- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2008

A game like the one Sunday between the Redskins and Browns should have been played in a torrential downpour, the players squishing around in 6 inches of mud. Either that or hurricane-force winds should have whipped through the stadium, threatening to blow down everything but Cornelius Griffin.

At least then there would have been an excuse for the absence of scoring until midway through the third quarter, for the punt-o-rama between Washington newcomer Ryan Plackemeier and Cleveland’s Dave Zastudil. At least then the FedEx crowd could have gotten into the spirit of things and begun cheering first downs the way it usually does touchdowns.

But there was no rain, no mud, no wind … and precious little reason to cheer. It was just two NFL teams that, on this Given Sunday, seemed to have misplaced their offensive playbooks.

Eventually, the Redskins found the end zone. Eventually, Jason Campbell hit Santana Moss for 35 yards and Antwaan Randle El for 13 more, and then, nearly eight minutes into the second half, Clinton Portis powered 3 yards for a touchdown. And those seven points, supplemented by an 18-yard Moss TD in the fourth, were enough to subdue the Browns 14-11 and improve Washington’s record to 5-2.

But it was far from the Snydermen’s finest hour. In fact, it offered further evidence of a growing problem for Jim Zorn’s offense: its increasing difficulty getting much of anything going early in games.

Indeed, were it not for the gimme touchdown the Rams handed them in the first few minutes two Sundays ago following a fumble at the St. Louis 3, the Redskins would have gone three weeks without scoring a TD in the first half. Think about it:

Week 5 against the Eagles: three field goals in the first 30 minutes.

Week 6 against the Rams: a 3-yard touchdown drive - and that’s it.

Week 7 against the Browns: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.

“We’d like to study that,” said Zorn, who then offered this theory: “It’s really third-down conversions. Those are the things that are stopping us. And that’s one area I really want to improve on. We’ve gotta pick up the first down whenever we want, whenever it’s called for.”

True, the Redskins were only 3-for-14 on third down Sunday, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Their first series was actually sabotaged by a second-down play, a swing pass to Rock Cartwright that resulted in a 7-yard loss. In their next series, they had third-and-13 and couldn’t convert. Two series later, they couldn’t convert a third-and-10. Obviously, stuff was happening on first and second down that was putting them in difficult situations.

(And it was more of the same at the outset of the second half. A holding penalty against Chris Samuels left them with a third-and-11 they couldn’t convert. Third-and-13, third-and-10, third-and-11 - you’re not going to pick up many of those.)

Fortunately for the Redskins, Greg Blache’s defense bailed them out. That’s the silver lining in all this - a defensive unit that needed only 14 points to secure the victory, a defensive unit that seems to get better (and hit harder) each week. Did you see St. Louis laid 34 points on the Cowboys earlier in the day? Well, that same Rams offense managed only eight first downs (and a single TD) against the Redskins.

London Fletcher, leader of two goal-line stands - OK, 1 1/2 goal-line stands - described the defense’s performance as “focused football for 60 minutes.” That’s what has escaped the offense lately: quarter-to-quarter consistency. It’s easier said than done, of course, but the better offenses have it. Campbell and Co. are still trying to get to that level.

“Every game is different,” said the Redskins quarterback, who - hard as it is to believe - still hasn’t thrown an interception this season. “Some weeks the offense has carried the team. The last few weeks it’s been the defense. … Some games are going to be a [low-scoring] slugfest. Fred Smoot says it’s Mississippi State football. And I say, well, let’s not play Mississippi State football all the time. We’ll take it today, though.”

What the last three weeks have shown as much as anything is that Zorn’s offense is still a work in progress. It had some encouraging flashes in the first month - and all along, it has had the requisite pass-run balance - but it’s not exactly a Maserati yet. More like a Volvo.

And there’s no denying the offense has been slow-starting this season, glacially slow. We’re almost halfway through the schedule, and Redskins have managed just 17 first-quarter points, seven of them coming on the aforementioned gift-wrapped TD from the Rams.

This puts a lot of pressure on a defense - and so far, Blache’s unit has held up well, helped keep the Redskins in games until the offense pulled itself together. But this can’t go on indefinitely, can it? The Redskins can’t expect to keep beating teams with so little production in the first quarter - and often, the first half.

They’ve been fortunate they haven’t fallen so far behind that they’ve had to junk their offensive game plan. Junking their game plan, after all, would mean going away from Portis, who topped 120 rushing yards for the fourth straight week Sunday, tying Earnest Byner’s franchise record (set in 1990).

Portis is the best back in the league right now. And Zorn is smart enough to realize that while his West Coast attack is built around the pass, the heart of this Redskins offense is its running game - No. 26 darting to daylight behind his beefy veteran line. Campbell has talent, no question, but he’s still a quarterback-in-training. For the time being, at least, Clinton is The Man.

The Redskins dodged another loss Sunday but just barely. They’re 5-2, in serious playoff contention, and yet they haven’t beaten anybody decisively. And they won’t until their offense, which has been fairly good at gaining yards, starts scoring more points - the earlier in the game, the better.

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