Uninspired play. Public sniping among players. Coaches pointing fingers at players and vice versa. Contentious team meetings and secretive players-only meetings.
Those are just some of the things missing from this season's Washington Redskins, which is somewhat remarkable considering that the team is a lock to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
But as the Redskins (3-8) take on the New York Giants (5-6) at FedEx Field today at 4:15 p.m. in a game with little meaning, the players insist that they will take the field as a cohesive unit intent on closing out this campaign with five straight wins.
"I've been in some locker rooms where everybody doesn't get along and everybody doesn't always finish the season," said defensive tackle Brandon Noble, a sixth-year player who spent his first four years with the Dallas Cowboys. "I don't see that happening here."
The current Redskins are much different from last season's version, and much of that can be traced to coach Joe Gibbs and his staff.
During what turned out to be Steve Spurrier's swan song in the NFL, morale had deteriorated so badly in the midst of a 5-11 campaign that players reportedly answered their cell phones during team meetings. Spurrier, who was more accustomed to dealing with college players dependent on scholarships than professionals who had signed contracts, didn't help matters by mispronouncing several players' names.
The mood changed as soon as Gibbs returned in January after an 11-year absence from the NFL. Gibbs, who does not hide his Christian faith, immediately began searching for what he called "Redskins" guys -- players whose talent on the field was matched by their character and principles.
"You do it in training camp by who you keep and who you cut," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "If you keep character people, during tough times like this, character carries you through the valleys."
Gibbs also has emphasized keeping turmoil internal. Unlike Spurrier, who frequently allowed his emotions to surface during games (and was caught on tape doing so), Gibbs has been mostly expressionless except for slight grimaces before calling a play.
One of Gibbs' favorite comments to the media after any game --win or loss -- is to praise his team for "fighting their guts out."
"Rather than ranting and raving and hooting and hollering, he just kind of looks to see what he can draw out as a positive," kicker John Hall said. "It's encouraging that he's not one of those guys that hasn't even looked at the film yet but just starts screaming and hollering. ... We're all trying to work hard, and the coaches are doing the same thing."
Finally, Gibbs has earned the respect of his players by taking the brunt of the criticism during the team's downward spiral. For the past five weeks -- during which Washington has lost four times -- Gibbs has answered every question about the offense's woes by pinning the blame on himself.
"There might be zero percent of coaches in this league that will take the blame for a team loss," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "He believes that everything goes through him. We've got a lot of trust in him, and we're going to follow him."
Gibbs, in turn, said he has never had to worry about a divided locker room because of his faith in the players.
"Two things in life that are hard to deal with are adversity and success," Gibbs said. "Adversity's extremely tough because you have a tendency to say, 'It's not me. I'm perfect.' I think it's a tribute to our guys that we've hung tough and played hard in spite of having very little go our way."
THE KEYS TO VICTORY
PROTECT THE BALL: Washington is plus-2 in turnover differential in its three wins, but minus-4 in the eight losses. The Redskins coughed up seven turnovers in a 20-14 loss to New York on Sept. 19.
GIVE PORTIS THE BALL: In four of the past five games, running back Clinton Portis has become practically invisible, with 14.3 carries and 51.3 yards per game. It's no coincidence that Washington has won all three games in which Portis has cracked the 100-yard mark.
PSYCH OUT THE GIANTS: Since opening the season with a 4-1 record, New York has dropped five of its past six games, including four in a row. The Giants' struggles could play into the Redskins' hands.
Quarterback Eli Manning is still learning the intricacies of playing in the NFL, and New York's defense - without Pro Bowl end Michael Strahan and four other starters - is a shell of what it was in the beginning of the season. If there's a game that has all the makings of a Redskins victory, this is it. Redskins 13, Giants 10.
Matchup: New York Giants (5-6) vs. Redskins (3-8)
Site: FedEx Field, Landover
When: Today, 4:15 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 5/WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (106.7 FM)
Line: Redskins by 2 1/2