Redskins' season marked by surprises

Brunell's heroics, defense's vulnerability stand out in 5-3 start

November 11, 2005|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

ASHBURN, VA. -- The normally excitable and emotional LaVar Arrington has become the Washington Redskins' model of reserve.

While many of the Redskins were basking in the glow of Sunday night's 17-10 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles that pushed the team's record to 5-3 at the midpoint of the season, Arrington implored his teammates to temper their enthusiasm.

"It's a great victory for us because we beat a very, very good team," he said. "With that being said, we're not as good as we think we are [and] we're not as bad as we think we are. We just need to continue to get better and not get complacent."

Arrington is speaking from experience. The last time Washington had a winning record at the midpoint was the 2000 season when the team won six of its first eight games. But that Redskins squad dropped six of its remaining eight games, and then-coach Norv Turner was fired after a 9-7 loss to the New York Giants in Week 13.

Still, it's difficult for some of Arrington's teammates not to entertain the possibility of helping Washington gain its first playoff berth since 1999.

"That's why we're here," Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell said. "It needs to be on the minds of everybody. That's why you play the game - to get into the postseason and make a run and hopefully do something. But it's way too early to be talking about those types of things. Hard not to think about it though."

This season has been about surprises - good and bad - that could determine the team's playoff hopes. The five biggest surprises:

The re-emergence of Brunell: A year ago, Brunell was nearly benched after completing just 51 percent of his passes (117 of 229) for 1,188 yards, with seven touchdown passes, five interceptions and a quarterback rating of 49.1 through eight games. This season, Brunell has connected on 58 percent of his throws (148 of 255), tossed 12 touchdowns against three interceptions, and owns a rating of 90.3 - the fifth-highest mark in the NFC.

The playmaking ability of Santana Moss: Underutilized by the New York Jets during his first four years in the NFL, Moss deserves nearly as much credit as Brunell for bringing offense back to Washington. His 856 receiving yards are the second-highest total in the league - only the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith has more with 903 yards - and Moss' 49 receptions are tied for fifth. He's on pace to shatter the franchise record of 1,436 yards set by Bobby Mitchell in 1963.

The contributions from the H-backs: Joe Gibbs' fondness for the fullback/tight end/wide receiver/offensive lineman position he helped popularize during his first run with the Redskins is paying off dividends. Chris Cooley is the team's second-leading receiver with 35 receptions and 403 yards. Mike Sellers' five total touchdowns (four receiving and one running) tie him with Moss for the team high.

The inconsistency in the power running game: Although the offense posted 100 yards rushing in the first six games, the running attack has stalled with 38 yards against the Giants and 78 against the Eagles. Running back Clinton Portis has four touchdowns - three in the 52-17 thrashing of the San Francisco 49ers - and has yet to break off any long runs.

The vulnerability of the defense: The unit that limited opposing offenses to just 81.5 rushing yards per contest and allowed 40 plays of 20 yards or more last year has been alarmingly more generous this year. Opponents are averaging 119.8 yards rushing against the Redskins, who have surrendered 23 plays of at least 24 yards. Six of those plays have resulted in touchdowns. The defense gave up five such plays for touchdowns in the 2004 season.

Players and coaches agree that the comeback victory against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 19 kick-started the Redskins' year and injected the team with the confidence to win four of six games decided by a touchdown or less.

"When you start winning some close ones, it seems like the momentum swings and you start feeling like you're going to win those," coach Joe Gibbs said. "I think what you can say about our team is anybody can beat us on any given day, and we can beat anyone on any given day. It's going to be that kind of a year the rest of the way."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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