As his latest lesson in humility (Browns 17, Redskins 13) showed, Joe Gibbs is still figuring out how to make his offense work in the new millennium. For the fourth straight week Sunday, Mark Brunell and Co. moved the ball in fits and starts — more the former than the latter. Worse, there was no real sense of progress, no indication that things were beginning to come together. That’s unusual for a Gibbs team; in the Good Old Days, the Redskins were usually starting to hit their stride about now.
Afterward, the Browns talked about the Washington offense being predictable, about being able to guess which play was coming. Don’t read too much into that, though. Opponents were making the same claims about Gibbs’ offense back in the ‘80s — largely because it ran only a handful of plays each game … from a zillion different formations.
As Vince Lombardi used to tell his Packers, “Everybody knows we’re going to run the sweep. What they don’t know is how well we’re going to run the sweep.” It’s all about the execution, and right now the Redskins, still new to Gibbsball, are struggling to carry out their assignments. A missed block here, an imprecise route there — it all adds up.
A couple of thoughts about the Cleveland game:
1. The yards are coming tougher, much tougher, for the Redskins than they should.
2. In light of this, Gibbs might want to consider getting the ball in Clinton Portis’ hands more as a receiver and less as running back.
It was hard not to notice how unproductive Brunell’s short passing game was Sunday — and these are the plays, I’ll just point out, that help you avoid the third-and-longs that undid the Redskins. They’re also the plays that enable you to convert third downs so you can create more scoring opportunities, something Gibbs’ offense hasn’t had nearly enough of.
Consider: Brunell threw 10 times to his tight ends against the Browns — an abnormally high number for Coach Joe. He completed just three of those passes, all to Walter Rasby, for 29 yards. That’s an average of 2.9 yards per pass. Terrible.
It wasn’t until midway through the third quarter, meanwhile, that Brunell lobbed a ball in Portis’ direction. And Clinton, as everyone knows, is one of the great open-field runners in the NFL, almost Faulk-esque in his ability to take it to the house. Seems like the Redskins would want to get him one-on-one with a linebacker more often — out in the flat, over the middle, wherever — instead of continually pounding him between the tackles. He’s tough, he’s durable, but he ain’t built like John Riggins. He’s 5-11, 205 pounds. (Maybe.)
The game has changed since Gibbs last paced the sideline. More and more defenses operate on the Chaos Theory: blitz, disrupt, put the quarterback on his behind. The blitzes, moreover, get there quicker than they used to because defensive coordinators think nothing of sending safeties and cornerbacks, never mind linebackers. To avoid a sack, the QB often has to get rid of the ball quickly, and who’s easier to dump it off to than a tight end or a running back?
That’s why tight ends have become so prominent in offenses, why guys like Tony Gonzalez, Todd Heap and Jeremy Shockey have been putting up big numbers. It’s also why LaDainian Tomlinson caught 100 passes last season, why Priest Holmes caught 74 and why Marshall Faulk a few years back topped 1,000 yards receiving.
Nowadays, with defenses being so aggressive, it helps if your offensive skill players are able to multitask. It helps if your backs can run and catch. It helps if your tight ends can block and pose a credible receiving threat. That way, defenders can’t just fly after the quarterback — or run-blitz with impunity.
Brunell went to his tight ends so much Sunday, you wondered why Gibbs didn’t draft Kellen Winslow Jr. in the first round instead of Sean Taylor (or, if he wasn’t in love with Winslow, why he didn’t trade down and take Ben Watson). It’s obvious the position is much more important in his offense — the throwing part of it, that is — than it was in the ‘80s. And Brunell, you can be sure, would love to have a big, easy-to-spot target who can get open in the middle — like he did in Jacksonville with Kyle Brady (and before him, Pete Mitchell).
As for Portis, Gibbs considers him “a good all-around back … a good pass receiver.” Well, why not start treating him like one? Why not start using him a little more like Tiki Barber and a little less like Gerald Riggs? Clinton should be a 2,000-yard back in Coach Joe’s offense — 1,400 rushing, say, and 600 receiving. At the moment, he’s on a 1,486-yard rushing pace (about right) and a 386-yard receiving pace (not nearly enough).
Gibbs has had backs similar to Portis before. James Brooks, in San Diego, was a little like him. Joe Washington and Kelvin Bryant bore certain similarities, too. Coach Joe didn’t wear out those guys by having them run 50 Gut over and over, and he shouldn’t do it to Clinton, either. Here’s hoping the Redskins coach, a master of adjustments, makes this one.