense is back

What a coaching job by Gregg Williams, whose attacking defense has been the only thing keeping Washington in games at times. Despite tailing off a bit in recent weeks [-] and losing the coveted No.[ThSp]1 ranking [-] the unit still places No.[ThSp]2 in the NFL and gives the Redskins hope of a turnaround in 2005.

“Our defense is awesome,” offensive lineman Ray Brown said. “They’ve played tremendously throughout the course of the year. Somehow we have to complement them by staying on the field and keeping them fresh.”

4. Law of averages

There’s no way Washington expected this many major injuries. Heck, Napoleon probably didn’t figure on this many boo-boos as he marched into Russia.

Among the Redskins lost for extended periods were their leader on the offensive line, top pass-rusher, kicker, right defensive end, strong safety and projected middle linebacker. Now the right guard is on the shelf and a rookie tackle will face Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense.

Assuming the breaks balance out in 2005, the Redskins are in line for a much-deserved stretch of good health. At least they hope.

5. Only way is up

A year back in the NFL should give the veteran coaching staff some clues as to why football teams enjoy reaching that large, rectangular painted area at either end of the field. Washington, ranked dead last in scoring, can’t help but put up more points in 2005.

6. Character construction

The upside to enduring so much difficulty is that Gibbs is finding out who’s really with him. The team has done a remarkable job of hanging together and staying positive when many others (including some in Washington in recent years) would have splintered like a park bench at fat camp.

This is no small feat. The Redskins have undergone tremendous turnover on both the coaching staff and the roster. Both sides had to figure out who had resolve and determination and who was simply in it for the headlines and the paycheck.

“We’ve been able to learn a lot about those guys,” Gibbs said. “You watch them practice, how they deal with an injury, how they go through a real tough time like this. You learn a lot about people. That’s the most important thing you do. It’s not X’s and O’s. It’s the people. If we get enough right people, we’re going to win.”

7. Gibbs already here

Throughout Dan Snyder’s six-year stewardship, there always has been an underlying perception that if the team could just get one more player or one more coach, everything suddenly would turn around.

Guess what: it won’t. After years of burning through cash like a dot-com startup, the Redskins can look only as far as the walls of Redskin Park to find solutions to their problems.

No one knows whether 2005 will bring Gibbs a return to glory and Snyder his long-awaited winning season. But at least fans won’t be sold a new bill of goods this offseason. Improvement will come through hard work, teamwork, good decision-making and leadership.

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