- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

DETROIT.

There was no earthly reason for the Redskins’ game against the Lions yesterday to be as close as it was. Gregg Williams’ defense was dynamite, Danny Smith’s special teams were splendid and Clinton Portis’ bobbing and weaving netted 147 yards rushing.

That’s usually a recipe for a blowout, not a 17-10, sweat-out-the-last-two-minutes victory. But eight games into his comeback, Joe Gibbs is still trying to recapture the old magic — and this requires, as much as anything, teaching his players how to win, how to play with their heads as well as their hearts.

The last five minutes of the first half showed how far he still has to go. First, there was Ray Brown false-starting on fourth-and-1 at the Detroit 1, forcing the Redskins to settle for a 3-0 lead instead of a 7-0 cushion. Then there were the twin 15-yard penalties against the defense in the Lions’ subsequent series — a senseless taunting penalty against Fred Smoot, followed by a regrettable late hit against Antonio Pierce. Without these acts of charity, the punchless Detroit offense never would have been able to “drive” from its 3 to the Washington 22, close enough for a game-tying 40-yard field goal by Jason Hanson.

The second half went a little more smoothly; spasms of self-destructiveness were fewer and farther between. But what could have been a breakthrough victory — decisive, never in doubt and on the road, to boot — was instead another win that raised almost as many questions as it answered.

Guess improvement is going to come in small increments for these Redskins — little by little, bit by bit. Guess there’s going to be no miraculous overnight transformation, no switch that’s suddenly flipped. None of this progress will matter, though until the club starts getting out of its own way, learns to play as smart as it does well.

“It’s a real concern for me,” Gibbs said. And it should be. Two taunting penalties, two other 15-yard walkoffs for late hits — when did one of his old teams ever have a game like that? I’m not sure the Redskins had two taunting penalties in Coach Joe’s first 12 years.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’re not going to win close games [if you do].” The Redskins have found themselves in battles like yesterday’s week after week, games in which “every yard is huge, every change of field position is huge,” as Gibbs put it. If they keep getting flagged for these vanity penalties, as I like to call them, “it’s going to cost you,” he says.

But will his players listen to him? He’s certainly listened to them, tried not to be too Old School. “He’s thrown enough bones to us,” Portis said. “When we complained about the pads” — that is, all the hitting Coach Joe was having them do in practice — “he took us out of pads.”

But will the players reciprocate and begin using their noggins, or will there be more afternoons like yesterday, when the Redskins badly outplay an opponent and yet barely scrape by (if, indeed, they’re so lucky the next time). This is a club that has no margin for error right now — none. And the reason for this is as obvious as it is repetitious: The offense is broken, and it looks like it ain’t gonna get fixed anytime soon.

It produced 10 points against the Lions (not counting the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown), and seven of those came on a halfback pass from Portis to Laveranues Coles. “[Coles] said he needed a TD,” No.26 explained.

You can understand why. I mean, Laveranues hadn’t scored a touchdown all year. That’s right folks, we’re halfway through the season, and the only touchdown pass caught by the Redskins’ leading receiver has been thrown by Clinton Portis. Kinda sums up Mark Brunell’s performance, doesn’t it?

In the second half, Gibbs all but excluded Brunell from the game plan, calling 23 running plays and only three passes (one of which was tossed by Portis). In the last 30 minutes, in other words, Clinton had the same number of completions as Brunell (one) and more passing yards (15, to Mark’s eight).

“I kinda made up my mind when we got the lead that I was going to make sure that we didn’t beat ourselves, so I was fairly cautious,” Coach Joe said.

Cautious? The Redskins did everything but punt on third down.

Which brings us to Tom Tupa. It was bad enough that Brunell got out-quarterbacked by Portis; but I’m beginning to wonder if Tupa might be able to punt the ball more accurately than Brunell can throw it. He dropped three kicks yesterday inside the Lions’ 5, and the first one hit coverage man James Thrash right in the hands.

Gibbs keeps finding people other than Brunell to throw the ball. Last week it was Rod Gardner, yesterday it was Portis and next week — who knows? — it might be Brian Kozlowski. Hey, whatever it takes. We’re trying to win football games here.

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