New offense not old hat yet

Previous team took awhile to grasp Saunders' schemes, and Redskins no different

October 27, 2006|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

The much-acclaimed offense that Al Saunders brought to the Washington Redskins last spring has become more scrutinized - and criticized - than many of the political and economic policies written in the nearby nation's capital. The confidence many of the players seemed to have in the offense during training camp has cooled.

After last Sunday's 36-22 loss in Indianapolis, Washington (2-5) ranks 13th in the league in overall offense (325.9 yards a game), seventh in rushing (128.4) and 20th in passing (197.4 yards). The Redskins spent much of this week - a much-needed bye week after three straight defeats - trying to rev up what has been an inconsistent attack.

"I think guys bought into the offense," running back Clinton Portis said earlier this week. "But when we don't get the production that we know we're capable of, you start to question yourself, not the offense. You start to question whether you're the person for the offense. If everybody was doing good, this offense would be great."

The Redskins have had their bright moments in the new offense, just not enough of them.

Veteran Mark Brunell completed an NFL record 22 straight passes in a 31-15 victory over the Houston Texans, but the 36-year-old left-hander has struggled in the second half of many of the team's defeats as his protection broke down. Now, some think he should be replaced by second-year quarterback Jason Campbell.

Portis ran through the Jacksonville Jaguars for 112 yards in his team's last victory, a 36-30 overtime win at FedEx Field three weeks ago, but has been held in check since by the New York Giants (14 yards in the second half), Tennessee Titans (14 carries for 58 yards) and the Colts (12 for 43 yards).

Those are disturbing numbers for a player who rushed for more than 1,500 yards in three of his first four seasons, including a franchise-record 1,516 last year, in the old offense. Portis is ranked 21st among the league's running backs with an average of 69 yards a game, nearly 30 yards a game under his career average.

Portis publicly vented his frustration last week on a local radio show, questioning the type of plays being called for him. Now nursing a sprained ankle, Portis said he wonders whether he is a good fit for an offense that seems content on spreading the ball wide rather than pounding it up the middle.

"I feel like I can adjust and adapt to anything," he said this week. "But, at the same time, if it's not there, it's not there."

The offseason addition of wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd was supposed to take the burden off Santana Moss. But neither Randle El (18 catches for 167 yards) nor Lloyd (11 for 164) has done enough to prevent Moss from being stymied in mostly cover 2 defenses.

Moss is tied for 26th in the league in receptions (28 for 435). Before and after catching three touchdowns against the Jaguars, including a game-winning 68-yarder, Moss has been shut out of the end zone. He is still Brunell's favorite target, as evidenced by the 15 passes thrown in his direction in the loss to the Titans.

The lack of productivity from the offseason acquisitions are at the crux of the criticism directed at head coach Joe Gibbs, who is also the team's president, and player personnel director Vinny Cerrato.

"You can't go back in life," Gibbs said of the acquisitions. "You make decisions based on what you think will help your football team. Certainly we put a lot of thought into that. I think those decisions were made the right way. They were made for the right reasons. I think we've got players here and we've got coaches here that can help our football team."

The performance of the defense the past two years has allowed assistant head coach Gregg Williams to escape relatively unscathed by criticism despite his unit's sloppy play this season. Meanwhile, Saunders, as associate head coach, has felt the wrath of fans who expected the offense to take off as it did in St. Louis, where the Rams won the Super Bowl the first season they implemented it.

Gibbs said he should take the heat for the team's slow start. This marks the first time in his Hall of Fame coaching career that Gibbs has relinquished the play-calling, and there have been times this season when the approach appears in conflict with Gibbs' long-standing run-first philosophy.

At a time when offensive coordinators have become the scapegoat for several teams - in the past week, three, including the Ravens' Jim Fassel, have been fired - Gibbs has come out in support of Saunders, who was hired away from the Kansas City Chiefs for a three-year, $6 million deal.

"I'm actually convinced that Al adds a lot to what's going on here," Gibbs said at his weekly news conference at Redskins Park on Monday. "[He's] very competent. I don't know of anybody that works as hard. ... I know when you're not doing well, you're not performing, it's always going to be [criticized]."

Saunders has seen this before.

In 2001, after Saunders followed Dick Vermeil from St. Louis to Kansas City, the Chiefs struggled to grasp the offense and the team had a start similar to the Redskins' this season, and a 1-6 beginning turned into a 6-10 season. Kansas City eventually grasped the offense toward the end of 2001, winning three of its last four. In 2002 the Chiefs went 8-8, and in 2003 they won their first nine games en route to a 13-3 season.

"There's a learning curve," Saunders said earlier in the season. "We learn about each other every day."

How long will it take for the Redskins to get the hang of his offense?

"It's different every place you go because the players are different," Saunders said. "What you have to find out is what they do real well and put them in positions to do that. If you run the ball, and you run it effectively, then all of the other things generally get a little easier to do."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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