Wednesday, October 25, 2006
What's wrong with Skins? How much time you got?
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
Joe Gibbs, looking professorial in wire-rimmed glasses and a gray jacket, shuffled his papers at the podium and wielded a bright yellow pencil. In the crisp, understated manner of a coroner, the Washington Redskins' head coach on Monday broke down the 36-22 defeat that sent his team into the bye week with a 2-5 record.
He noted that the Redskins had prevailed in the critical areas of turnovers and time of possession, but called it a "tough, tough day" against the Indianapolis Colts.
Given the Redskins' preseason (and very public) aspirations of reaching Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Washington might be the biggest disappointment in the NFL to date -- although the Miami Dolphins (1-6) and the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) certainly are in the same room.
Gibbs said he felt sorry for owner Daniel Snyder, whom Gibbs termed "helpless," and the team's fans, but more than anything, he blamed himself.
Joe Gibbs is 19-22, including playoffs, during his second stint as Washington head coach.
"What's my responsibility?" Gibbs asked, rhetorically. "For us sitting where we are, the person who makes a lot of the decisions around here is standing right in front of you."
Gibbs, who will turn 66 next month, isn't going anywhere soon. He is a Hall of Fame coach who has always succeeded. He won three Super Bowls with the Redskins and, after he moved on to NASCAR, won two series championships, with Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002. Snyder begged him to return to coaching after the Steve Spurrier experience and Gibbs complied, signing a five-year contract that has two more full seasons to run.
After a 6-10 season in 2004, Gibbs rallied the Redskins to a 10-6 record last year. Washington beat Tampa Bay 17-10 in the first round of the playoffs and acquitted itself honorably in a 20-10 loss at Seattle. After the usual offseason acquisition of marquee free agents -- Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd on offense, Adam Archuleta and Andre Carter on defense -- optimism flowed in the nation's capital.
Now, during a two-week hiatus that one District of Columbia writer cleverly termed a standing eight-count, Washington is left to contemplate its fate and, more important, figure out what's wrong with the Redskins.
"That," said Joe Theismann, a former Washington quarterback and an analyst for ESPN's Monday Night Football, "is a great question. Like anything else, it's a combination of things.
"Lately, the Redskins have always had a defense to hang their hat on, but they're not playing well. They've had a number of guys hurt; you can't win football games if you don't have the players. The big thing, obviously, is that the people they brought aren't making the big difference that they had hoped for."
Randle El, a multipurpose wide receiver from Pittsburgh who signed a seven-year free-agent contract worth $31 million, was involved in a bizarre sequence on Sunday in Indianapolis that perfectly framed what's gone so terribly wrong in Washington.
For the first time this season, Randle El produced an electrifying punt return -- 87 yards, all the way into the end zone to give the Redskins a 14-10 lead. But then he leaped into the goal post, which is not on the NFL's list of approved celebration props. That cost Washington 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff. And then Sean Taylor was called for an offside penalty, which moved the Redskins back to their 10-yard line. Thus, punter Derrick Frost was brought on for the free kick. But he kicked before the whistle and the play was ruled dead. Frost ripped off his helmet and screamed at the officials, costing the Redskins a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Frost eventually kicked from his 5-yard line.
Said Gibbs, "I've never seen that before."
Santana Moss was also penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct when he head-butted Colts corner Jason David in retaliation for what he believed to be a late hit by David that officials missed. For the record, the Redskins are the most penalized team in football, in terms of both penalties (55) and yards (510).
"It's stupidity," Theismann said. "It's a lack of discipline, it's a lack of paying attention. Joe is a great football coach, but the problem is that players run the locker room. If you have players that are not accountable to one another, you are going to have a whole lot of bad things happening."
Theismann pointed to the Giants' defenders in Monday night's game, who had been warned that group basketball jump-shot celebrations would be flagged. Their solution: After each of the six sacks of Cowboys quarterbacks, only the player who registered the sack made the jump-shot gesture.
"That's just being smart," Theismann said. "When a player would rather say 'look at me,' even in the face of a 15-yard penalty, that's disappointing. Maturity, discipline, accountability -- those things don't appear to be part of Redskins football, and that shocks me."
For Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the Redskins and Giants, it's the lack of continuity that has hurt Washington most.
"I call it March Madness," said Huff, who is an analyst on Redskins broadcasts. "Every March they sign a lot of free agents, rather than focusing on the draft. Last year, they drafted the quarterback [Jason Campbell] with the first-round pick, and he hasn't played yet. This year, they drafted [linebacker] Rocky McIntosh [in the second round] and they haven't put him in the game yet.
"It's interesting, the old family-owned teams, the Giants and Steelers, don't always go for the flashy free agents and I think it helps them. The Colts have gone that way, lately. It's tough to have continuity when you're always changing the players."
The bye week comes at a good time for the Redskins' struggling offense. Running back Clinton Portis, who sustained a high ankle sprain, and Moss (hamstring injury) will need the time off to heal. Portis has generated a relatively disappointing 414 yards on 98 carries, putting him on pace for an 887-yard season. Moss has 28 catches for 435 yards.
While quarterback Mark Brunell's numbers are decent enough -- 64.1 completion percentage, seven touchdowns, three interceptions, passer rating of 90.4 -- he has been blamed for the Redskins' sometimes stagnant offense under 2006 coaching addition Al Saunders. Gibbs said Monday he wasn't contemplating any drastic personnel changes, which means Brunell, 36 years old and in his 14th season, won't be benched in favor of Campbell.
"Joe Gibbs is very, very loyal to aging quarterbacks," Theismann said. "I was a beneficiary of that loyalty. In 1985, I was playing really badly, and he had every right to pull me. But he didn't. They're having problems integrating a new philosophy, and with Mark at quarterback, it's been difficult."
Gibbs has always approached adversity with effort. The Redskins have lost three straight games, but the team had similar streaks in 2004 and 2005. After losing three consecutive games last year (to Tampa Bay, Oakland and San Diego), the Redskins finished with a flourish, winning their last five regular-season games and a playoff contest.
"No one is going to work harder," Gibbs said. "No one is going to care more."
Given the competitive nature of the NFC East, where the Giants and Eagles are battling at the top, mere effort might not be enough.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.