FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It might be a teaspoon of supreme confidence with a dash of twisted genius. That or maybe the Washington Redskins are in bigger trouble than they're letting on.
A winless preseason has come and gone, and the assumed NFC powerhouse spent the last month running stripped-down schemes, resting injured players and generally looking like a beach ball that had a piano dropped on it. In turn, the storm clouds have churned overhead, and Washington has started to look like a frontrunner in the race for the most talented NFC East team likely to stumble and miss the playoffs. And if it wasn't for Joe Gibbs – whose team went 0-4 during the 1982 preseason but reached the next two Super Bowls – it might be time to panic.
Or maybe it's beyond that point.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you what's going to happen, when it's going to happen or what's going to make it better," said Redskins wideout Santana Moss, after Washington had suffered a 41-0 humbling at New England. "But when we get it – if we get it – you'll know. I can't tell you any more than that. I don't know. To be honest, I'm lost with it. I don't have anything else to say."
Certainly, it was an empty August, with Clinton Portis suffering a separated shoulder early in the team's first preseason game and Washington responding by getting outscored 104-27 in four ugly losses. But as bad as it was, the lack of success remains hard to quantify. Beyond shaping rosters, the NFL's preseason is largely a game of schematic peek-a-boo, where potential is shadowy and statistics are misleading. Facts that couldn't have been illustrated more clearly than last season, when Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers looked atrocious leading up to the regular season, then flipped the switch on a World Championship team.
Whether Washington has that kind of ability depends on what you believe – your eyes, which showed a first-team offense that couldn't stay on the field and a first-team defense that couldn't get off it, and individual players losing vital one-on-one battles? Or do you go with your ears, which are told the Redskins are merely failing in bland schemes that don't feature a fraction of Washington's vast situational capabilities?
Where it concerns the latter, the Redskins' coordinators have brushed off any suggestion of panic. Offensive coordinator Al Saunders has insisted he was revealing about two percent of his biblically long 700-page playbook in the preseason. And to his credit, the Redskins have utilized very little shifting and motion – two trademarks of Saunders' units. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was missing key starters much of the preseason, and dialed back the blitz schemes that became Washington's spine in the 2005 playoff push.
"It's not a total excuse. It was pretty much vanilla out there," Redskins defensive tackle Joe Saleve'a said. "But you can't blame it all on that. We're not executing basic things, and that's a big problem. How are you supposed to (implement) the whole thing when you can't even get your fundamentals right? That goes against everything we stand for."
Another ominous reality: Washington is already dealing with some significant health issues. Cornerback Shawn Springs has been out since mid-August after having abdominal surgery and now appears likely to miss at least the season-opener against the Vikings. Defensive end Phillip Daniels was sidelined for three preseason games with back issues, and defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin has been out since Aug. 19 with a sprained right knee. Both Daniels and Griffin are expected to return for the season-opener.
Yet, the problems for Springs and Griffin remain troubling, considering they are arguably sitting atop the list of players Washington's defense can't afford to lose. The Redskins' interior defense went soft when Griffin suffered a hip injury in an embarrassing 36-0 loss to the Giants last season. Not only is he still the team's best run-stuffing lineman, he's the anchor in the middle of the line that allows the front seven to function on the far edge with aggression that Williams favors.
As for Springs, his injury leaves Carlos Rogers to cover opposing No. 1 wideouts. And considering some of Rogers' struggles in the preseason – not to mention the erratic coverage abilities of Adam Archuleta – he's likely going to get tested on a four-quarter basis. Keeping in mind the issues the safeties and linebackers had with Patriots tight end Ben Watson in the preseason, the secondary has looked mediocre at best.
That might have been a bigger story over the last few weeks had it not been overshadowed by an offense that appeared to be operating in quicksand. Despite the additions of Saunders and some high-priced talent, quarterback Mark Brunell and the starters failed to score a single point in the preseason. Brunell finished 16 of 35 and rarely looked sharp, although he wasn't working with his full complement of wideouts on a consistent basis. Even Portis' injury seemed to cause some unexpected waves when the Redskins traded for T.J. Duckett – something that didn't sit well with the other backs who thought it was their chance to step up and contribute.
"We'd like a little more consistency with the passing game," Brunell said. "Obviously the reads, accuracy and just managing the game I think those things will get better. … (But) running basic sets is no excuse for us not being able to run the ball better or throw the ball better."
"We're still grasping this thing offensively," Moss added. "It's not an overnight thing. We're still trying to get this thing to where we're locked into it and we have it. But you have to go out there and play like that. Games are really meaningful. It's true we're not winning. And it's true we're not looking good. But we're doing some things that we know are going to help us down the road. These games are really helping us even though it doesn't look like we're doing anything."
The proof is bound to come soon enough. Of all the teams with question marks heading into the regular season, the Redskins top the charts in every unit. History shows Gibbs has been able to cope and adjust to frustrating starts before. Whether he can continue that trend, well, even he seems to be grasping at that answer.
"We've got a lot of straightening out to do and we're certainly going to have to play much better if we're going to win a game against Minnesota," Gibbs said after the preseason finale against the Ravens. "Teams are tough things to predict. I certainly can't do it. I'm going to be as nervous as anybody in here can believe (when the season opens) on Monday night."