No shift in Gibbs' basic formation

Coach's core philosophy little changed by time

Pro Football

September 19, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - It's 1984. The Joe Gibbs-coached Washington Redskins open a promising year with a three-point win (16-13) over the Denver Broncos in the preseason.

Washington is led by a steady, veteran quarterback (Joe Theismann), a defense adept at forcing turnovers and a workhorse running back (John Riggins) who enjoys the limelight and is coming off a 1,000-yard season.

Skip ahead 20 years.

The Joe Gibbs-coached Washington Redskins open a promising year with a three-point win (20-17) over the Denver Broncos in the preseason.

The Redskins are led by a steady, veteran quarterback (Mark Brunell), a defense adept at forcing turnovers and a workhorse running back (Clinton Portis) who enjoys the limelight and is coming off a 1,000-yard season.

The more things change for the Redskins, the more they stay the same.

As the 1-0 Redskins prepare to face the 0-1 New York Giants today, only optimistic Washington fans are predicting the Redskins will enjoy the same success this season as they did 20 years ago, when they went 11-5 before losing in the first round of the playoffs.

But whatever happens, there are enough parallels between the teams to learn something about how Gibbs orders his priorities.

Then, as now, the coach places a premium on winning the turnover battle. In '84, Theismann was coming off an NFC championship season in which he threw 29 touchdown passes and was intercepted just 11 times as the Redskins scored a then-record 541 points.

This year, Gibbs selected Brunell over the younger Patrick Ramsey in part because of his caution with the ball. Brunell wasn't picked off in three starts last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, nor in last week's 16-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - a string of 106 passes without an interception.

"His [Gibbs'] emphasis hasn't changed," said offensive lineman Ray Brown, who, at 41, is old enough to have played for Gibbs before the coach's 11-year hiatus from football that began in 1993.

"He was just telling us that in over 90 percent of the games [the Redskins] won, we won the turnover battle," Brown said. "And he still emphasizes protecting the quarterback. You're not going to see receivers running all over the place, but you're going to see the ball go down the field. He puts a premium on protecting the quarterback."

Gibbs said football strategy changes "about 30 percent a year" but that many of the basics still apply from when he coached before.

One Gibbs trademark, still practiced today, is keeping players who aren't high draft picks but have the toughness and resolve the coach covets.

Twenty years ago, he relied on such players as linebacker Monte Coleman, who was selected in the 11th round. There were also tight ends Clint Didier, a 12th-round pick, and Don Warren, a fourth-round choice.

"I think that says a lot about who he is," Brown said of Gibbs, who played tight end and linebacker at San Diego State. "He's probably looking for guys who are similar to him: high character, high effort, smart and tough."

This year's team has quite a few high draft picks as its stars, including linebacker LaVar Arrington and offensive tackle Chris Samuels, both selected in the first round. But there are a few Gibbs favorites who arrived unheralded, including linebacker Antonio Pierce.

Pierce, who made a key interception against Tampa Bay, was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2001. He was projected to play behind Mike Barrow but has seen action because coaches like him and because of Barrow's knee injury.

Barrow is listed as questionable for today's game against the Giants, with whom he played for four years before signing with the Redskins during the offseason.

Barrow's former team struggled in its opener, a 31-17 loss to Philadelphia in Tom Coughlin's debut as New York's coach. The Giants amassed 413 yards, but surrendered four touchdown passes by Donovan McNabb.

"We are a work in progress," Coughlin said. "As I came out of the game the other day, there were some things that I liked and there were some things obviously that I didn't like, but I'm not discouraged."

Redskins today

Matchup: Redskins (1-0) vs. New York Giants (0-1)

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 5/WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (106.7 FM)

Line: Redskins by 3

Keys to the game

Turnovers: Washington's blitzing defense is counting on forcing some turnovers. The Redskins haven't yet looked like a big-scoring team, and will rely on turnovers and defensive stops to get field position.

The crowd: Redskins coach Joe Gibbs has had some nightmarish games at Giants Stadium and is only 12-13 overall against the club. He doesn't want to give fans in New York, which has lost nine straight, early reason to hope.

Giants' response: Have the Giants been distracted by all the media focus on Tom Coughlin's strict discipline? Or are they ready to show signs of life against an old rival?

Jeremy Shockey: New York's tight end has 21 catches for 265 yards in just three career games against the Redskins. Can they contain him?

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