Tandler's Redskins Blog 10/11

The view from rock bottom and prediction analysis.

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October 11, 2004

Rock Bottom?

The Washington Redskins offense is in complete disarray.

The most stunning stat I heard today about the Redskins' offense is that they are 26th in the NFL. It was shocking to hear that there are five worse units out there.

I'm not going to rehash the numbers from last night except to point out that the Redskins' longest drive of the game covered 26 yards. That's the one that ended in Sanders' interception. Without that drive they would have threatened the team low in total yardage, 64 in a 1954 game against Cleveland. Washington lost that one 62-3.

So, given the state of disarray, what should Gibbs and Co. do about it?

I'm not quite ready to jump on the Ramsey bandwagon just yet. I think we're confusing cause and effect when it comes to Brunell's performance. I think that the system and/or the play calls are horrid and that Johnny U in his prime would have a tough time shining here.

And that comes down to Gibbs and I'm sure he knows it. He knew exactly what he had at QB, a veteran with a fairly weak arm and decent mobility, and at RB, a scatback rather that the power backs he's had in the past. He's known since March and he went about designing an offense based on that fact.

What likely looked good on the drawing board in June hasn't looked so good so far. It's predictable, it's not aggressive, and it's getting terrible results.

Looking at it from the end zone last night, it appeared to me that some misdirection plays would have worked beautifully. On every play, 11 purple jerseys were pursuing like mad. A reverse or an end around or even a simple counter would have both gained yardage and would have made the defense more honest.

Last night, Gibbs said, "I still believe that we have a good football team." Some are comparing that to Norv Turner's infamous "What we do works" comment during the team's dismal start in 1998. Although I can't get inside Gibbs' head, I think that he was talking about the team in terms of talent and not system.

I seriously doubt that Gibbs will take the "what we do works" approach. It's not just a matter of repeating the same plays over and over again until they get it right, although that has something to do with it.

The one thing that Joe Gibbs did best here was put players in situations where they could succeed and not ask them to do things that they weren't capable of doing. Clearly, that ain't happening. I've got to think that Gibbs knows that and is working on it as we speak. He's not about to let the team go down in flames due to short-hopped passes and two yards per carry by the prime running back.

After he came back in January, Gibbs said that one of the things that attracted him back was the challenge, how hard it is to get an NFL team to be competitive. If that's what he enjoys, he's having the time of his life right now.

I guess the good news here is that it is highly likely that this offense has hit rock bottom, with no place to go but up. I mean, it can't get to be like 1954—could it???

Rating the "Bold" Predictions

In this space each week I examine my predictions for the game and see if they held any water. One bucket means that the prediction didn't hold enough to drown a housefly while five will fill up a good-sized swimming pool.

Prediction: First, the obvious factor: this will be a low-scoring game. The matchups favor both defenses. . . 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.
Buckets: Five

The point total was 27. Obviously, the Raven defense dominated the Washington offense. No matter how much disarray a team is in, you should be able to stumble to a couple of hundred yards of offense in the game. Baltimore kept up the pressure all day long and we saw the results. The Raven offense mustered just one scoring drive all night, although their last drive did burn the last 4:42 off of the clock.

Prediction: The fact that Lewis has had to deal with this (his pleading guilty to drug-related charges and pending suspension) during the course of a short week in preparation will certainly not help him on Sunday night. . . I suspect 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.
Buckets: Five

It didn't look that way during the first half, but he dominated during that lone scoring drive and the final, clock killer, winding up with 123 yards.

Prediction: 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.
Buckets: Three

Right outcome, wrong reasons. Lewis had just three tackles but there were not cutback lanes evident anyway. Portis was handled by both the Raven defense and by the state of the Washington offense.

Prediction: 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.
Buckets: Two

Boller did nothing to help his team win and threw up three horrid interceptions that kept the Redskins in it. For his part, Brunell threw a pick at a critical time and short-hopped some receivers. For the game, Brunell's QB rating was 49.1, Boller's was 22.9. Only two buckets because I underestimated Brunell's ability to lose it.

Prediction: 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.
Buckets: None

Yes, I had my weasel-out comment there at the end and it was pretty close. But I can't take credit for having it both ways.

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 Giants 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 suspect 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.

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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