Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Washington Redskins’ 2003 bye week opened with coach Steve Spurrier ripping his players.

Mayhem ensued in the next seven days. By the time the week was over, the Redskins had a new quarterback tandem, coaching tips from a pair of “consultants” and an impending deal with one of the NFL’s most notorious players.

This week Joe Gibbs’ Redskins are one win short of Spurrier’s group: 2-4 instead of 3-4. But they’re in strikingly better shape as they head through the bye week. And yesterday several players admitted that Gibbs is the difference.

“It’s a Joe Gibbs atmosphere,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to mess with Joe Gibbs. What he says is what’s going to go. He doesn’t have to worry about outside forces dictating to him decisions and stuff.”

Said guard Randy Thomas: “Different head man. You kind of follow your leader. You kind of know what to expect with this guy.”

It came as no surprise last season when the Redskins collapsed after the bye, losing seven of their final nine games. Their ostensible vacation began in Buffalo, N.Y., where Spurrier seethed following a third straight loss. He pinned the defeat on his players, threatening to “get the owners and personnel guys and coaches and figure out who’s playing hard.”

The days that followed could be described as both comic and tragic as these stories emerged:

• Spurrier flatly rescinded his comments.

• Management flew in Joe Bugel, now the club’s assistant head coach for offense, and personnel consultant Foge Fazio to review game tape and make suggestions.

• Spurrier cut backup quarterback Rob Johnson and signed Tim Hasselbeck, who hadn’t thrown a regular-season pass.

• Spurrier attempted to bring back quarterback Danny Wuerffel.

• Spurrier decided the best fix for his offense, which was widely viewed as having been solved by NFL defenses, was to “get back to our original plan.”

• The Redskins pursued defensive tackle Darrell Russell, who had been suspended for drug use and once was charged with giving a woman the “date-rape drug” and videotaping two friends raping her.

Reading those bye-week activities, Gibbs recoiled and said, “Well, thank goodness …” before describing this year’s club at the bye.

“The thing I’m proudest of is,” Gibbs said, referring to the four-game losing streak that ended with Sunday’s win at Chicago, “you go through all that, and guys start getting discouraged. I don’t feel our group has done that. Our focus has been on, ‘This is what we can do. We have to fix this ourselves.’”

Gibbs appeared to facilitate that mentality by stressing unity, shouldering blame and not making any rash moves. Quarterback Mark Brunell, despite prolonged struggles, is still starting. The scheme is evolving steadily but gradually. Yesterday Gibbs made his first notable cut, releasing starting tight end Walter Rasby, but the replacement was veteran Fred Baxter, who spent training camp in Washington.

One might assume Gibbs intentionally was resolute. But he said his actions were more attributable to “common sense.”

“If you felt like something had to be changed, you’d change it,” Gibbs said, “but I don’t sense that. As I worked through this, it’s more us, and understanding us, and we’re still getting to know everybody. I guess it’s just kind of a common sense thing for me.”

Certainly one benefit Gibbs has is the perception of total authority. From the time owner Dan Snyder voted with vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato to cut Wuerffel in the 2003 preseason, Spurrier’s power was questioned. The uncertainty grew during the bye week when the “consultants” visited and Russell was pursued.

Under Gibbs, there have been no signs of input from management.

“He is the head coach and team president,” team spokes-man Karl Swanson said. “He sets the direction for this franchise, and we all follow it.”

Added Gibbs: “To be quite truthful, they’ve been so good. I walked in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens game [an Oct. 10 loss] … [Snyder] was so encouraging. He said, ‘It’s hard for you to see [improvement]. I see it.’”

With Gibbs’ offense ranked among the NFL’s worst and the rest of the NFC East playing well, the Redskins have major obstacles coming out of the bye week. But, unlike last year, Washington most likely will benefit from its week off.

“What I try to tell the players is, ‘We’re working through a real tough time here, and there could be tough times in the future,’” Gibbs said. “But generally I’ve found that you don’t have success without going through real struggles. It’s how you go through struggles [that matters].”

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