- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

So far the Washington Redskins’ season has been like a movie trailer that, when completed, one would respond with a facial expression (an angst-anger combo), hand gesture (two thumbs down) or pithy comment (“This team stinks.”).

The team with a blockbuster payroll, all-star coaching staff and intense August expectations has bombed in losses to Minnesota and Dallas — unable to establish a rhythm on offense and unable to intercept a pass or make a key third-and-long stop on defense.

But as the Redskins take their show to Houston today, there should be at least two slivers of hope: First, today’s opponent is 0-2, has a banged up offensive line and a defense that ranks last in the league in passing and scoring. Second, it could be worse for the Redskins — they could be 0-2 Carolina, which plays in today’s Elimination Bowl at 0-2 Tampa Bay.

With a win over the Texans, the Redskins can save their season, quarterback Mark Brunell can save his job and everybody on the team can save some face. But a loss could stifle optimism at team headquarters and any “it’s still early” talk will cease to exist.

“I’ve been in this situation before and there isn’t anything good about it,” said right tackle Jon Jansen, who was on the 2001 team that started 0-5. “It’s a must-win for us and until we get back to .500, all of them are must-wins for us.”

A win is crucial for Washington since its October schedule includes three playoff teams — Jacksonville, the New York Giants and Indianapolis. It’s critical for an offense that has one touchdown in two games and for a defense that is trying to survive without its best cornerback.

“Gotta [win]?” coach Joe Gibbs replied earlier this week. “I would sure hope to win. But I don’t think ‘gotta.’ But that’s me personally. I’ve seen some wild things happen.”

One of the wild things was the Redskins, at 5-6 last year, winning their final five games to reach the playoffs.

Recent history suggests the Redskins are already in trouble. Since 2003, 22 teams have started 0-2 and only one, Philadelphia in 2003, made the playoffs. Those teams lost an average of 10 games that season and only four managed a winning record.

If they fall to 0-3, it would appear that the Redskins can forget about the postseason, insert Jason Campbell and start thinking about 2007. Fifteen teams the last three seasons lost their first three games; none made the playoffs and only Cincinnati in 2003 finished with a non-losing record (8-8). Only three teams since 1990, and none in eight years, started 0-3 and still made the playoffs.

So, today’s game could be viewed as a must-win — just like those final five wins last December/January were. That team played with a sense or urgency. The Redskins need the 18 holdover starters from that team to rediscover that same attitude.

“Everybody needs to step up their play, from the quarterback and offensive line to the receivers and backs,” left tackle Chris Samuels said. “Everybody is taking turns making mistakes.”

As usual, since Gibbs returned to the Redskins in 2004, all struggle talk starts with the offense and Brunell. The anticipated downfield aerial circus has yet to develop — Brunell has more throwaways (seven) than passes that gained 20 or more yards (six). Tight end Chris Cooley and new receiver Brandon Lloyd (four catches combined) haven’t been involved.

The Redskins blame an inability to establish a running game and Dallas’ Cover 2 defense — where the safeties each defend one side of the field, aiding the cornerbacks in coverage — as reasons why the offense is stuck in neutral. But as Houston coach Gary Kubiak said, the Redskins look to be a conservative team at this point.

“This league is about making some big plays,” he said. “It’s really tough to nickel and dime people every week. You’ve got to come up with some big plays.”

Benched in Game 9 two years ago, it’s hard to fathom Brunell — save a 300-yard passing game in a losing effort — keeping his starting job with a third consecutive offensive clunker.

“We’re 0-2 and each guy has to do their job better and take responsibility to play better on game day,” Brunell said. “That goes for the quarterback and all the way through the team. There are mistakes all over the place right now. I believe it’s going to be fixed. We’re confident.”

Gibbs admitted he has always been wary of pulling the plug on an older quarterback. But 0-3 would represent desperate times, meaning desperate measures might follow.

“In general, you’re more willing to replace the young guy than you are the older guy,” said Gibbs, who showed his quick trigger with Patrick Ramsey’s benching last September. “It’s more than a couple games on the field. It’s also about knowing who he has with him.”

Enter Clinton Portis, back healthy (he insists) from a dislocated left shoulder and a bum rotator cuff. He sat out the Dallas game. If Portis is on, the Redskins offense will fare better and Brunell’s job will be safe.

Although the Texans were shredded by Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning for 714 yards and six touchdowns, don’t be surprised if the Redskins’ game plan is all Portis, all the time.

If Portis can establish the Redskins’ run game, it will keep a semi-reeling Redskins defense off the field and make associate head coach Al Saunders’ play-calling duties much easier.

“It’s going to open up the offense,” Portis said. “Our offense starts with the running game. It’s going to get us into third-and-short instead of third-and-8 or third-and-long. If they give you the opportunity to carry your team on your back, you want do it, hurt shoulder or not. I want to do that.”

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