December 26, 2008

2008 Redskins - Exit, Stage Left

The Washington Redskins will play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 28, 2008, in their final game of this NFL season.

After the final gun–win, lose or draw (Memo to DM: it happens)–53 men will trot off the field, make their way up the ramp to the visiting locker room, and peel off their burgundy and gold accoutrements for the last time.

Said uniforms will then be whisked away, laundered, neatly folded ... and put in storage.

The next time those hallowed threads take the field in earnest will be some seven-and-a-half-months hence, in early August 2009, when Washington plays its first preseason game of the new season. That actual date is not yet set in stone, but if past serves as prologue it will be on or about Friday, August 7, 2009.

For those keeping score at home, that means:

Three remaining days in December 2008, plus
Thirty-one days in January 2009, plus
Twenty-eight days in February 2009, plus
Thirty-one days in March 2009, plus

(hold on, punching numbers)

... and seven days in August 2009.

Your total?

Two hundred and twenty-two days.

So forget dashed expectations. Be in the moment Sunday. Watch every last minute. Commit the rhythms and feel of the game to memory–hard drive, not RAM. Savor the immediate gut reaction to each and every play, should it fall anywhere along the spectrum from pigskin agony (Sellers fumbling at the goal line) to gridiron ecstasy (Campbell-to-Moss to beat the Saints).

Because somewhere around mid-March, reality is going to hit. It will seem like forever since you last saw your colors on the field of play, and there will remain almost five months before you see them again.

True, you have the first Philadelphia and Dallas games on DVR. Not the same. Recorded games--even the best--are like memories of lovemaking. Treasures to be sure, but lesser by degrees of magnitude than those magical moments when she glances over her shoulder, starts up the stairs, and her eyes suggest delights yet unknown.


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.


December 25, 2008

A Christmas Wish

For me life has always been about Moments.

You can’t plan them, can’t anticipate them. And if you are too caught up on your way somewhere to be where you are, it’s easy to miss them.

The Om Field begins with a reprint of the first “serious” piece of Redskins writing I ever did. In it, I refer to the threads of my “inner burgundy and gold tapestry.”

A little over a year ago, an event happened that served as stark reminder that not all threads are silken, and not all Moments bright.

Last night, at the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at my parents’ house, my son said he was looking forward to today because there were going to be “good moments.”

When he handed me my present this morning, it was with a little smile. First thing I saw was the burgundy … the second, “Taylor.”

He’d pinned a little note to it.

"Is it Jason?"

I pulled my jersey from the box, held it up. Turned it around to look at the back. Underneath the nameplate and “21,” he’d pinned another note.

"I didn’t think so either."

It’s all about the Moments.

My Christmas wish is that yours has one too.


December 23, 2008

WAS 10, PHI 3 (A Defensive Parting Gift)

Tempting as it is to weigh in on the big picture—the front office, the quarterback position, Jim Zorn’s pass offense, part two of Breaking Down the Lines, etc.—the cold reality is there is only one game left in the Washington Redskins 2008 season.

Don’t know about you, but I’m feeling that.

So, for at least one more week I’m sticking with the immediate. Which works out well, because there is one particular stone I don’t want to leave unturned.

I have been trying to recall the last time a Redskins defense has worked harder, surprised me more or, when all is said done, made me prouder than Greg Blache’s undermanned unit has this season. And Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, they drove the point home in a way I believe will burn the the '08 defense in memory.

Yes the Eagles dropped some passes. So did the Redskins—it happens. Yes, Donovan McNabb may have beheaded a handful of worms. Given the way Redskins defenders swarmed to the ball and pounded green people all day, however, perhaps that wasn’t all just happenstance.

Lest we forget, the Eagles came in hot. All week long, this was a team the talking heads were solemnly pronouncing “the one team no one wants to face in the playoffs.”

Philadelphia had won three straight. They had just hung 30 on the Cleveland Browns, and dominated the defending champion Giants in New York the week before. In that game, against one of the best defenses in football, long-time Redskins-killer Brian Westbrook had rushed for 131 yards and caught a 40-yard TD pass from a resurgent Donovan McNabb.

It is easy to discount all that in retrospect, but heading into the game, I suspect most Redskins fans, and just about all neutral observers, expected something pretty similar. I’ll admit it—I did.

The Eagles were playing for everything. The Redskins (having somnambulated through most of their own for-everything game the week before in Cincinnati), were playing for next year. Nobody—nobody—expected the Redskins defense to turn in the kind of performance it did Sunday afternoon.

For fans who allow themselves to enjoy moments of excellence within the context of a season—even a disappointing one—what Greg Blache, London Fletcher, Cornelius Griffin and the entire back seven did on Sunday, playing not for the playoffs but for pride and professionalism, was an early Christmas present. One that will help ease the transition into what could well turn into another long, eventful offseason.

Know how many NFL games have been won this season by teams scoring 10 points or less? Out of 240 games played to date ... four. Besides the Redskins 10-3 win over Philadelphia, the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers both shut down the crushingly disappointing Cleveland Browns 10-6, and San Francisco throttled Buffalo 10-3 two weeks ago.

It is worth noting that the Cleveland offense (for lack of a better term) is tied with the Oakland Raiders for 30th in the league in scoring at 15.5 ppg., and the Bills are 19th at 22.4. The Eagles are 10th, at 24.8.

24.8. These days that’s more than the Redskins offense scores in two.

And it's not like the Redskins offense was much help in this game. Truth is, it gave the defense almost no support at all. In eleven possessions, the offense managed yards 249 yards and 10 points. Seven of those points came courtesy of a short field (18 yards) provided by the defense; Jason Taylor’s strip-sack of McNabb. The other three came in the Redskins only drive of the day that netted more than 26 yards—a 16-play, 72-yard second quarter affair that ended in a 33-yard Shaun Suisham field goal.

The last three Redskins possessions of the day—starting at the Eagles 44, their own 46 and the Eagles 45, courtesy of stellar punting by embattled Ryan Plackemeier and stifling defense that forced four consecutive Eagles three-and-outs—resulted in 16 total yards, no first downs and, of course, zero points.

What that did, of course, was set up the highlight-reel, last-play-of-the-game, mid-air goal-line stop on Eagles wide receiver Reggie Brown by Fred Smoot and LaRon Landry. A play that put the exclamation point on a memorable game-long defensive effort and will, perhaps, stand up over the course of time.

The image of Brown, high above the frozen FedEx turf, being turned back inches from paydirt may not live on in Redskins lore quite like Ken Houston stoning the Cowboys’ Walt Garrison in 1972, or Darrell Green breaking up Wade Wilson’s pass to Darrin Nelson at the goal line to seal the 1987 NFC Championship, or even former replacement-player Dennis Woodberry’s one-on-one, open-field stop of the Giants’ Tony Galbreath to preserve a key win earlier that year (that’s for my Friend, Tom) … but still. It was big.

And I for one don’t think I’ll forget it any time soon.

So I thought I’d take a look at when a Redskins defense last held an opponent to three points or less … and once I got into it, ended up going back ten years (don’t ask).

Before Sunday, the last time was in week four of last season, in that hide-the-women-and-children, 34-3 beat-down of the Detroit Lions. In that game they held Detroit to 144 total yards, had six sacks, recorded a safety and forced two turnovers (including a pick-six interception return by Carlos Rogers to ice the cake late in the game—yes, really). The defense didn’t stand alone that day, however; the Redskins offense ran up 366 yards of their own, scored three touchdowns and held the ball for 34:35.

You have to go back to 2002 to find the next one. They held the Seattle Seahawks to three points in week eight, but gave up 324 yards (264 passing) to Matt Hasselbeck along the way. Considering Washington’s quarterback that day, one Shane Matthews, went 10-for-27 for 114 yards (2 TD, 1 INT), at first blush that looks pretty impressive. Fortunately, the running back tandem of Kenny Watson (110 yards) and Ladell Betts (37) allowed the Redskins to escape Seattle with the win despite losing the time of possession battle 35:58 to 25:02.

I’ll be honest though—I have zero recollection of that day. Do you?

I do remember Marty Schottenheimer’s Redskins going into Philadelphia and stoning the Eagles, 13-3, in 2001, to win their fifth consecutive game after starting the year 0-5. Given that the Redskins offense was led that day by QB Tony Banks (12-for-18, 96 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT), saw RB Stephen Davis held mostly in check (22 carries, 79 yards) and featured a receiving corps led by Rod Gardner (4 catches, 33 yards) and Michael “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” Westbrook (3 catches, 22 yards), perhaps the defensive gem turned in by Redskins DC Kurt Schottenheimer’s crew (186 total yards against the eternal, infernal D. McNabb and company) that day deserves a place in Redskins lore.

Who knows, if Schottenheimer's Redskins hadn’t subsequently folded their tent down the stretch that year, once the games actually meant something, recent Redskins history would have played out very different. Perhaps Coach Marty would still be here, the Redskins would be strong in the trenches and we would be fully expecting to lose again in the playoffs this year.

But that's another story.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Norv Turner’s last Redskins team—for those of you either too young or too numb to remember, those were the Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Terry Robiskie and Dan Turk (RIP) Redskins—actually held two opponents to three points. In a slugfest at FedEx, they beat the Baltimore Ravens 10-3 to bring their record to 5-2, then shut down a hapless Arizona Cardinals team 20-3 in a meaningless finale to salvage 8-8.

Hmm ... 6-2 start, 8-8 finish. Maybe we shouldn’t go there.

A year earlier, Turner’s NFC East title and lone playoff Redskins again laid the lumber, 28-3, to the hapless Cardinals (I should put that in a macro).

And finally, in 1998, the Redskins turned in a three-point, 28-3 woodshed job over the Eagles.

Why the long litany? My own curiosity, mostly, once I started looking. In 159 games over ten years, the Redskins have put together seven three-point-or-less defensive efforts (you have to go back to 1991 to find their last shutout). And because, for whatever reason, I cannot recall any single defensive game that caught my attention as much as this last one.

[Incidentally, over the same ten-year period, the two standards for defense in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, have turned in 21 (including nine shutouts) and 15 (six shutouts) respectively.]

I am not suggesting that only three-point-or-less defensive games are worthy of note, by the way. For instance ...

The Redskins held the Cowboys to six points and 147 total yards (including what at first blush looks like a typo—one yard rushing on 16 carries) in last years' season-ending 27-6 romp at FedEx. But the context of that game—Dallas having already clinched the top playoff seed and mentally if not physically already sunning in Cancun—has to be considered. Plus the Redskins offense more than held its own, putting up 27 points, racking up 354 yards and owning time of possession, 37:08 to 22:52.

And there was that ugly 9-7 win over the Bears to open the 2005 season, when the defense held Chicago to 166 total yards and hung on despite the Redskins offense turning the ball over three times. Even then, the box score shows the Redskins offense contributed 323 yards that day; 164 rushing, and 175 passing from the two-headed QB tandem of Patrick Ramsey and Mark Brunell.

And who can forget the 35-7 whooping the Redskins laid on Bill Parcells’ Cowboys in December ‘05 (I know we're not going to let them forget), sacking Drew Bledsoe seven times, limiting him to 153 passing yards and picking him off three times. Again, though, the defense was hardly on its own that day. The offense spotted them a 28-0 halftime lead, allowing them to spend the second pawing dirt, flaring nostrils and hunting quarterback.

In 2004, Greg Williams’ first year, the Redskins shut down the NY Giants to the tune of 145 total yards in a 31-7 shellacking at FedEx Field. They had help that day as well, though, as the Redskins offense showed up big time, Clinton Portis rambling for 148 and Patrick Ramsey throwing three TD passes.

The point of this longish stroll down memory lane? Simply to pause and give due credit to Greg Blache and his 2008 defense.

Like many, I have been hard on them for their inability to pressure the quarterback. I've fumed at their inability to stand their ground on several crucial game-ending drives down the stretch, and I have ragged on them for letting more balls slip through their fingers than an arthritic Chicken Ranch trainee.

But when the bile has finally settled this offseason, and the immediacy of watching a 6-2 team fail to close the deal no longer clouds my objectivity, I believe I am going to remember the 2008 Washington Redskins defense rather fondly.

It is easy to celebrate a defense studded with Pro Bowl talent and a nasty, disruptive reputation in the trenches that forces opposing offenses to proceed with cautioun. It’s another thing entriely to recognize a defense that has arguably done more with less up front than any top five defense in memory.

I don’t think they give out Defensive Coordinator of the Year hardware, but if they did, says here in 2008 it goes hands down to Greg Blache. In a year that started with such promise, and is ending with such bittersweet “what ifs,” the Redskins defense has left precious little on the field and carried the burgundy and gold banner proud.

I hope we are not all so focused on the Lombardi destination that we cannot appreciate, and even enjoy, the inner successes and happy surprises along the journey.

December 18, 2008

Sammy Baugh (1914 - 2008)


There was never better.
Godspeed, Sammy Baugh.


December 14, 2008

"God help me, I do love it so."

Meanwhile, back in the Redskins 2008 season ... 

Will Head Coach Jim Zorn--who woke up this week somewhere between Honeymoon and Seven-Year Itch--rally the troops and extend the realistically competitive portion of his rookie season one more week?

Will QB Jason Campbell--who woke up this week walking the fine line between Future Franchise QB and Latest Pretender to the Throne--light up the Bengals and earn the luxury of not looking over his shoulder one more week?

Will mercurial RB Clinton Portis--a strange brew of Leather-Helmet Throwback and Post-Modern Diva--be on sportsradio next week bragging on his teammates for "diggin' down and doin' it" ... or throwing them under the bus?

Will the Redskins' offensive line ... oh, never mind.

Will defensive coordinator Greg Blache scheme and will his defense to another dominant 50-minute performance ... or throw another Greg Maddux-like, how-does-he-do-it complete game gem?

Will Redskins Nation--fiercely loyal and wildly reactionary in an instant--spend the next week breaking down playoff scenarios ... or just breaking down?

Beats the hell out of me.  But I'll be there, edge of my seat, heart thumping, drinking deep every wonderful, torturous moment.

General Patton understood.

"I love it. God help me, I do love it so." 

December 10, 2008

Breaking Down the Lines (Pt. 1)

I have been beating the drum recently about the woeful state of the Washington Redskins offensive and defensive lines.

More specifically, I have taken the front office to task over what I believe is the complete and ultimately disastrous failure to establish a functional pipeline of qualified young linemen to replace their rapidly aging (and based on the evidence in 2008, no longer adequate) starting corps.

Rather than basing that criticism solely on what I see with my own two eyes on game days, I have begun to research the nuts and bolts of how the Redskins have gone about constructing their lines over the past decade, and how they arrived where they are today.

Over the coming days and weeks I will be posting the results of that research for reference, discussion and, depending on what we find, perhaps drawing supported conclusions as to whether the Redskins' current struggles to compete with solid opponents at the line of scrimmage are the result of a fundamentally flawed approach, or simply the vagaries of trying to stay competitive in the 21st century NFL.

Let's get to it.

To begin, I broke down the Redskins' college drafts over the past ten years. I limited it to ten years on the premise that beyond that period of time, the data has increasingly little practical relevance to the present, given the number of major external factors (ownership changes, front office changes, coaching changes, player aging and injury, etc.) that come into play.

Here are the raw numbers, broken down by year, total picks, number of linemen selected, player and round selected:

1999 – 6 overall picks, 2 linemen
OT Jon Jansen (2), OG Derek Smith (5)

2000 – 8 picks, 3 linemen
OT C. Samuels (1), OG M. Moore (4), DT D. Cowsette (7)

2001 – 5 picks, 1 lineman
DT Mario Monds (6)

2002 – 10 picks, 2 linemen
OT Reggie Coleman (6), DE Greg Scott (7)

2003 – 3 picks, 1 lineman
OG Derrick Dockery (3)

2004 – 4 picks, 2 linemen
OT Mark Wilson (5), OT Jim Molinaro (6)

2005 – 6 picks, 0 linemen

2006 – 6 picks, 3 linemen
DT A. Montgomery (5), DT K. Golston (6), OG K. Lefotu (7)

2007 – 5 picks, 0 linemen

2008 – 10 picks, 2 linemen
OG Chad Rinehart (3), DE Rob Jackson (7)

Total Picks 63, linemen 16 (25%)

... and broken down by round:

1st Round: 1 (’00)
2nd Round: 1 (’99)
3rd Round: 2 (’03, ’08)
4th Round: 1 (’00)
5th Round: 3 (’99, ’04, ’06)
6th Round: 4 (‘01, ’02, ’04, ’06)
7th Round: 4 (’00, ’02, ’07, ’08)

Of note:

- Over their past five drafts Washington selected 7 linemen (1 third, 2 fifths, 2 sixths, 2 sevenths).

- Dating back to 1992, when the NFL reduced the number of draft rounds from 12 to 7, in those six additional drafts the Redskins selected 12 linemen out of 45 total picks (1 first, 2 seconds, 3 thirds, 1 fourth, 4 fifths and 3 sixths).

Moving on …

Recognizing that numbers in a vacuum are of little practical use, I went on to compare and contrast the Redskins’ last ten drafts against those of their primary opponents, the three other NFC East teams.

I chose to start with that comparison because,

1) the six games (37.5% of each regular season) the Redskins play against those three teams every year have such a significant impact on their success or failure, and

2) the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants have provided a baseline of consistently solid programs over that time against which to measure the Redskins’ success.

This is where it starts to get interesting.

Here are the past ten drafts for the NFCE by total picks, rounds in which linemen were selected and year:

Dallas Cowboys
76 total picks; 28 linemen (37%)
1st round: 3 - '99, ‘05 (2)
2nd round: 4 - '99, '02, '03, '04
3rd round: 4 - '01, '04, '06, '07
4th round: 3 - '99, '05, '07
5th round: 1 - '01
6th round: 5 - '01, '02, '05, '06, '08
7th round: 8 - '99, '01, '03, '05, '06 (2)

Philadelphia Eagles
84 picks, 33 linemen (39%)
1st round: 5 – '00, '03, '04, '05, '06
2nd round: 4 – '00, '06, '07, '08
3rd round: 2 – '99, '01
4th round: 7 – '99, '02, '03, '04, '05, '06, '08
5th round: 2 – '05(2)
6th round: 6 – '00(2), '03, '05, '06, '08
7th round: 7 – '99(2), '02, '04(2), '05, '08

New York Giants
72 total picks, 24 linemen (33%)
1st round: 3 – '99, '03, '06
2nd round: 2 – '02, '03, '04
3rd round: 3 – '02, '05, '07
4th round: 4 – '01, '04, '06(2)
5th round: 2 – '99, '03
6th round: 3 – '05, '07, '08
7th round: 6 – '99, '00, '01, '03, '04(2)

Washington Redskins
63 total picks, 16 linemen (25%)
1st round: 1 – '00
2nd round: 1 – '99
3rd round: 2 – '03, '08
4th round: 1 – '00
5th round: 3 – '99, '04, '06
6th round: 4 - '01, '02, '04
7th round: 4 – '00, '02, '07, '08

For side-by-side tables breaking down linemen drafted by NFCE teams, by round and year, click here. I will also be posting a list identifying each of the players referenced.

The Redskins have had 63 total draft picks over the past ten years. The other three teams have had 84 (Eagles), 76 (Cowboys) and 72 (Giants). The disparity speaks loudly to the Redskins philosophy under owner Dan Snyder of using draft picks as currency in the free agency market.

For the record, I have supported the use of free agency, but always as a complement to the draft, not a replacement, which it became overall for several seasons early in Mr. Snyder's tenure and has largely continued to date insofar as the acquisition of linemen.

Which leads to the next obvious element.

Any meaningful analysis of the Redskins overall personnel strategy has to include those players acquired through free agency as well as the draft. To that end, I am currently researching the free agent linemen acquisitions of each of the four NFCE teams over the past ten years. Those results will be published separately in the coming days.

So what does all this mean?

One thing is obvious—compared to their division rivals, the Redskins are far less active drafting linemen—both in terms of total number of picks used (25% versus an average of 36%), and in terms of how high in each draft they select linemen (see tables).

Another obvious thing is that given the lack of quality young depth ready to step in and take over for aging and/or ineffective starters, the Redskins have been unable to bridge the gap between the number of linemen drafted and those acquired through free agency. Given my intial look at the free agency names and numbers, I suspect that message will be driven home convincingly.

For me at least, though, the case for that statement has already been made. It begins and ends with the fact that this past Sunday night in Baltimore, the Redskins top two reserve offensive tackles were,

1) a second-year undrafted free agent with nine so-so (that’s a technical term) career starts, who lost his starting job at the beginning of the season, and

2) a 2005 6th-round draft pick C/G, already on his third team, who has never started an NFL game.

To be clear—that is not an indictment of the players. It is instead your humble scribe experiencing something bordering on shock after watching a wealthy team, with serious playoff ambitions, find itself in a defining December game with so precious little in the cupboard that it simply had no better pedigreed, qualified or prepared options.

But we'll let the facts to the talking.

Up next, a breakdown of the current lineman depth charts for the Redskins and rest of the NFC East, broken down in terms of how acquired, when, and whatever else of interest springs from the research.

After that, time and interest permitting, we'll move on to look at a representative sample of other NFL teams, focusing on the perennial contenders, to see how the Redskins approach to building the foundation of any football team stacks up.

Until then, I leave you to contemplate the numbers and their significance.


Note: edited to include previously omitted NYG '04 2nd-round pick OG Chris Snee.

December 8, 2008

T. Suggs: "You've got a mistake."

Just a quickie I can't let go without mention. I mean, why not--we're all big boys and girls here.

Regarding the accumulating stream of injuries that finally flooded its banks and became a rampaging river last night in Baltimore, as both starting offensive tackles, Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, went down to injury and the Redskins were left scrambling for warm bodies ...

It’s so bad that even the opposition feels obligated to weigh in. After blowing past offensive lineman Justin Geisinger, who was in the game after Samuels’ injury, Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs crushed Campbell for a 12-yard loss and then turned to the Redskins sideline with some words for the coaching staff.

“I actually pointed at Jim Zorn and said, ‘You can’t do this, you’re going to get your quarterback hurt,’” Suggs told Jason la Canfora of the Washington Post after the game. “I was like, ‘I don’t think this guy is supposed to be here. You’ve got a mistake.’"

[From the one and only Brian Murphy at Homer McFanboy]

I'll say it again. Ouch.

Coach Zorn has a job to do this week, making sure the whispers don't start in his own locker room.


The rest of the story:

Finally checked out the Redskins Insider entry that was the basis for the above. Fairness to all parties concerned dictates that the rest of Suggs' quote be appended:

Suggs praised Geisinger for surviving the mismatch. "He did good," Suggs said. "I only got one sack on him. He did a good job for what he was. As a center he shouldn't have to play tackle."

Fair enough.

Doesn't change the Truth underpinning the reason for the post, however. That the Redskins' were without game- or even position-ready options to man a spot as crucial as left tackle, stands as further evidence of their inadequate attention to the bedrock of any professional football team--the line of srimmage.

Overstating the case? I don't think so.

Some drums need beating.

Ravens Morning After: Assessing the Damage

I wrote last week that for the rest of the 2008 season, I would be studying the Redskins for certain indicators—both in terms of their chances of qualifying for a wildcard spot, and more importantly, with a critical eye toward the future.

What I saw last night only served to confirm the feeling I've had since the Pittsburgh game a month ago. These Redskins are just good enough to break your heart.

Breaking from convention by writing on the day after a game, here's a quick point-by-point look at the specific areas on which I said I’d focus:

"I’ll be watching for signs that Jason Campbell is progressing as Coach Zorn says he is, and as my intellect, if not my gut, still believes."

Jason Campbell continued to look pretty good when he had time to throw, and out of his depth when he did not.

He continued to look like a seven-step-drop, play-action square peg being hammered, with limited success, into a quick-read, quick-release west-coast-offense round hole.

He continued to peel himself off the turf, dust himself off and go back for more, playing the silent lead-by-example field general on a team desperately lacking offensive fire—literally and figuratively.

In short, his stock neither rose nor fell. In light of how vital progress at the quarterback position is to this teams’ immediate and long-term success, however, the fact he stayed even is cause for little rejoicing.

Coach Zorn’s biggest offseason priority—beyond filibustering Vinny Cerrato to finally, mercifully, draft some big people—will be deciding if Campbell is his long-term solution at QB. If so, my own inner clock tells me Jason has until about midseason of next year to prove him right. By that point I suspect I will know … and Zorn will as well.

Based on what I’ve seen to this point, I’d put it about 50-50 that Jason Campbell will be the presumptive starter heading into 2010.

"I’ll be watching for signs that the receiving corps can threaten defenses with anything other than a double-covered Santana Moss downfield and Chris Cooley underneath."


With a passing game as dysfunctional as the Redskins are fielding these days, it’s not just the receivers, the quarterback, the line or the playcalling. It’s all of them. But the receivers certainly didn’t help the cause much last night.

It’s not so much they did bad things, they just didn’t do enough good ones. Antwaan Randle El’s late touchdown was definitely big, and it might have proven a whole lot bigger if the defense hadn’t immediately collapsed afterwards. But beyond that, the 13 catches for 133 yards turned in by the wideouts and tight ends had little impact in the flow of the game.

As has been the case for several weeks, there were no jump-out-of-your-chair big plays—the kind that flip the field and get an entire team going. The day a Redskins receiver goes up and takes a deep ball away from a defender again, or simply blows by someone and hauls one in for seven, I promise to jump out of my chair again.

Until then … fingers tapping.

"I’ll be watching for signs that Zorn has answers to the answers that other teams have come up with for his offense."

One ouch:

When the head coach tells the press after the game that the chief problem offensively early was “communication,” i.e, players knowing protection schemes and being able to adjust them at the line of scrimmage, there’s a problem.

By game 13 of an NFL season, you pretty much need to have figured out who is supposed to block who and how to get them the word. If you haven’t, and you can’t, it doesn’t particularly matter how good or bad your offensive line is in one-on-one matchups. Going none-on-one is going to lose you games and quarterbacks.

And one “yeah but” plus:

For the first time in several weeks, the Redskins made a concerted effort to get the ball downfield. They gave their quarterback a chance to drop, set and throw deep a handful of times, which was a good sign physically and philosophically. That they were unable to connect on any was a major factor in the game, but it was a damn sight better than not trying at all.

Perhaps we have come out the other side of Coach Zorn’s recent head-scratching affair with Marty Ball.

"I’ll be watching for signs that defensive coordinator Greg Blache can squeeze blood from a stone and get a hit on the opposing quarterback once in a while."

Ravens QB Joe Flacco woke up this morning, swung his feet to the floor, stretched, yawned, scratched himself and said, “Damn—I feel great.”

The Redskins defense reprised its performance from the Dallas game two weeks ago. They played solid football for 50 minutes, more than making up for the disastrous first series allowing an easy touchdown drive after Ravens safety Ed Reed’s interception, with two late turnovers of their own that gave the Redskins a chance to steal a game they really had no business winning.

But as happened against Dallas, they couldn’t close.

Between the first backpedalling series that gave Baltimore a quick 7-0 lead and the last touchdown drive they allowed after Campbell hit Randle El to cut it to 17-10, the defense did this:

3 plays, 9 yards, punt
3 plays, 4 yards, punt
3 plays, 2 yards, punt
3 plays, 1 yard, punt
4 plays, 35 yards, punt
3 plays, 9 yards, punt
14 plays, 65 yards, FG
3 plays, -3 yards, INT
2 plays, 10 yards, fumble

For those scoring at home, that’s 38 plays for 132 yards (3.47 avg.), 6 punts, 3 points allowed and 2 turnovers.

But then, with their team suddnely back in the game with 11:27 left, they were not up to the task, unable to stop the basic running plays everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew were coming.

12 plays, 83 yards, 7:52 time of possession, TD
(11 runs for 55 yards, 1 pass for 28)

Game over.

Just good enough to break your heart.

"And, agonizingly, I’ll be watching the Redskins linemen, on both sides of the ball, continue to get pushed around against the NFL’s big boys.That last part, in my view, is easily the Redskins biggest problem going forward."

Later this week I’ll post the results of research comparing how the Redskins have approached building their lines of scrimmage as compared to the other NFC East teams, and time permitting, against a few other teams known for physicality as the foundation of sustained success. Pittsburgh and Baltimore spring quickly to mind.

Based on what the numbers have shown so far, my early sense is it will be painfully obvious how and why we have arrived at a point in time where the Washington Redskins are simply not competitive in the trenches against the NFL’s better teams.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

More when the bile settles, the head clears and I can assure myself I’m writing from the latter.

December 4, 2008

Lambs and Bulls (A Redskins Story)

Only one good thing came out of the butt-kicking the NY Giants laid on the Redskins last Sunday:

Clarity. We know who the 2008 Redskins are.

What this Redskins team has shown is the ability to win the games it “should.” Against teams coming in with losing records, they have gone 3-1 (Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, St. Louis). That’s a good thing—and something that was not a given coming into 2008 given the coaching and systemic changes.

When the season is over and the immediacy of the letdown that appears to be at hand from following a 6-2 start with scratching, clawing and scoreboard-watching down the stretch just to make the playoffs, overall I think most fans will be pleased with what the team was able to establish in Jim Zorn’s rookie year.

Unfortunately, what the 2008 Redskins have also shown is that they are not ready to compete with the NFL’s big boys.

Washington has chalked up four “quality” wins this season (all in the four-week stretch after losing the opener in New York)—New Orleans, Arizona, Dallas and Philadelphia. Since then, as the season has moved from the first-half appetizer to second-half main course, they have faced three tests against some of the NFL’s best teams—Pittsburgh, Dallas (much as it pains me to say it) and the Giants again. In each, the Redskins were overmatched physically and beaten convincingly.

Even in the 4-point home loss (to a Dallas team starting a quarterback coming back from a throwing hand injury wearing a cast) the Redskins were pushed around up front, on both sides of the ball, and never really seemed a threat to win the game. Those four points might as well have been 14.

So … now we know. The 2008 Redskins are the quintessential middle-class team—good enough to take down the lambs, not good enough to run with the bulls.

In my view there are two basic ways NFL teams can bridge that chasm.

The first is to land a Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Allow me to point out that the Redskins don’t have one. Jason Campbell could still become one, but at this point, like me, you probably aren’t betting your hard-earned dollars on it (at least not in a West Coast offense). And rookie Colt Brennan, as intriguing as he might be, at this point is just a live lottery ticket.

Unfortunately, landing that franchise quarterbacks is a bit like actually hitting the lottery—a whole lot more luck than skill. A franchise can either, 1) be awful enough for long enough, like the Indianapolis Colts, to happen to hold the number one draft pick in a year a Peyton Manning comes out, or 2) luck into one, like New England did in taking a flier on a project named Tom Brady with their second 6th-round pick (#199 overall) in 2000.

Of the two options, the second is preferable. Mainly becuase your team doesn’t have to be awful enough sit at the top of the draft waiting around for a Peyton Manning. And because luck does in fact happen:

The 49ers got Joe Montana in the 3rd round. Green Bay ended up with Brett Favre only after Atlanta decided it didn’t see anything special there and let him walk. The Dallas Cowboys seem to have gotten a boatload of it when they signed some kid named Romo as an undrafted free agent and sat him on the bench for four years to ripen.

Who knows, maybe the Redskins already have The Man on their roster. Maybe the proverbial light will click on for Jason Campbell one of these weeks and he’ll soar, taking the team with him. Or maybe they lucked into Him in taking a flier on Colt Brennan in last April’s draft.

But they don’t have one today, and unless something magical happens between now and then, they won’t have one on the field against another elite team—defensively, anyway—this coming Sunday night in Baltimore.

Which brings us to the other way to build an elite team.

Control the line of scrimmage. On offense, run well enough make the defense respect it, and protect your quarterback well enough to allow him to threaten them down the field. And on defense, contain the run and get after the other quarterback enough to force him from his comfort zone. Simple in theory, a bitch in practice.

The Redskins can do it against average teams. They can’t against the elite.

Which is where the clarity thing finally comes in. For the rest of this year I’ll be watching this Redskins team on two distinct levels.

First, I have not forgotten that they are 7-5 and very much alive in the playoff hunt. One doesn’t have to look back far to find under-the-radar wildcard teams getting hot in the playoffs and making serious January noise. If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to point them out.

Which means I’ll absolutely be riding the rollercoaster the rest of the way, play-by-play, series-by-series, game-by-game. Clarity or not, when this team is on the field I’m living and dying with it.

But I’ll also be watching with one dispassionate, critical eye toward the future.

I’ll be watching for signs that Jason Campbell is progressing as Coach Zorn says he is, and as my intellect, if not my gut, still believes.

I’ll be watching for signs that the receiving corps can threaten defenses with anything other than a double-covered Santana Moss downfield and Chris Cooley underneath.

I’ll be watching for signs that Zorn has answers to the answers that other teams have come up with for his offense.

I’ll be watching for signs that defensive coordinator Greg Blache can squeeze blood from a stone and get a hit on the opposing quarterback once in a while.

And, agonizingly, I’ll be watching the Redskins linemen, on both sides of the ball, continue to get pushed around against the NFL’s big boys.

That last part, in my view, is easily the Redskins biggest problem going forward.

If the quarterback were to somehow explode and start lighting it up, the offensive line could still get the job done this year, and at least make the transition to next a far less pressing concern. But as of right now, with zero credible downfield passing threat, they cannot consistently move 7- and 8-man fronts off the ball in the run game, nor keep teams fielding NFL-caliber pass rushers off their quarterback.

Defensively, things are even less comfortable. This Redskins team simply cannot generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. They can’t do it with the down linemen alone, and they can’t seem to do it with scheme either, as game after game we watch Blache send the house on key downs, only to see every rusher stick to a blocker, and the QB find time and a clear lane to throw to an uncovered receiver.

That is what has me most concerned long-term. I’m convinced we’ll get adequate QB play in the next year or two. Campbell, Brennan or someone not even on the radar today will solidify that position; at least enough to make the offense competitive. Functional West Coast quarterbacks are out there, and if a team is solid at the line of scrimmage, you can win with one. See Tampa Bay, 2008.

But the lines are another matter. For so many years I’ve lost count, fans and media have questioned the Redskins philosophy of focusing on skill position players in the draft and free agency, relegating the line of scrimmage to later-round picks and free agent fill-ins.

Personally, I’d like to see them devote all of their early-round 2009 and 2010 draft picks, and any priority free agent targets, to assembling a class of athletic, relentless, slightly sociopathic (between the lines anyway) big men. The kind teams like the Giants, Cowboys, Steelers and Ravens have and will throw at the Redskins, making their lines look old, slow and overmatched by comparison.

I just don’t have a lot of confidence that's going to happen. I don’t recall if he has actually come out and said or just intimated it, but my clear sense is that personnel honcho Vinny Cerrato’s philosophy is that big men are easier to pick up in the later rounds and secondary free agent market than great skill players.

For the record … Vinny Cerrato is an NFL personnel man. I am guy who writes about NFL personnel men from the comfort of a desk chair. I understand I’m not “qualified” to pass judgment on Cerrato.

But I have eyes ... and what I see a team with a nice complement of skill players. A team that can generally beat bad and average teams. But a team that gets physically overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage against the NFL’s best.

A precious few teams reach that level by having great quarterbacks who elevate everyone around them, masking other deficiencies. Other teams, those not fortunate enough to land The Man, follow the old standard philosophy that football, even in this highlight-driven age, is still a fundamental game won and lost in the trenches.

Own the line of scrimmage, you win. Get pushed around, you lose.

Unless the Redskins develop or find The Man behind center, my strong sense is that they have hit a plateau. They’re pretty good—and they’re going to get better as they learn Zorn’s passing game. But they’re not going to be great. Not without a serious infusion of youth, size, hunger and power in the trenches.

Watch closely Sunday night. The story of the game—and ultimately, I suspect, the season—won’t be told by guys wearing numbers in the teens, 20’s and 80’s. As it almost always is when December rolls around and the league gets nasty, in a game not involving one of the small handful of superstar quarterbacks, it will be decided by guys wearing numbers in the 60’s, 70’s and 90’s.

I’d like to think Messrs. Cerrato and Dan Snyder will be watching as well ... though as the years go by, I’m less and less hopeful of that. If I was a pessimist, I’d probably suggest that means I will writing this same column again at this time next year.

Fortunately, I’m an optimist, so I’ll leave you with this:

Scenario 1. Jason Campbell, Colt Brennan or someone not on the radar today will walk onto the field one of these days, clad in burgundy and gold, become an elite quarterback, and remove any doubt still lingering out there about exactly what that means in today’s NFL.

Scenario 2. Between now and next September, there will be at least a half-dozen new large, powerful and borderline crazy young behemoths in burgundy and gold putting their hands in the dirt looking to kick someone’s ass.

Scenario 3. Both of the above will happen, and you and I will spend the next ten years being completely insufferable to fans of merely mortal teams.




In the event you’ve come this far and your eyes aren’t bleeding already …

On the Redskins recent record of drafting linemen, my comments were not just idle speculation. History does not lie. Since drafting Chris Samuels #3 overall in 2000, the Redskins have drafted two lineman higher than the 5th round—tackle Chad Rinehart, with their 3rd round pick (#96 overall) in ’08, and Derrick Dockery with their third-rounder (#81) in 2003.

Beyond that, of the 49 total picks they have made in the eight drafts since grabbing Samuels in 2000, a total of nine more have been for linemen—2 fifths, 4 sixths and 3 sevenths.

There’s a reason the Redskins get pushed around up front.

And I haven’t forgotten free agency. The Redskins did pick up Cornelius Griffin, Andre Carter and Jason Taylor. As I’m sure you recall, none were highly sought-after by the rest of the league. As solid a run-stuffer and good guy as Griffin has been, and despite the brief sack-flash in 2007 from Carter … turns out there was a reason for that.


Late note: apologies for all the edits on this one. I should know better than to rush a post by now. Making it a New Year's resolution to clean up my act.

November 26, 2008

"Sean's Gone" - Echo '08

This was written the day Sean Taylor died.

For the past few days I have searched for the
right words to say one year later ... and found none.
The raw immediacy may have passed,
but the emotional echoes remain.

Rather than grasping for new words, then,
removed as they must be from the truth of the moment,
I humbly offer here the words that poured out,
almost unbidden, on that cold, rainy day.

We have not forgotten.


It’s not a long drive to my son’s high school, maybe 15 minutes.

Most mornings, we share sleepy wise cracks—which of us looks worse, whose day projects out the bigger pain, the lameness of a certain radio commercial.

Sometimes we talk daily routine—remembering to turn in an order form, calling if he needs to be picked up, the logistics of an upcoming outing with friends.

Sometimes we talk a little sports—Redskins, mostly.

Once in a while, as events dictate, we talk real life—there will be other girls, they just discovered an Earth-like planet 20 light-years away, it’s junior year partner, these grades count.

Tuesday morning we rode in silence.

He’d had a strange look on his face as he came down the hall from the living room, where the morning news was playing, as we readied to leave the house. His voice had a flatness to it when he spoke.

“Sean’s gone.”

I wasn’t fully awake—I didn’t understand. Then I saw the look in his eyes, the awful news story I had fallen asleep thinking about came flooding back, and I understood only too well. I don’t remember now if it was raining as we headed out into the dark, but it always will be in my memory.

As we were pulling out into the road a minute later, a voice on the car radio confirmed the reality.

“Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died this morning from a gunshot wound suffered in his home …”

We drove in silence, staring straight ahead.

I don’t really know if the time it took to get to the school took forever, or if it flashed by in an instant. Time has a strange quality to it in times of stress. What I do recall is an unsettling jumble of disjointed thoughts, feelings and impressions.

I remember thinking I should “say something.” My boy’s favorite athlete—one of those larger-than-life figures we all hold up to the light that help us form our young selves—had just been senselessly shot down in the prime of his life. I should be a rock. Paternal. Wise.

I thought I shouldn’t let him see me cry. A father teaches his son that men are steady in a storm. And then I thought I absolutely should let him see me cry. A father should teach his son there is not shame, but honor, in sharing his humanity.

I felt the onset of fury, the urge to say something—do something—about this insanity. About yet another needless violent death, about yet another fatherless child.

I felt the wearying, familiar heaviness in my chest, as the latest in an endless parade of man’s-inhumanity-to-man headlines unfolded around me. They say one grows colder, harder inside as one gets older. That has not been my experience.

I thought about the burgundy “21” jersey hanging in my son’s closet … and how when we watch the games together, we always exchange—exchanged—knowing grins when a Redskin flashed into the screen and blew up an opposing runner, or an opposing receiver inexplicably short-armed a promising ball.


I tried to push away thoughts about the on-field impact this would have on my favorite football team, and wished I was the kind of man who didn’t have to remind himself there will be a time for that, and this was not it.

I sensed the displacement one gets when events transpire that shatter the perceived normalcy of modern daily life. How emotions ebb and flow of their own volition. How linear thinking gives way to something less structured, more organic. How one can feel utterly in the moment, yet oddly removed at the same time.

Perhaps that is what life is like for those who have lived, and still live, in circumstances not yet “civilized,” as we like to think ours are. If this is how life feels to those who spend their days scratching out sustenance, standing watch over loved ones through uncertain nights, wondering if the coming day might be the last.

Yes, people die tragically every day. And yes ours would be a better world if we did not largely grow numb to that reality in our daily lives. But the truth is, it’s often only when someone who has touched our own lives is lost that the numbness disappears.

Tuesday was such a day. The reality of it was brought home through my own eyes, and more powerfully, reflected in the eyes of someone I love. Someone to whom personal loss has not yet become a familiar aspect of life. Someone whose shock and pain I could not shield.

My son’s experience that morning was both like and unlike mine. At his tender age, the tears were of shock, outrage, incomprehension—an unfamiliar and frightening ripping at his gut over the loss of a man he looked up to and admired.

At my not-quite-so-tender age, the tears were for all of those things, but also for the flood of unwelcome emotions the event reached into down my soul and dragged to the surface about the dark underbelly of the human condition.

My son never met Sean Taylor. The closest he ever got was standing outside the ropes, watching him practice with the team. Neither did I. The closest I ever got was watching Sean from across a crowded locker room after a game or having him walk by after practice on his way to the showers.

But he was most certainly part of our lives.

We marveled at his once-in-a-generation athletic gift. We thrilled at the highlight-reel plays he made look routine. We took pride in the fearsome on-field reputation he earned as a member of our Redskins.

We watched hopefully, almost gleefully, as the birth of his first child brought a stability and maturity to his life that had sometimes seemed wanting before, which in turn brought with it the prospect of watching this unique and somewhat mysterious young man evolve into an all-time great wearing our colors.

Instead, in an instant, Sean Taylor was gone.

And so we found ourselves under the lights in the high school parking lot, my son and I, having not said a word. I think it was still raining.

It was all I could do to say what I finally managed, and I don’t believe I did well trying to steady my voice. “There are no magic words.”

He looked at me, nodded. “I know.”

We usually fist-bump before he gets out of the car. Tuesday we found ourselves clasping hands, soul-brother style, for a long moment. Then he was opening the door and starting to climb out.

I heard myself say, “Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It’s going to be a depressing day.”

All the things I’ve ever wanted to tell him—and my wife, two daughters, parents, brother and sister, extended family, friends, colleagues and fellow human beings who have lived and died since our species began—all the things that are always there but tend to surface only when events dictate, were on the tip of my tongue ...

Love, loss, beauty, fear, joy, pain, perspective, regret, longing, empathy—hope—and so much more.

It becomes increasingly more difficult, as one gets older and the children grow from kids into young adults, to say the truly important things in a way that conveys meaning without preaching. But you do the best you can, while you can, in a way you hope doesn’t embarrass them, and hope they might carry with them when you are gone.

So as my own flesh and blood made to walk away into what cold reality had once again proven an uncertain, often dark world, I said the only thing I could. I told him I loved him, and didn’t try to hide the tears.

You will be remembered, Sean Taylor.


November 25, 2008

Not Just Another Sunday Drive

The Washington Redskins have faced two “must win” games in 2008.

The first came early, in week two against New Orleans. A loss would have left them 0-2, facing a tough stretch that included back-to-back road division games in the hyper-competitive NFC East. They were peering over the edge of a cliff, one that a team with a rookie head coach and endless list of question marks might never have recovered from.

A late offensive surge, keyed by Jason Campbell’s fourth-quarter touchdown bomb to Santana Moss, averted that potential disaster and propelled the team to a 6-2 first half—a start that caught the football world by surprise and dramatically raised expectations for 2008.

The second must-win game came Sunday in Seattle, appropriately enough the very place Washington’s two most recent playoff teams have seen their January dreams snuffed out.

For the second time this year, the Redskins came through. And for the second time, with everything on the line, it was their much-maligned offense that rose to the occasion.

The early returns certainly didn’t point that direction. Against the NFL’s 29th-ranked defense, the Redskins first four possessions gave little reason to believe they’d snap out of the steady downward slide they had been on for several weeks:

3 plays, 2 yards, Punt
6 plays, 16 yards, Punt
9 plays, 53 yards, Missed FG
9 plays, 31 yards, Punt

Starting at 10:14 of the 2nd quarter, however, Seattle’s defense either found their true level, or the Redskins offense re-established theirs. I suspect, as is usually the case, it was some combination of both. Discounting the last possession before the half, when they got the ball at their own 32 with 29 seconds to play and ended up taking a knee, the rest of the Redskins’ offensive possessions on the day played out like this:

11 plays, 62 yards, TD
11 plays, 49 yards, FG
3 plays, 35 yards, TD
10 plays, 64 yards, FG
11 plays, 74 yards, Fumble

The overall trend is clear; they controlled the ball, avoided mistakes, converted third downs and, most importantly, scored points. The last two possessions in particular are the ones that really stood out.

The Redskins took over on their own 31 with 13:19 remaining in the game. Seattle had just scored to tie it up, 17-17, swinging momentum their way and igniting their famously disruptive “12th man” crowd.

The Redskins answered. A methodical 10-play drive, 64-yard drive, burning 4 minutes, culminated in a chip-shot field goal to reclaim the lead and quiet the crowd.

[They had a golden chance to score seven there, but were unable to convert on 3rd-and-inches at the Seattle 5. Campbell’s short rollout pass to Mike Sellers bounced off the fullback’s hands and fell incomplete. I would have loved to see a simple QB sneak behind Randy Thomas there (less room for error), but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. Bottom line, the Redskins offense rose to the occasion and reestablished control of the game.]

The last drive, though, is the one that had, and has, me smiling.

After the short FG put them up 20-17, the Redskins defense held and forced a Seattle punt. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan executed a perfect lob wedge that was downed at the Redskins 4 yard line, where the offense took over with 7:05 to go.

As I suspect was the case with many of you, at that point I was thinking three line plunges and punting right back. With the Redskins backed up in their own end and the 12th man raining madness around them, I was thinking best case was probably a punt that would set Seattle up at midfield. From there, a tying field goal might have seemed a good outcome ... and a dagger of a touchdown a distinct possibility.

So what happened?

The Redskins answered. Again.

Other than Campbell’s bomb to Santana Moss to save the game—and arguably the young season—against the Saints in week two, what happened next was the most important and potentially resonant contribution the offense has made all year.

Portis for 9
Portis for 11
Portis for 20

First down, WAS 44. Time remaining, 5:15.

Loudest crowd in pro football? Reduced to a dull roar.

Betts for 3
Betts for 1
Campbell to Moss for 13

First down, SEA 39. Time remaining, 3:11.

12th man? Sitting, grumbling.

Me? Standing, clenching fists.

Campbell for 8 (!)
Portis for 1
Portis for 6

First down, SEA 24. Time remaining, 1:46.

Game over.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Betts for 1 … and tell me you’re kidding.

I could write an entire column on that play, but I won’t. Shawn Springs’ interception off a bad decision by Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck on the next play rendered it moot.

Point is, but for a flukey brain-lapse (it was a fluke, right Mr. Betts?) the game would have been over. Two safe line plunges or kneel-downs would have left two solid fourth-down options--a makeable (around 40 yard) FG attempt for a 6-point lead with less than 30 ticks left, or another line plunge to bleed more precious seconds off the clock, leaving Seattle around their own 30 with no time outs, a wing and a prayer.

From their own goal line, facing a defense primed to stop the run and buoyed by an ear-splitting din, the Redskins calmly drove the ball down Seattle's proverbial throat.

The numbers—11 plays, 74 yards, 5:37 time of possession—don’t begin to tell the story. That wasn’t just another Sunday drive. It was clutch. It was big time. And it may prove dividends down the road we cannot begin to quantify today.

No, it doesn’t necessarily mean Washington is ready to run the ball down New York and Baltimore's throats the next two weeks. Even with the madness of their crowd behind them, Seattle’s defense is not in the same class as the Giants and Ravens.

And no, it won’t necessarily propel the Redskins on a second-half playoff run.

But the kind of drive—the kind of drives—the Redskins put together, when they absolutely had to have them, are the building blocks contenders are made of.

Those blocks don’t come easy, and they don’t come often. You earn them, in the toughest circumstances, when things seem to be slipping away. The Redskins aren't done building—perennial contenders are not quick in the making—but Sunday they added one damn fine block of granite to the foundation.

Yes there are still concerns ...

NFL teams pay attention—they’ll be attacking the edges of the Redskins run defense. The defensive line still generates dangerously little pass rush up the middle. Offensively the passing game is still hit-and-miss, with a quarterback learning on the fly and a line better suited to run than pass blocking. And oh yeah, the head coach is still a rookie.

... but those problems also existed when the Redskins were 4-1 and 6-2—they simply overcame them. Sunday on the west coast, they overcame them again, and for the second time this year, it was their work-in-progress offense that stepped up and took over a game the team simply had to have.

Sure, it could be the two seize-the-moment drives were a tease ... as much a function of an opponents’ defensive shortcomings as a re-emergence of the Redskins offense ... but it didn’t feel like on Sunday night. And today, with a few days to digest the whole thing, it still doesn’t.

Pushed to the brink in a fiercely hostile environment, with a game and arguably realistic playoff hopes on the line, the Redskins dug deep and went toe-to-toe with failure.

They’re still standing.

Never underestimate that. The next time this team finds itself staring into the abyss, when they absolutely have to dig in their heels to make a stand, they’ll find the footing that much firmer.


November 21, 2008

DeAngelo Hall - Better Late Than Never

I tried real hard to work up strong feelings, one way or the other, about the DeAngelo Hall signing. I couldn’t—not as far it relates to 2008.

To me the move speaks far more to the Redskins level of concern over Shawn Springs perpetual injury status than it does any immediate expectations for the mercurial Hall.

Unable to count on Springs, with Fred Smoot perpetually nicked, and not enamored of the game-but-limited Leigh Torrence, the team saw Hall as a physical upgrade over Torrence, with far more upside, available on the cheap.

Add to that the fact he’s an option at punt returner—an area that has to be driving the team as crazy as its fans—and it added up to a no-brainer in the short term.

The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced this signing is about the future. I think we’re watching the team put Hall through an extended audition, both on and off the field, for the role of Springs’ replacement in ’09 and beyond.

Can't see any way they bring Springs back—at least not as a top 3 corner under his current contract—so they’re going to have to find his replacement somewhere. And since even a first round rookie draft pick would be just that—a rookie—they'd probably be thinking free agency and hoping to land a proven young veteran. Which raises the inevitable downside of a limited pool and grossly inflated contract numbers.

Way I see it, If Hall can find a niche in Greg Blache's rotation , contribute on the field for the rest of this season and convince teammates and coaches his alleged Knucklehead Factor doesn’t exceed their Tolerance Meter, the Redskins may have pulled off a serious heist.

24-year-old, Pro Bow talent cornerbacks don’t show up at your door making puppy dog eyes at you very often. One does, you let him in. Then you give him a biscuit and the chance to prove he's housebroken.

No one doubts Hall’s physical gifts and big-play potential. He wasn't on the field a dozen plays for the Redskins before the ball found its way into his hands. Around here, that's news. But the character albatross hanging around his neck, fairly or not, makes him a calculated risk.

So for the rest of the season, watch closely how he handles and incorporates himself as a teammate off the field. In my book, that will be far more telling than what he does on it.

We can expect mistakes on the field given he’s learning a new defense on the fly. Be wary, though, of anything that even sniffs of character issue off it. If any D. Hall headlines between now and January are about anything other than his play on the field or props for his emerging work ethic, make a note of the date and time; it will likely be his Redskins epitaph.

DeAngelo Hall has been given a great opportunity. He's come to his home town team, to work for a free-spending owner in a city starved for a winner and willing to lavish instant hero status on anyone who helps build one , and a chance to break in as a complementary player without the immediate pressure of being “the man.”

If he can face down whatever demons have delivered him to this crossroads, and do it quickly enough to convince the Redskins he’s ready to be a professional football player, the sky could be the limit.

And if he can’t, well…having taken him out for an extended test drive won’t have cost the Redskins anything they’ll regret down the road.

November 19, 2008

A Dream Deferred

Dallas 14, Washington 10

I wasn't much fun to be around Sunday night.

I went into the Dallas rematch with the mindset this game, bottom line, would finally tell me what kind of team we have in the 2008 Redskins. Were they closer to the team we saw watched thump the Cowboys and Eagles early in the year, or the team we’ve since watched slowly grind to an offensive halt?

The answer was both clear and gut-wrenching.

Oh, I know the Redskins could still bounce back and make a late playoff run. The early success certainly showed they’re capable of excellent football. But having had some fundamental shortcomings exposed the past few weeks, I’d not put money on it.

Doesn’t mean I’m not bullish on Jim Zorn and the future—I am. But, with apologies to George Allen, it doesn’t look like that future is now.

The game itself was death by paper cut. No single error or mistake defined it, it was an accumulation of mistakes and missed opportunities that, taken together, were enough to do the Redskins in.

I won’t rub too much salt into the wound, but for illustration …
• After scoring on their first drive to grab a 7-0 lead, the Redskins get a turnover on DeAngelo Hall’s interception. Huge play—golden chance to capitalize and take control. Crowd going nuts. Three plays later, Antwaan Randle El can’t handle a short 3rd-down conversion pass, and the Redskins go three and out.

• Two possessions later, still up 7-0, after another interception the Redskins put together a nice drive, moving from their own 20 to the Dallas 36. It’s 3rd-and-6. They’re on a roll. Five yards puts them in good field range range for 10-0; a first down puts them in good position to look for more. Instead, they get flagged for an illegal substitution. Then burn a timeout trying to sort it out. On 3rd-and-11, Dallas looses the hounds and Campbell gets sacked back to the 49.

• On the subsequent punt, Rock Cartwright almost pulls off a huge special teams play downing the ball at the Dallas 1. Rather than leave it be (it appeared to have stopped on its own) or just tap the ball back toward the field of play with a hand, he dives on it, with 50 yards of full-tilt momentum behind him. Not surprisingly, the play doesn’t get made. Touchback. Ball comes out to the 20.
How many of you turned to whoever you were watching the game with at that moment and said, “Watch—now Dallas drives 80 yards for seven.”

I did.

• Cartwright almost pulls off a monster play on the ensuing kickoff, breaking it up the right sideline, but gets run out of bounds at the Dallas 37. Big, but not monster. Monster would have been seven points on the scoreboard, a total momentum swing and FedEx Field lifting off its moorings. The Skins get one first down, bog down and settle for three.

• Washington opens the second half with a crisp drive, going from their own 13 to the Dallas 35, where they face 3rd-and-2. From the shotgun, Campbell throws low and hot to a blanketed Santana Moss at the sideline—a tough chance even if he's uncovered. He's not. Somehow, Dallas CB Terence Newman picks it off. It's the kind of play that makes toes curl and bowels tighten. Another scoring opportunity gone.

Another paper cut.

I could go on, but by now you’re as bummed as I am. The short version is that the entire second half was a continuing accumulation of “almost,” “what the--" and “oh shit” moments. Missed blocks. Missed passes. Blue tidal waves rolling over Campbell. Offensive playcalling that surprised no one. Defensive blitzes that were telegraphed, didn’t get there anyway and left people uncovered downfield.

By the end of the third quarter, I knew. There would be no fourth-quarter heroics. No surge. No finish, as I wrote so proudly about this team just five weeks ago. And I hate to admit it, but right about then is when, with a deep sigh, I toggled the switch in my mind from “2008 Contender” to “Just Another Team.”

A two-play sequence in the fourth quarter defined the game, and the current state of the team, in microcosm.

Washington leads 10-7, with 11:29 to go. Dallas has a 3rd-and-7 at the Redskins 33. With a defensive stop, Dallas is looking at a 50-yarder to tie. Tony Romo drops to pass. The Redskins apply pressure from edges, but nothing up the middle. Romo steps up into the gap, and at the last possible instant, flips a Favresque little shovel pass toward Miles Austin, who gathers it in and falls forward for the first down at the 25.

How many of you turned to whoever you were watching the game with at that moment and said, “Watch—now they’ll go end zone.”

I did.

And they did.

On the next play, Romo stands comfortably in the pocket, and throws a seam pass to someone named Martellus Bennett, at the goal line, over rookie safety Chris Horton, who is all but wearing Bennett's jersey (Miles Austin? Martellus Bennett? I remember when we used to lose to guys named Staubach, Pearson, Aikman and Irvin). Touchdown.


Why were those two plays a microcosm? Because today's Redskins wouldn't have made either play.

For one, Jason Campbell doesn’t have the ball-handling skills to pull off the kind of helter-skelter, ad-lib third-down play Romo (even with a pinky cast) did. We saw the shovel pass from Campbell once earlier this year, I believe against Philly, and it wasn’t pretty.

Faced with the collapsing pocket on third down, today’s Campbell would have either faded back from the pressure, tried to run up the middle or forced a last-second overhand pass. And none of those would have resulted in a first down—not the way things have been going.

And on the touchdown play … the Redskins passing game is so out of whack, and its trigger man clearly thinking too hard instead of just playing, that that pass would never have been thrown. Because the receiver wasn’t open. He was blanketed, not just by Horton, but by a rapidly closing Laron Landry.

There was every bit as much chance that ball gets batted around and even picked off than there was some rookie backup making a great catch in traffic. That play was high-risk, high-reward defined, and the Redskins simply aren’t in that market right now.

Zorn and Campbell, for all the promise and synergy they showed early, over the past few weeks have produced a passing game so conservative Governor Palin wouldn’t vote for it.


You’ll notice I’ve said little about the defense. I could pick nits with the 4th-quarter collapse against the run, but I won’t. They were never going to be the ’85 Bears or ‘00 Ravens—units you could count on to hold teams to 10 or less every week. They’re just not built that way. They're not big or young enough up front.

As it was, they surrendered 14 points, despite almost no support from their own offense. Ten NFL teams gave up more than 14 points this week, and won. No team won scoring 10 or less.

I will note that the defense—while coming up with two turnovers—recorded its 21st consecutive game without a touchdown (London Fletcher INT vs AZ, Week 6, 2007). Not sure how that stacks up against other teams, but I suspects it’s at or near the bottom of the league.

So where does all this leave us? Depends how you look at it.

At 6-4, the Redskins are smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt. Having dropped two in a row and three out of four at home, however, and having stagnated offensively, any last remnants of the early-season momentum and confidence are gone.

And some of the problems—an utterly ineffective offensive line, gritty but not difference-making quarterback, and pass rush challenged defense—don’t appear likely to quickly resolve themselves in 2008.

Who knows, maybe they’ll right the ship, beat Seattle in their house and come home frisky and ready for another shot at the defending champions. As cold a dose of reality as the two consecutive losses have been, two consecutive wins now would certainly re-light the fires. But the benefit of the doubt has definitely shifted.

As I said before, I’m still bullish on the long-term future of the Jim Zorn, Jason Campbell Redskins. And depending on what happens over the next two weeks maybe I’ll feel differently again.

But for now, in the cold light of day, they’ve become a dream deferred.

November 15, 2008

Crowdgate - Butt Out

Have we really fallen so far, Redskins Nation? There’s one word to describe the now two-week-long hysteria over Crowdgate:


* FedExField is the largest stadium in the NFL. More seats equals more butts. Ours and theirs. Get used to it.

* Washington DC remains a city of transplants. There are always going to be fans of other teams putting their butts in our seats. Get used to it.

* Ever been to a game at FedEx Field? If you have, you know getting your butt in and out of there is a pain. Now put that game on a Monday Night. Figure the game ends around midnight. Know what time your butt is getting home? Neither do I, and that’s the point. But count on being the only car moving in your neighborhood except maybe Johnny Law doing his rounds.

* Checked your 401K lately? If you work for a living you feel like you’ve spent the last couple months retrieving soap in a prison shower. If your alarm is going to go off at oh-dark-thirty Tuesday morning, and some anonymous online schmuck is willing to pay you three times face for your two tickets, there’s a decent chance you’re not going to sweat checking the color of his NFL underoos.

But enough time wasted on peripherals.

Know why Steelers fans on Monday night were a factor? Because the Redskins played butt-awful offensive football. And because the entire team spent the first half looking gift horses in the mouth, extending a gilded invitation to the visitors to take control of the game.

This isn’t complicated.

If Jason Campbell hits a wide open Santana Moss at the goal line on the second offensive possession and the Redskins go up 10-0, know what you would have heard at FedEx?


If Carlos Rogers doesn’t drop the Redskins weekly “thanks, but no thanks” pick-six opportunity and they go up 13-3, playing as well defensively as they have since Richie Petitbone and his various combilations (anyone?) waddled RFK's sidelines, know what you would have heard at FedEx?


And if the Redskins had been the butt-kickers instead of the butt-kickees all night, know what you would have heard and seen from the “loyal opposition?”


Okay, so the Steelers fans were irritating. But please put it in perspective. If the game on the field rated an “8” on the Redskin Fan’s Great Scale of Irritations given enough missed opportunities to choke a horse, a bunch of visiting fans waving cute little canary-yellow towels rated maybe a "3."

The one substantive complaint might be that the Redskins had to use a silent count on offense a few times. Obviously you’d rather not have to do that on your home field. On the other hand …

1) It’s the NFL—you start working on silent counts in May.

2) The Redskins brought the problem on themselves by screwing up several golden opportunities to take a choke hold on the game early and make opposing fans moot. And mute.

Oh and before I forget … now that as a fan base we've spent so much time publicly wringing our hands over crowd noise, be assured the always classy contingent of Dallas fans planning to show up this weekend, as they always do when their team has a winning record, will take it as encouragement and a challenge to try to one-up the Pittsburghers.

As ye reap ... you know?

So, want this all to go away? Me too. More than I can say in polite company. Here’s what has to happen:

First and foremost, the Redskins have to play like they did earlier this season against Dallas—with a nasty disposition and butt-kicking attitude. By playing physical and smart football. And most importantly, by converting on opportunities.

As for the fans, you already know what to do; the only thing fans can do to actually impact a game. I’ll say it anyway just in case anyone’s forgotten. Be loud. Be loud at the right times. And if the Redskins should happen to be losing at some point, or even stumbling around shooting off toes like they did two weeks ago, don’t boo, don’t sit on your hands whining about the other teams’ fans, rally and scream for your team even louder.

You know, help them.

Don’t go thugging on fans wearing the wrong colors, either. We all know NFL cities where they seem to think that’s how one compensates for inadequate manhood—but that’s never been us. I’d like to think that being above that was something Redskins fans were proud of.

Forget the fans in blue Sunday night. If their team is smacking the Redskins around at some point, they’re going to be loud—just like Redskins fans are loud for their team on the road. And if the Redskins are doing the smacking, count on the Cowboy fans in attendance to be inconsequential drops in a 90,000-strong sea of fans wearing the right colors.

The Steelers fans got into the Redskins heads on the field, as evidenced by all the commentary in the days after the game. They got into the Redskins fans heads too, as evidenced by the last two embarrassing weeks of talking about it (which I now find myself grudgingly contributing to).

Kick them the hell out. I’m begging you.

Here’s a guarantee: when the Redskins become consistent winners again—which they appear well on their way to doing—opposing fans at FedEx, even those of good teams with passionate and mobile fan bases, will sit there quietly and take their medicine. The burgundy and gold tidal wave around them will allow zero room for interpretation as to whose house it is.

Forget the other sideshows. Be loud. Be consistent.

Be Redskins fans.

And as for the Redskins themselves … fellas, just win. Do that, and this kind of ridiculous, embarrassing sideshow will up and vanish like the proverbial fart in the wind.


November 13, 2008

Redskins vs Cowboys II - WWJD


The old NFL saw that says every NFL game counts the same in the standings is true, but it’s also true that not every game counts the same in determining the arc of a season.

One could make the case, for instance, that the only measurable impact of the Washington Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night will be determining whether they head into the 2008 season's stretch run at 6-4 or 7-3. But that would be tunnel vision.

The Redskins aren’t going to play just another game this weekend. They aren’t going to play just another division game. They’re not even going to play just another division game against their fiercest rival. Way I see it, they’re going to play the 2008 season’s defining game.

Overstating the case? You decide.

The Redskins recovered quickly from their season-opening clunker against the NY Giants, sprinting to a 4-1 start. They earned solid consecutive road wins over two favored division opponents along the wa, and in doing so, reset the expectations bar for head coach Jim Zorn’s debut season.

Back in August, the idea of a start like that would have slapped a goofy grin on even the dourest Redskins fan's mug. After Washington dispatched Philadelphia on the road to go 4-1, with three “beatable opponents” in a row upcoming on their schedule, any lid there might have been on 2008 expectations blew off.

With the winless St. Louis Rams coming to town, all was right in the Redskins universe, and while fans didn’t do it openly (much), I suspect more than a few found themselves entertaining January dreams.


A slow return to earth began that next week, with the self-immolation home loss to the Rams in which the Redskins quite literally let a game they dominated slip through their fingers. Then came two, shall we say, less-than-artful wins over Cleveland and Detroit. The Redskins won behind solid defense and just enough offense, but neither was the kind of game likely to end up in your permanent DVD library.

And then, at 6-2 and facing their first Big Stage game since the opener, they slipped on a black and yellow banana peel on Monday Night Football. The thud you heard was Redskins Nation’s 2008 expectation level ... readjusting. Remember the feeling right after the Philadelphia game, as surprise turned to elation turned to brimming, exuberant confidence? I won’t say it’s gone … but it can see gone from here.

The Redskins had an opportunity on the national stage last Monday Night to announce their arrival to themselves and to the world. To prove they were a contender this season, despite all the odds arrayed against it. Instead, agonizingly, they wilted under the bright lights and pressure of the big stage. They could not summon that one last ounce of energy, or that one last bit of focus, that inevitably spell the difference in big games.

Defensively they were stellar … until they weren’t, when it mattered most. They dropped another potential game-changing interception; one that had touchdown and a 13-3 second quarter lead written all over it. And in an ironic twist of fate, they knocked Steelers starting QB Ben Roethlisberger out of the game, only to see his backup, DC’s own Byron Leftwich, come out firing with a “nothing to lose, let it fly” mentality ... and couldn’t stop him.

Offensively, the Redskins were bested mentally and physically all night. We’ll never know how much of that was attributable to their own poor play, or how much was Pittsburgh simply playing lights out, but the result were the same. Washington was unable to sustain drives, nor make the “big play”—the kind of play that instantly changes the complexion of a game.

And so they lost. Convincingly. And suddenly the 6-3 record, given the heightened expectations just a month ago, looks a whole lot better in print than it feels in the gut.

Which brings us to Dallas. At home. Once again under the bright national lights.

My instinct is telling me that how they come out of this one will set the tone for the rest of the season.

If the Redskins lose, it will confirm what I’m sure many, like me, are quietly fearing; that the 6-2 start was misleading. That while it showed team it has the personnel to be a contender, the early success gave a false impression they could sustain that level in 2008. And I think it would portend a weekly scratch and claw battle just to qualify for the playoffs as low-seed wildcard.

Not bad considering preseason expectations, but a definite letdown given the early power play.

If the Redskins play well and beat the Cowboys, however, and show signs of coming out of the offensive shell (funk?) they have settled into the last few weeks, at 7-3 and having finally cleared the “big game” hurdle, they’re right smack dab back in the middle of things. Re-energized. Walking tall. Looking good. And, barring a total collapse, right on the Giants’ heels, fighting for the NFC East title until the snow flies.

Okay, so maybe I've convinced you it's a big game. Duh, right? What matters now is how are they are going to win it.


I wrote last week that for the Redskins to beat Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell was going to have to raise his game. He did not. Surprisingly, he regressed, playing his worst football since opening night.

And it wasn’t just about the pass rush, either. Sure Pittsburgh pressed him—it’s what they do, and they’re good at it. Thing is, Dallas tried that back in week four, too. Only in that game Campbell made the Cowboys pay for it, stepping up, avoiding pressure and hitting passes downfield until he forced them to back off.

Against the Steelers, Jason had opportunities to beat the pressure as well, he just didn’t make the plays. Most glaringly, he badly under threw an open Santana Moss at the goal line on the Redskins second possession, after Cornelius Griffin’s interception set them up at the Cowboys 30 yard line, already holding 3-0 lead.

Had he been on target, the Redskins would have been up 10-0, with all the confidence and momentum in the world, and we might be talking about a very different game this week. And it wasn’t just that play, either. Jason simply had a bad night, mentally and physically.

Well, he has a chance Sunday night to show it was an anomaly. Because like he was against Pittsburgh, Jason Campbell is again the Redskins key to winning.

Particularly so given that Clinton Portis, if he plays at all, will be at less than full speed.

Particularly so because the same seeds of doubt about how good this 2008 really is that many fans are feeling right now are probably finding purchase in the locker room as well.

This is what big time quarterbacks do—they’re at the best in the biggest games, when their team needs them most.

So what will Jason do? The answer to that question will determine what we're talking about Monday morning.

I don’t think the Redskins can go into this game planning to pound Dallas with the run—not with a gimpy Portis, Ladell Betts seeing his first action in a month and an off-the-street Shawn Alexander being, well … not a hammer.

Much of the Redskins early success this year, including their two “quality wins” over Dallas and Philadelphia, came because the defense was stingy and the offense was unpredictable and aggressive. The last few weeks, however, offensively they have started to look like a unit that believes it can simply line up, run the ball, drive methodically down the field and score touchdowns. They aren’t. Not yet.

Nine games have not been enough to ramp up Zorn’s modified “west coast” passing game. And that’s not an indictment—it was unrealistic to expect it before the season started, and it’s unrealistic to expect it today. What would be an indictment is if they were unwilling to adjust to changed circumstances at midstream.

To beat Dallas, and be a factor in late December, the Redskins will need Jason Campbell to play like the loose, confident player we saw earlier this year, not the overthinking, tight player we saw against Pittsburgh. They’re going to have to force the Dallas defense to react to them, as opposed to the other way around as we saw last Monday night.

We don’t know what caused the change. One the one hand, it could have been Campbell simply having a bad night, tightening up under the bright lights and in the face of a superior Pittsburgh defensive effort. On the other hand, it could have been he was trying too hard to do what he thought Coach Zorn wanted, and as a result too careful with the ball, unable to pull the trigger. You might get away with that against average defenses—not against the best.

Maybe Zorn has seen something different on film, but from where I sit, it’s a no-brainer how the Redskins should approach Sunday night offensively. Forget “balance” early—I’d come out firing.

I’d put Campbell in the shotgun right from the start, with an unequivocal green light to attack downfield.

I’d make damn sure Dallas is aware of Santana Moss.

I’d target Chris Cooley early.

I’d even send the rookies, Devin Thomas and the Malcolm “Rumor” Kelly, up the sidelines deep a couple of times. I don’t even really care if they’re open. If they get single coverage, throw it up and let them try to make a play. If not, throw it five yards over their heads. I’d just like to see, and more importantly have the opposition see, that the Redskins are willing to test them.

I don’t expect Dallas to come out playing the Redskins honest Sunday night. I expect them to drop one or both safeties, crowd the line of scrimmage with everyone else and (can’t believe we’re here again) force Washington to show they can stretch the field vertically. Or are at least willing to try.

If the redskins can’t, or won’t, and instead continue to compress their offense into a 15-yard window beyond the line of scrimmage, I fully expect to see more and more blitzes coming after Campbell as the game progresses, looking to force him into the same kind of mistakes he made against the Steelers.

The defense has given no reason to doubt they’ll play well and, at worst, keep Washington in the game. Until they show me otherwise, they've earned the benefit of the doubt. And the odds are increasingly in their favor as the weeks go by that at some point they’ll hold on to a ball and if not score themselves, at least give Campbell and the offense a short field to work with.

It’s up to Jim Zorn to put Campbell in the right situations and allow or encourage him—depending on which is necessary—to trust his reads and his arm. But ultimately, inasmuch as any can come down to the performance of any one player … as goes Jason Campbell Sunday night, so will go the Redskins.

Come Monday morning, we’ll know a lot more about the 2008 version of Jason Campbell. And unless my crystal ball is totally messing with me, we'll have a much clearer sense of how the rest of the 2008 season will play out for the burgundy and gold.

Hey, it’s Redskins-Cowboys.

It’s supposed to be big.