Tandler's Redskins Blog 10/9

Gibbs' tough comeback trail and (not-so) bold predictions.

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October 8, 2004

In this morning's Richmond Times-Dispatch, Paul Woody took a good look at how other very good to great coaches have struggled in a manner similar to the way Joe Gibbs has on returning from a layoff from coaching.
The Joe Gibbs shakedown cruise has hit some choppy water, but it's far too early to say the game has passed him by or that he made a mistake by coming out of retirement.

"Coach Gibbs is an outstanding coach as there has ever been in this game," said Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick. "But there is a process you have to go through when you start up a new team."

Billick is right.

When Gibbs took over as the coach and president of the Washington Redskins, he tried to prepare for every eventuality.

But when you've been away from something for 11 years, there will be a period of adjustment.
Dick Vermiel, for instance, came back after 14 years off and won a Super Bowl—following 5-11 and 4-12 seasons. Marty Schottenheimer took one season off and his Redskins stumbled to an 0-5 start before tearing off a five-game winning streak.

Woody concludes that Gibbs eventually will win and could win big if he has the patience to wait through the adjustment period.

He fails to mention, however, the coach whose situation most closely parallels that of Gibbs. That is, of course, Bill Parcells. Here is a look at the Tuna's three "restarts" in the NFL.

New England, 1993, 0-4 (previous season 4-12)

Returning after a two-year layoff, Parcells' Pats were uncompetitive in two of his first four games back, losing to the Bills 38-14 in the opener and to the Jets 45-7 in the fourth game. In between were a couple of close losses to Detroit (19-16) and Seattle (17-14).

This was only the beginning of a 1-11 start before the ship got righted and they won their last four. A quick scan of the Boston Globe archives from that time period indicates that there was a great deal of patience with Parcells. While the search reveals just new stories and not columns, it doesn't appear that there were cries that the game had passed him by. I'm sure that the callers into Boston sports radio stations (Beantown was one of the pioneers of the genre) weren't so kind.

New York Jets 1997, 2-2 (previous season 1-15)

There was no layoff here; Parcells went straight to New York after taking the Patriots to the Super Bowl. The Jets opened by whipping Seattle 41-3 before dropping two in a row to Buffalo (28-22) and the Patriots (27-24). A 24-23 win over the Raiders started a three-game winning streak that helped propel the Jets to an 8-4 mark after three quarters of the season. They lost three of their last four, however, and were out of the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys 2003, 3-1 (previous season 5-11)

This time there were three years in between coaching stints for Parcells and this was his best start. After losing to the Mike Vick-less Falcons in the opener 24-13, it took a bit of luck for Parcells to get to 1-1. The Giants had them dead to rights, scoring to take a three-point lead in the game's final seconds. Dallas got the break it needed when the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and a quick completion got them into game-tying field goal range. The Cowboys won in overtime, giving them a spark to a five-game winning streak.

And that is exactly what the Redskins need—a spark. It appears that the flame was doused in Giants Stadium right when Kurt Warner followed up Mark Brunell's fumble with a 38-yard touchdown pass to tie that game at seven. A few series later Portis fumbled for the first time in 200+ carries and the offense has seemed tentative ever since.

As many remember the cure for Marty's 0-5 start was Lavar Arrington's interception return for a touchdown that gave the team hope when it appeared that a sixth straight loss was inevitable. Suddenly, confidence flowed through the entire team. In fact, the Redskins turned a losing streak into a winning streak on the basis of that one play described above.

For Gibbs' part, he's not looking for a particular big play or anything, he thinks that a win, no matter how obtained, would go a long ways towards righting the ship. On his TV show this evening, he said:
We just need to get a win. I've found that when you go through real tough times like this, if we every snap out of it and get a win, we kind of get a good feeling about that. The guys don't want to go back to losing and then you can get on a roll.
Will that win come on Sunday?

Bold Predictions

This is a very hard game to get a feel for. The Redskins have slogged through four games that either team could have won. Baltimore has played two good games but had a pair of stinkers in weeks one and four (I think that even the Raven faithful out there have to admit that Monday night's game was not a close as the score indicated).

When I doubt, I go back and look at the Skins' history in similar situations (again, to the Ravens fans out there, is this situation there just isn't much history to go on). Still, not much revealing. Gibbs' Redskins started 1-3 just once, in 1985, and they followed it up with a two-game winning streak.

There are few parallels to draw off of this, however. That '85 squad had just come off of three straight playoff appearances and had been to two Super Bowls in the previous three years. This team, in its present incarnation, hasn't sniffed the playoffs. Nineteen years ago, the three losses were much more decisive than the three in '04 were. Washington lost the opener to Dallas 44-14, to Philly in the third game 19-6 and then suffered a 45-10 pounding at the hands of the Bears.

The lone win, 16-13 over the Houston Oilers, was somewhat tainted. In the days following the game, the NFL issued an apology to the Oilers for two officials calls that, after review, turned out to be in error. Those calls cost Houston two touchdowns (Hmmm, sound familiar?)

Well, I can't procrastinate breaking this one down any longer. Here goes.

First, the obvious factor: this will be a low-scoring game. The matchups favor both defenses. Of the four units that will be on the field Sunday night, the Ravens' defense is the best, followed by Washington's offense, then the Skins defense then the Baltimore offense. Some may take issue with the placement of the visiting team's offense, given the presence of 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis. More on Lewis in a moment, but while Kyle Boller will eventually be an excellent quarterback, he's still making young QB mistakes, some of them killers.

I have no idea what the Vegas over-under for this one is, but I'd be surprised if much more than 30 to 35 points are scored. That means that it will be tight and the little things will come heavily into play—a bounce here, a call there, a spark from an expected source.

Another little thing is the mental state of each team's running back. It's very difficult to prepare to play an NFL game under the best of circumstances. When there are distractions, it's even tougher.

Portis had the aftermath of his "they knew what was coming" comments to deal with. Both Gibbs and Joe Bugel disagreed with Portis over the player's assertion that the plays were being tipped to the Browns. Portis then accused the media of painting him in a bad light and skipped his usual Thursday interview session with the press.

On the distraction scale, however, Portis' travails were like an afternoon shower compared to Lewis' Hurricane Ivan. At the end of the football season, Lewis will be trading in his purple jersey for an orange jump suit. Instead of going through a full practice on Thursday, Lewis was in a courtroom pleading guilty to a drug-related charge. He will begin serving a four-month prison sentence sometime in February. Since his crime involved drugs, the NFL will suspend him for two games and dock is pay for two more.

The fact that Lewis has had to deal with this during the course of a short week in preparation will certainly not help him on Sunday night. How much it hurts him remains to be seen.

I belive that it won't hurt him to any noticeable extent. Lewis is young enough and good enough to get by for a single game on his sheer ability.

What could affect him, however, is the Washington defense. No, I don't believe that they're the "best" running defense in the NFL despite their #1 ranking in rushing yardage allowed. It's just that Gregg Williams will key the defense towards stopping Lewis and make Boeller beat them. No matter how good you are, it's tough to run with eight in the box.

While the Ravens defense will have to give Washington's passing game a little more respect, this is a tough matchup for Portis. Ray Lewis is one of the best ever at going sideline to sideline to make tackles and Ports' forte is running to the outside. It's likely that he'll find Lewis in any and every cutback lane he might be looking for.

So, if all of this plays out, one of the quarterbacks will win or lose it. The way Boller and Brunell have played this year, neither is a strong candidate to win it. Of the two, Boller is more likely to be the one to lose it.

I launched into this blog entry hoping that I would come upon some clear edge for either team. After some 900 words on the subject, I still can't convince myself one way or the other.

I'll take a stab at Boller losing it. Redskins 17, Ravens 14.

But it could just as easily be the same score in favor of Baltimore. So much for "bold" predictions.

October 7, 2004

Battle of the Beltway?

It appears that we are avoiding this rivalry nonsense this time around.

Before the last time the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens shared the same football field, their receiver Travis Taylor had this to say
"We know how much our fans hate Washington. The fans are ready for this one. I think we are, too. If our fans feel that strongly about the D.C. area, we definitely want to try to put some points on the board and get out of there with a victory."
Did I mention that the game that Taylor was talking about was a 2003 preseason game?

That didn't matter to another Raven. "It's more than just a preseason game because of the little extra stuff," Ravens defensive end Adalius Thomas said. "Especially to the fans, this is for bragging rights. There's a little more riding on this game. We would like to win it for them."

Even Brian Billick—who seems to be a pretty sharp, level headed guy to me—got into the act. "The players, believe me, it means a lot to them", the head coach said. "They're in the community now and they know this means a lot to the fans. You would have to be deaf and dumb not to get caught up in the excitement the fans have for it."

Oddly, for such a "big" rivalry, there was little being said on the Redskins side of the fence. Make that absolutely nothing being said. By the way, Washington "won" the glorified practice session 24-3.

Thankfully, both sides seem to be taking the Redskins' approach this time around. A scanning of the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and Washington Times sports sections reveals no quotes about any players or coaches wanting to win one for the hometown fans.

Please correct me if I'm wrong (and I'm sure the audience for this journal will), but there just isn't any reason for there to be any kind of rivalry between the Redskins and Ravens.

They've played each other twice in games that count. In 1997, the Ravens beat Washington 20-17 and in that 2000 game the Skins prevailed over the eventual Super Bowl champs 10-3. Nothing happened on the field that would spark any ill feelings on the part of either side and, besides, both rosters have undergone considerable turnover since then.

There have been a couple of off-field incidents that have rankled the Ravens organization. Before a regular season game in 2000, the FedEx Field PA announcer said that "Ravens fans suck." Before that game, stadium staffers charged $40 to allow busses carrying Ravens personnel to drop off their passengers near the stadium. The vehicle carrying Art Modell was forced to park so far away from the stadium that Modell needed a golf cart to get to the stadium.

Then a couple of summers ago, Redskins owner Dan Snyder was asked if he modeled himself after owners like Modell. "What model is Art Modell?" said Snyder. "He owned the team 42 years and won one Super Bowl."

Still, owner-to-owner slights are not the types of things that make players' blood boil and whips the fan base into a frenzy. It's just another game, albeit one that both teams desperately need to win.

Wars of Words

Just because there's no rivalry talk going on doesn't mean that the members of the two teams are staying silent. On Comcast Sports Net's postgame show following the Ravens' Monday night loss to Kansas City, Ray Lewis said that Clinton Portis "was no Priest Holmes". That remark may spur Portis on, but it's not as though he doesn't have to step up his game anyway just to start earning his hefty salary.

Some Redskins had some unflattering comments about Lewis. "He isn't God," said guard Randy Thomas. OK, we can buy that one. But here's what H-back Mike Sellers had to say:
"I don't think he's as good as a lot of people say he is," Sellers said. "He's a great sideline-to-sideline player but filling the holes? I don't think so. That's just one opinion, though. . .He's human, everyone has their flaw. You've just got to find his. Some people have found it. Some people haven't. Some people are intimidated by the 'Ray Lewis' thing."
On the one hand, it's hard to imagine Ray Lewis being any more fired up and emotional for a game than he is from week to week. He'd probably explode. And it's great for Sellers to think that way, that Lewis is human and when the occasion comes that he has to block him he won't be intimidated.

Why, though, take a chance? Just shut up, Mike Sellers. Let your game do your talking for you.

Rich Tandler is the author of Gut Check, The Complete History of Coach Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins. Get details and order at http://GutCheckBook.com

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