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October 12, 2004
Will History Repeat in the Windy City?
Those who say that history repeats itself have Exhibit A to prove that assertion this week. Joe Gibbs and his struggling Washington Redskins are going to Soldier Field this Sunday with a 1-4 record. Many are wondering if the game has passed Gibbs by. They will take on a Bears team that is also struggling at 1-3.
Take the time machine back to October 11, 1981. Gibbs was a rookie head coach and his Redskins had an 0-5 record. Some were wondering if Gibbs would last much longer as coach if things didn't get turned around in a hurry. They were in Chicago to play a 1-4 Bears team at Soldier Field.
Joe Theismann was a veteran quarterback who was coming under fire for turnovers and a lack of accuracy, just as Mark Brunell is today. In '81 a highly-regarded running back named John Riggins was treading water with an offense unable to figure out how best to take advantage of his skills. Ditto for Clinton Portis today.
Another common thread in the poor starts is turnovers. Today's Redskins have a minus five ratio with seven takeaways and 12 giveaways. These guys are positively glue fingered, however, compared to that 1981 group who through five games had given the ball up 21 times and had six takeaways. For the math challenged out there, that's minus 15. The turnovers wasted good efforts by both of those defenses; both of them were ranked first in the NFC after five games.
In some respects, however, the road to Chicago has been quite different compared to '81. Washington's four losses this year have been by six, three, four, and seven points. Back then, the losses were by an average of over two touchdowns (14.4 points). That '81 offense was among the league leaders in yardage, this year's group is near the bottom of the heap.
There is a certain mythology surrounding the 1981 game that says that Gibbs decided to change the offense from the high-flying Air Coryell style to the smash-mouth style we came to know and love through the rest of the ‘80's. It's true that the Redskins rushed for 227 yards and held the ball for over 35 minutes during the 24-7 win.
However, the running game was not the reason the Redskins won. Here is the account of that game from my book Gut Check:
Soldier Field—Finally, after an 0-5, mistake-filled start to Joe Gibbs' head coaching tenure, the Redskins found an opponent that would hand a game to them. After having been killed by its own turnovers during the first five games, the Redskins gladly accepted three Bears gifts to build a 17-0 halftime lead.Perhaps more important than any strategic shift on Gibbs' part was the group that was forced to start on the offensive line due to injuries. Four rookies—tackles Joe Jacoby and Mark May and guards Russ Grimm and Darryl Grant—and second-year center Jeff Bostic started that game and paved to road for Riggins (126 yards, 2 TD's) and Joe Washington (88 yards). Once veteran George Starke got healthy, May was moved to guard and Grant to the other side of the ball. The rest is Hog history.
Joe Lavender's interception of a Vince Evans pass led to a Mark Moseley field goal late in the first quarter. Twenty four seconds later, Evans was intercepted again, this time by Neil Olkewicz, who ran it into the end zone from 10 yards out and it was 10-0. Late in the first half, it was Dave Butz' turn to pick off Evans, and he rumbled to the Bears' one. John Riggins scored from there, and the lead grew to 17-0.
The Redskins expanded it to 24-0 with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter by putting together their only scoring drive of the game that was unaided by a Chicago turnover. Riggins capped it off with another short TD run. The Bears averted the shutout when Mike Phipps hit Marcus Anderson for a 43-yard touchdown with 1:43 left.
After the game, Gibbs said that he had gone to a more conservative game plan due in part to the fact that he was starting such an inexperienced offensive line. Things were falling into place, but the game was just the start of the process of the Redskins turning into a championship team, not a light bulb all of a sudden going off in Gibbs' head. He gradually started using the one back, two tight end formation more and more as the weeks went on. The run was used to set up the pass rather than vice versa. Instead of trying to transform Joe Theismann into Dan Fouts, Gibbs let Theismann play to his strengths. The turnovers were reduced drastically, and the Redskins finished at 8-8.
October 11, 2004
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. The operate term when it comes to this offense is "disarray".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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