- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

Is this finally the day?

Is this the game when the Washington Redskins offense finally jolts awake and plays the way everyone envisioned?

Seven games into the season, the unit — led by Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs and with ostensibly talented players at each position — is creaking along. It hasn’t put forth a single performance that gives reason for genuine optimism or signals an impending change in fortune.

The only change people are talking about these days is a potential one at quarterback.

Today at Ford Field, in a game against the upstart Detroit Lions, Washington is seeking that one big effort. In a season in which the offense has slid from surprisingly ineffective to downright disappointing to inexplicably mired, it’s time to show some legitimate progress.

“We’ve been ready for the longest,” offensive tackle Chris Samuels said this week. “We’ve just got to go out and do it this week. We’ve prepared hard, worked hard, and we’ve just got to see what happens.”

There’s little doubt why the Redskins are 2-5, having lost five of their past six games. The club owns the NFL’s No.1 defense, which has done a remarkable job of keeping game after game close, but Washington simply can’t score enough points to win.

The Redskins are the only NFL team that hasn’t scored 20 points in a game. At an average of just 14, they rank ahead of only the lowly Miami Dolphins (12.5). Despite consistent tweaks in the scheme and Gibbs’ steadying presence, the offense hasn’t figured out how to create big plays, sustain long drives or find the end zone with any regularity.

Washington has only three plays of more than 30 yards since running back Clinton Portis’ season-opening 64-yard touchdown sprint. Only the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears possess lower third-down percentages than the Redskins’ 30.1. And no team has scored fewer than Washington’s 10 touchdowns.

The trends were alive and unwell in last weekend’s 28-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Mark Brunell’s longest pass was 23 yards. The offense converted one of 10 third downs. And the two touchdowns were set up by long interception returns by cornerback Shawn Springs.

So even though the Redskins believe they should have won — James Thrash’s controversial illegal-motion penalty negated the potential game-winning touchdown — and they think tangible progress was made, none of the fundamental problems was solved.

“We had 20 first downs,” Gibbs said. “We came back and made some key plays down the stretch. … Mark made a couple plays in the second half I thought were great with our receivers and Clinton. So we made first downs, but we still didn’t convert third downs, and we didn’t get big plays. That’s kind of where we are.”

Brunell, for obvious reasons, remains under close scrutiny. He was booed in the Packers game, and fans chanted at times for young backup Patrick Ramsey.

Gibbs continues to think Brunell’s experience and knowledge of the system give Washington the best chance to win. But the 11-year veteran also struggles with accuracy, gets flushed quickly from the pocket and often seems unable to get the ball deep.

In any case, Gibbs emphasized this week that he entertains no thoughts of making this a rebuilding season — even though Washington’s remaining opponents (counting the Philadelphia Eagles twice) are a combined 40-23. Instead, the coach plans to stick with Brunell indefinitely.

“I’ve never been a rebuilding [guy],” Gibbs said. “I’m looking at the next game. How do we win the next game? … That’s how you learn. You don’t learn by trying to play young people. You try to learn about your football family, and the way you do that is by trying to win football games. … That’s our focus.”

In the postgame locker room last weekend, there were definitely signs of incredulity on the part of Washington’s defense, if not frustration. The unit forced four turnovers and set up two touchdowns, but the team still scored just 14 points. Several players seemed to wonder, “What more can we do?”

But morale remains high. In fact, a practice in the soaking rain Thursday appeared to be one of the more spirited sessions in a season that has seen surprisingly little dejection.

“We’re involved in [this], too,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “We had a couple opportunities to put points on the board ourselves [against Green Bay]. We haven’t scored on defense. We’ve always prided ourselves on being some of the top people in the league doing that, and that’s our next step.

“With a prideful group, it’s pretty easy to attack their pride. We want to do better. Until you’re shutting people out, that’s the only way we can guarantee wins. We’ve got to play better on defense.”

And so the stage is set once again for Washington’s offense to break out. Is today finally the day?

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