- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

Three games into coach Joe Gibbs’ second tenure with the Washington Redskins, a clear pattern has emerged:

The defense is playing well enough to win.

The offense is playing poorly enough to fret.

Today at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Redskins are seeking equilibrium on this front as well as in their overall record. Against the Browns, Washington (1-2) hopes to evolve from a plodding but tough group laying the foundation for 2005 to a tough but dynamic group taking a stab at the playoffs this season.

“What you’ve got to do is complement each other,” Gibbs said this week of his divergent offensive and defensive units.

The sides took a step toward each other in Monday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams’ unit was punctured for the first time, giving up three long touchdown drives, though it ultimately held Dallas to 287 yards. Gibbs’ offense, meanwhile, rallied late to salvage an otherwise problematic evening.

Despite a number of poor throws, quarterback Mark Brunell connected four times with wide receiver Rod Gardner for 118 yards in the final 4:45. The surge gave Washington a last-ditch chance to tie, boosted the night’s offensive statistics into the respectable range and perhaps created a bit of momentum for today.

“We’re keeping the ball more,” Gardner said. “The yards per rush [4.0], we’re getting them. We’re throwing the ball well. It’s just mistakes here and there. It’s killing us to where we come out of the ballgame losing by six or losing by three. We’ve just got to cut out all the mistakes and play and win.”

The potential downside of having a defense that ranks No.3 in the NFL and an offense that has endured long barren stretches is that, at some point, a psychological fracture could emerge. In recent years the Redskins have been prone to finger-pointing, though not necessarily along offense-defense lines. This week, however, players were confident that the team remained unified.

“We’re together,” guard Randy Thomas said. “This team here, offense and defense, is more together than I’ve ever [had] with a team.”

And for that, some players point directly to Gibbs.

“I think the biggest thing is that Coach Gibbs, from the beginning, has stressed the meaning of teamwork and being a team,” safety Matt Bowen said. “That’s pretty cool, because guys have really bought into it. That’s what [each Redskin] thinks we are.”

Players see the biggest signs of offensive promise in practice, where “there’s no weeping or crying,” according to Thomas. But there remains a reluctance, perhaps healthy, to champion the progress that’s being made on the practice field. Tackle Chris Samuels, for example, declined to list any examples of development by the offense.

“I can’t really answer that until we go out there and play,” Samuels said. “We can talk about it and do well in practice, but you’ve got to convert those things over to games.”

Defensive players say they are patient with the offense because of the proven veterans they see on the other side of the ball. Although Brunell is being questioned by observers who wonder whether he has enough youth and arm strength to make the necessary throws, the 34-year-old still enjoys considerable support within Redskin Park.

Gibbs, for one, made several unprompted endorsements of Brunell this week, perhaps seeking to head off further criticism. And Gibbs’ players speak confidently about the offense eventually finding its way.

“Mark Brunell, he was still out there [at the end of the Cowboys game],” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “He took some hard hits but got right back up, and continued to have poise in the pocket. … We’re not worried about [the offense]. They have a lot of leadership over there.”

The early sputterings of Gibbs’ offense have somewhat dampened expectations and reminded giddy fans that the climb from 5-11 won’t be easy. But there’s a confidence that major improvements could be as close as a few more touchdown drives by the offense.

“We still don’t feel like we’re 1-2,” Thomas said. “I mean, we got beat. But we’re better than 1-2. We’ve got a good team. And once we come together as three groups — offense, defense and special teams — you’ll have to watch out.”

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