- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Three games into Joe Gibbs the Sequel, the Redskins coach is learning things about his team he probably wishes he wasn’t.

He’s learning that while Mark Brunell is similar in many ways to Joe Theismann, he ain’t Joey T.

He’s learning that while Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner bear a certain resemblance to Gary Clark and Art Monk, it’s mostly wishful thinking.

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He’s learning that Clinton Portis is unlike any back he’s ever had, which is both good and bad.

And he’s learning that it’s harder these days for an offense to be smooth and smart and relatively mistake-free. Defenses are just too disruptive.

Let’s talk about Brunell first. You have to wonder what was going through Coach Joe’s mind when he reviewed the game tapes and decided, “Mark’s my man.” All of his previous quarterbacks, after all, have been able to throw the deep out, one of the staples of his offense — Theismann, Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, all of them. But Brunell doesn’t have the arm strength; he simply can’t get the ball there. And if you can’t hit that intermediate-range pass with regularity, you won’t be able to get the defense to back off … so that, among other things, you can pound them with the running game.

Gibbs’ other QBs — even Ed Rubbert, his replacement guy in ‘87 — all had plenty of zip on the ball. Theismann was an astoundingly good deep thrower (especially since he isn’t much bigger than me). But Brunell, it’s clear, is in the nickel-and-dime phase of his career; he can’t make the defense pay when it plays eight men in the box. And unless Coach Joe is planning to radically redesign his offense, No.8 is the wrong quarterback for the Redskins. It’s just a bad fit.

(Granted, Steve Young threw the ball a lot like Brunell. But Young was in a West Coast attack, where the quarterback fires darts — a lot of short stuff across the middle and in the flats — rather than airing it out downfield. Gibbs is an Air Coryell product, not a Bill Walsh protege.)

As for Coles and Gardner, they drop too many balls, and Coles really isn’t much of a touchdown maker. Last year he had six TDs in 82 catches, the year before five in 89. Clark never had more than 79 receptions in a season, but he still averaged eight touchdowns from 1986 to ‘91. When Gary caught the ball, it was just the beginning of the adventure, not the end.

Then there’s Portis. He’s the most interesting case of all. He’s a terrific back, don’t get me wrong — and the Redskins’ most enthusiastic downfield blocker, perhaps, since Charley Taylor. But he might not be ideal for Gibbs’ needs.

And what kind of back does Gibbs require? Well, he had his greatest success with a guy who, in his two best seasons with the Redskins, averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards a carry — as compared to Portis’ career average of 5.4. John Riggins wasn’t much of a breakaway threat, but he could be counted on to gain those 3.6 or 3.8 yards most of the time, which kept the chains moving and kept the Washington defense off the field. Coach Joe refers to those Super Bowl teams as “first-down teams.” Riggo and the Hogs just cranked out the first downs.

Portis, on the other hand, is a home run hitter, and it’s harder to control the ball with a back like that. Also, unlike Riggins, he’s not cut out for short yardage work. The Redskins got stuffed on the goal line against Dallas, failing to score in three cracks from the 1; that didn’t happen too often when Riggo was around. Gibbs might be better off using Ladell Betts or even Mike Sellers in those situations — backs who pack a little more heft.

Of course, it’s a journey of discovery for Coach Joe, just as it is for his players. Another thing he’s finding out is that zone blitzes and run blitzes, tactics he didn’t see much of the first time around, have become much more prevalent. And this means more plays — no matter how well designed — are going to take losses, losses the offense has to be able to recover from.

With Riggins and the Hogs, the Redskins used to just “lower the blade,” as they liked to put it. Now they have to attack the defense in many more ways — with the tight end, with third and fourth receivers, with a change-up running back. It’s not that Gibbs didn’t do that before, but he probably has to do it even more now. Look at the variety the Patriots throw at you, all the wideouts and tight ends and backs. That’s how it’s done these days (unless you’re blessed with a Big Three like Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt — as Coach Joe once was with Riggins and Monk and Charlie Brown).

Three games do not a season make (even when two of them end in defeat). But they can give you some strong indications of where a team is headed. Gibbs, obviously, still has plenty of work to do — and might not, at this point, have the tools to do it with.

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