Redskins use 'guts and power' to make playoffs
Joe Gibbs proved he still knows what he's doing as the Redskins clinched an improbable playoff spot with a victory over Philly.
PHILADELPHIA -- Critics were wrong. The game hasn't passed Joe Gibbs by.
Gibbs made the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he's smart, organized and players love him. And with the game, season and playoffs all on the line against the Eagles on Sunday afternoon, Gibbs heeded the advice of a star player.
"Guts and power," Washington running back Clinton Portis shouted early in the fourth quarter. "You want to win the game, don't you?"
The question was a no-brainer. So was the play call. As a result, Portis turned his favorite running play into a go-ahead score, and the Redskins went on to defeat the Eagles 31-20, winning their fifth straight contest to clinch the sixth and final NFC playoff spot. "Guts and power" is a staple of the Gibbs' offense, which went back to basics this year. Now, Gibbs will take the basic game plan to Tampa, Fla., Saturday for a wild-card opener against the Bucs, a team Washington lost to 36-35 in Week 10.
"This is big for Coach Gibbs, it's big for all of us," said quarterback Mark Brunell, who fought off a medial collateral knee injury to complete 9 of 25 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. "Last year all the things that were said, that the game had passed him by, this and that, it's just simply not true. Things haven't changed that much, maybe the X's and O's, but it really comes down to running the football, being physical and playing smart. That's football right there in a nutshell. He's always been very positive. He loves his players. We enjoy playing for him. He certainly knows how to get a team ready."
Gibbs announced following the game that all the players were getting game balls. However, Brunell said Gibbs deserved the game ball. He brought the playoffs back to the Washington, D.C., area for the first time since 1999, when the team's postseason trip ended with a 14-13 NFC divisional loss to the Bucs. He outlasted his critics, and he did it with his style of football. Because he cares about his players, Gibbs listens. He listened to Portis and called for more inside runs this week than outside.
But for a brief moment, Portis looked as if his day had come to an early end. He temporarily left the game, shaken up in the second half after his body was contorted by Eagles defensive end Juqua Thomas. Portis gutted out the pain and returned to finish with 112 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns.
It wasn't pretty, and at times it appeared the Redskins were on the verge of losing and being knocked out of the playoff picture. Yet they applied their tough, inside-running style, scoring 21 second-half points to overcome a 10-point deficit.
And the matchup against the Bucs is fitting, because they, too, are a "guts and power" team. Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, known for designing some wild West Coast-offense formations accompanied with plenty of motion, doesn't have the talent on his roster this year to play wide open. Instead, he covers for an inferior offensive line by running Carnell Williams out of two-back, two-tight end sets, and letting Chris Simms mostly throws downfield to only one receiver, speedster Joey Galloway. It's not that much different from Gibbs' maximum-protection schemes.
Gibbs went back to basics the same way the younger, hipper Gruden did. Gibbs junked the concept of having slow possession receivers such as Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner and went with quicker, smaller guys -- Santana Moss and David Patten. In addition, he reemphasized the role of the offensive line.
"I felt like this," Gibbs said of the 6-10 season of 2004. "I was starting all over again, for me. It was my first year back. To be quite truthful, when I finished the season, I said there were a lot of other first-year coaches that did better than I did."
His change in philosophy this season meant a lot of close games but also a lot of excitement. That's one of the beauties of the rematch against the Bucs. Tampa's win over the Redskins earlier was one of the most exciting this season. Gruden successfully went for a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter in which Mike Alstott didn't appear to get into the end zone. It was weird to see two good defenses give up so many points, particularly to two conservative offenses.
"I was surprised it was that high-scoring to be truthful," Gibbs said.
That Nov. 13 loss sent the Redskins into a tailspin. They lost two more games and ended up 5-6, knowing one more loss would eliminate them from the playoffs.
"I just knew in that Tampa game, Tampa gave us everything, and we gave them everything," Moss said. "At the end, they got the W and we got the L. If that's not motivation, I don't know what is. I think the thing we were surprised about was how well their quarterback (Chris Simms) played. I know he's young, but to play against our defense like that showed a lot."
The 35 points scored against the Bucs also showed the Redskins their offense can be potent. "They were the No. 1 on defense at that time," Moss said. "I think we have grown up a lot since that game. Our offense came out big that day. But we've grown a lot."
It wasn't easy fighting the odds to win five straight to make the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. Signs of that were noticeable during the Eagles game. Early in the game, Brunell struggled with his accuracy, and the Redskins' aggressive defense was caught for big plays.
|“||Last year all the things that were said that the game had passed him by, this and that, it's just simply not true. Things haven't changed that much, maybe the X's and O's, but it really comes down to running the football, being physical and playing smart. That's football right there in a nutshell. ”|
|—Redskins QB Mark Brunell|
When Gibbs and his staff look at the tape Monday, they won't see the Redskins' most efficient effort. There were too many false starts. There were a few breakdowns on defense. And to let a Mike McMahon-led offense jump to a 17-7 lead midway through the second quarter wasn't a good sign. Still, the Redskins played hard. Ultimately, they forced six Eagles turnovers that basically handed the Redskins the victory.
The Redskins took control in the fourth quarter when McMahon misfired and was intercepted by linebacker Lemar Marshall. On the ensuing possession, Portis bounced a run up the gut outside and turned it into a 22-yard touchdown run. Sean Taylor later ran back a Koy Detmer fumble 39 yards for a touchdown that clinched the playoff spot.
"It scared me going into this game, because trying to win five straight is a tough deal," Gibbs said. "But your guys seem to understand what it was going to take. Our backs have been against the wall for five straight weeks, and they seemed to respond and play better."
The Redskins are in, but they have a short week and a lot on their plates. They are going to hear Monday from as many as four teams -- Minnesota, St. Louis, Kansas City and Houston -- who want to interview defensive coordinator Gregg Williams this week for their open head coaching jobs. Cornerback Shawn Springs suffered what might be a significant groin injury. Cornerback Carlos Rogers has been out with a biceps tear. Marshall suffered an injury that needs to be checked out Monday. Recently, the team lost guard Randy Thomas.
Still, the Redskins are in the playoffs. It's a credit to Gibbs. It's a credit to guts and power.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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