- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The defense continues to thrive, ranking at or near the top of almost every major statistical category.

The running game is showing signs of life, with Clinton Portis on pace to break the club’s single-season rushing record.

The passing game? Well, at least Mark Brunell didn’t turn the ball over or take a sack.

Those were about the kindest words coach Joe Gibbs had for the Washington Redskins’ woeful passing offense yesterday in the wake of Sunday’s 17-10 win at Detroit, a game in which Gibbs all but took the ball out of Brunell’s hands to ensure victory.

“To be quite truthful, I was going to be cautious,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t want to lose the ballgame. You can look at it and kind of criticize it, but that’s what I felt.”

Indeed, Gibbs called for just two passes from Brunell in the second half, resulting in one 8-yard completion to Laveranues Coles a little more than three minutes into the third quarter. Brunell, who finished the game 6-for-17 for 58 yards and a paltry 45.7 rating, didn’t connect on another throw the rest of the afternoon (though tailback Portis did toss a 15-yard touchdown pass to Coles).

All of which begs the question: Has Gibbs lost all trust in his quarterback to throw the ball?

“No,” the coach insisted. “It’s not that I didn’t trust them to throw the ball. I didn’t want them to throw the ball — me, Joe Gibbs. I didn’t call the plays and let them throw the ball, because … I just didn’t want to make a mistake with the ball in any way. And you can’t make mistakes until you start throwing it around. So I took the approach. You can lay that on me.”

Having arrived at the midway point of the 2004 season, Gibbs clearly knows his team’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Redskins (3-5) have the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They rank third in scoring defense, third against the run, fifth against the pass and first in third-down defense.

On the other hand, Washington has one of the league’s worst-ranked offenses. Aside from Portis, who is on pace for a 1,600-yard season, the Redskins have the league’s 27th-ranked total offense, the 30th-ranked passing offense and the 31st-ranked scoring offense.

Knowing that, Gibbs did what he felt he had to do Sunday: keep handing the ball to Portis, who finished with 34 carries for 147 yards, keep Brunell from throwing it and keep hoping the defense could hang on.

“It’s not a guarantee, but it is a great method to coach,” said Portis, whose three 100-yard games have all come in Washington victories. “If they’re going to give me the ball to go get 100 yards, then we’ve got a high chance of winning. We know we want to have ball control, and time of possession and running the ball is the way to do that.”

That method worked against the likes of the Lions and Chicago Bears, a pair of struggling clubs with little offensive firepower of their own. But will it work against the more dangerous opponents awaiting the Redskins? In the next four weeks, Washington faces three 7-1 teams (Pittsburgh, plus Philadelphia twice) and Sunday plays host to a Cincinnati squad coming off a 26-3 demolishing of Dallas.

“Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia — there’s no room for any mistakes, no room for error,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said.

The Redskins have no margin for error against those upcoming opponents, and they have no margin for error if they still harbor some slim hopes of competing for a playoff spot.

Amazingly, Washington today finds itself one game out of the NFC’s final wild-card berth. The Giants (5-3) would earn one bid; the Lions, Packers and Rams (all 4-4) are tied for the final spot; and the Redskins, Cowboys, Bears, Saints, Bucs and Cardinals all sit one game back.

Gibbs doesn’t intend to change football philosophies now, and he insists he has no intention of changing quarterbacks. Despite the fact Brunell has failed to surpass 100 yards passing in three of the last four games and despite his own decision to keep the ball out of his quarterback’s hands Sunday, Gibbs yesterday stood by his man as he has done all season.

“The one part of our football team where we can still make the biggest improvements is throwing the football,” Gibbs said. “I think we can do that. I think we’ve got talented guys there. …

“It’s hard to judge off this game because in the second half I didn’t throw the ball. Had we kept throwing the football, I think we’d have made some plays.”

As for his team’s overall state at the season’s halfway point, Gibbs hopes better days lie ahead.

“I wish we weren’t 3-5. I wish we were better than that,” he said. “It’s been extremely hard for all of us. The thing I’m proudest of is the way we’ve fought.”

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