Sunday, October 17, 2004

Joe Gibbs isn’t looking for a lucky bounce today. He’s not expecting the Washington Redskins’ turnaround to start with a trick play or a radical change of scheme. And he’s not going to alter his persona or start shuffling personnel.

No, as the Redskins (1-4) play the Chicago Bears and attempt to snap a four-game losing streak that has playoff hopes fading and questions percolating, Gibbs believes there is only one way out of his team’s hole.

Stay together and work harder.

Sound simple? Perhaps. But if Washington does turn around its season at Soldier Field, there’s little doubt history will credit Gibbs’ calm persona and focus on fundamentals over the past few weeks with making a rebound possible.

“I’ve been through it all,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “How that thing bounces and turns, it’s a funny-shaped deal. It can wind up in the craziest places. Right now, for a period of time here, it’s bounced up into somebody’s hands, and they score with it. But I think what happens is you make it go your way. You find a way to make it happen. Find a way to get another touchdown. Find a way to stop another touchdown. And you start winning games.”

The Redskins faced a similar situation in 2001 under Marty Schottenheimer, when veteran players nearly mutinied in the season’s first few weeks and the club found itself 0-5.

Like Gibbs, Schottenheimer was resolute — in his case, almost to the point of absurdity. Schottenheimer would emerge from the losing locker room and sound like he hadn’t even watched the same game. Amazingly, Washington won five straight and got into playoff contention.

If anything, this $110million team has more reason for optimism than that rebuilding club. But the climb probably must begin today. Another loss and Washington would have two long weeks to mull a five-game losing skid, thanks to a bye week.

“This is a crucial moment for us,” defensive tackle Joe Salave’a said. “We’re focused on getting this on track before it gets too out of control. Our goals are within reach, but it starts with one game.”

The first part of Gibbs’ mantra, staying together, has been a theme throughout recent weeks. The situation is ripe for finger-pointing — Washington’s offense ranks 26th in the NFL while the defense ranks third — but Gibbs repeatedly has emphasized the need for unity. Following last Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, for example, it was the first thing he talked about.

A lot of teams pay lip service to the idea of staying together, then dish out blame at the first opportunity. Conversations at Redskin Park over the past week revealed club officials and players, perhaps still sensitive to the way last year’s club unraveled, aren’t yet splitting.

While the outsiders question quarterback Mark Brunell, a seemingly dispassionate offensive line and the aging staff running Gibbs’ offense, internally the focus is on better all-around execution.

“Nobody’s pointing fingers,” wide receiver Rod Gardner said. “As a team, we’re sticking together, and we’re saying the only way out of this is all of us together. We’re just working hard, because eventually we’re going to get the burst we need.”

The other ingredient in Gibbs’ recipe, hard work, is a bit harder to judge because media are shut out of Redskins practices. Gibbs, however, feels good about the effort.

“We’ve got a core group of guys here who are extremely hard workers and have talent,” he said. “We’ve just got to get ourselves in the right frame of mind, quit making mistakes and hurting ourselves.”

In the Bears (1-3), the Redskins get another beatable opponent. Chicago doesn’t have much of a passing game with Jonathan Quinn at quarterback, and Washington’s defense will give the Redskins’ struggling offense more time to develop if it can contain Bears running back Thomas Jones.

Assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams isn’t letting his players shrug off Washington’s poor record. He noted, for example, that some of them were on the punt coverage that yielded a 78-yard touchdown last weekend.

“We’ve got to do a better job when our defensive players are playing special teams,” Williams said. “And we’ve got to do a better job of trying to create short fields for our offense and scoring on defense. We did that quite well during the preseason. I think it’s time we step up and make those plays during the regular season.”

By tonight the Redskins could be spiraling back toward the bottom of the NFL, where clubs such as the bumbling Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins reside. But for now, this team believes the solution isn’t all that complicated — or far off.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been part of this before,” center Cory Raymer said with a laugh. “In all honesty, we’re a better team than what our record is. … We’re on the fence right now. Everybody believes in what we’re doing and is in for the long haul. Just a little spark will turn it all around.”

Note — As expected the Redskins signed kicker Ola Kimrin to replace John Hall, who strained his groin Thursday. Kimrin performed well in the preseason, hitting all four of his field goals, including a 39-yarder to beat the Denver Broncos in the opener. Tight end Brian Kozlowski was cut to make room.

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