There are some tweaks to the rules. Play clocks are shorter and coaches get to throw flags and go for two. Team building has changed with the introduction of the salary cap and modern free agency. The stadium is different, with cozy RFK Stadium being replaced with concrete behemoth FedEx Field. For the first time in 23 years, Sonny, Sam and Frank aren't in the radio booth together. In fact, when the dust settled from the 16-10 season-opening victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it seemed as though the only constant was Coach Gibbs himself.
Sure, he was digitally remastered for 2004. The classic mesh-backed Big 'R' hat and aviators got a 21st century makeover. Aesthetics aside, this game was vintage Gibbs-brand football.
The play that everyone will remember was Clinton Portis' 64-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the game. Besides showcasing the newly acquired backs' breakaway speed, it was also a textbook example of team blocking. Just before Portis grabbed the hand-off, eight of the Buccaneers' eleven defenders were engaged by a Redskins blocker. By the time he juked linebacker Shelton Quarles out of the play, James Thrash, Rod Gardner, Laveranues Coles, Walter Rasby and the offensive line had opened lanes so wide Trung Canidate could have scored.
That strong blocking carried on throughout the game. The Redskins rushed the ball 39 times for 166 yards against a still-formidable Monte Kiffin-led defense. In stark contrast to last year's team, Simeon Rice and his teammates were held without a sack. It was everything the Redskins under Steve Spurrier wasn't. All year long we've been told Gibbs would protect the quarterback at all costs and pound the ball with the running backs, and that is exactly what happened.
Even though Joe and the offense got most of the attention, it was the defense that won the game. In the league's top defensive performance of the week, the aging Bucs were held to 169 total yards and only 30 yards rushing. Jon Gruden's West Coast offense grabbed its initial first down midway through the second quarter. Only once during the game did they get more than two first downs in any one drive. Incidentally, that drive ended with a punt.
For all the hype that rookie Sean Taylor received during the pre-season, he was relatively quiet in his pro debut. Contrary to expectations, he did not get the start at safety for reasons that were vague, at best. Despite the limited action, he did provide a glimpse of what the Redskins can expect of him, both good and bad. An apparent strip of WR Mark Clayton was ruled down by contact on the field and therefore ineligible for a replay. However, earlier in the game he was beaten badly by Joey Galloway for what should have been an easy touchdown.
Several other new additions --- Cornelius Griffin, Marcus Washington and Shawn Springs --- had strong debuts, but it was a pair of unheralded holdovers who stole the show. Matt Bowen turned in the best game of his career with nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Antonio Pierce filled in for the injured Mike Barrow and grabbed five tackles and an interception of his own. More importantly, it was his skillful quarterbacking of the defense that played a major role in the day's success.
Next up on the schedule are the New York Giants. After being crushed by Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens in week one, they will be hungry for redemption in their home opener. There are plenty of things to work on in practice this week, namely improving the kick-off coverage units and the quarterback-center exchange. Miscues in those areas were directly responsible for all of Tampa Bay's points. If the new Joe Gibbs is anything like the old, those facets will be dealt with and when the whistle blows at the Meadowlands on Sunday, the Redskins will be ready to play.
Luckily, some things never change.