Redskins’ secondary turnover is indicative of a sport in which careers are short

Jason Reid
Columnist June 13, 2012

Players sarcastically say the National Football League’s initials also stand for “Not For Long.” With the average NFL career being shorter than one U.S. presidential term, they have a point.

In the most dangerous team sport, poor health often ruins a franchise’s best-laid plans. For proof, look no further than the Washington Redskins’ reshuffled secondary.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Last season, coaches envisioned safeties LaRon Landry and Oshiomogho Atogwe would form a big-play tandem. Their best work, however, occurred while rehabbing in the trainers’ room. Only a year after the Redskins signed Atogwe to partner with Landry, neither is on the roster.

Auditions for their replacements continued during minicamp this week at Redskins Park, but the candidate pool appears shakier than a John Beck pass on a windy day.

Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson seem to be the best of a bargain-basement bunch. If the competition plays out as expected, they would emerge as the Redskins’ first-string safeties, according to a longtime NFC secondary coach familiar with the team’s defensive personnel. “Just from a talent standpoint, they’re probably their best two” at the position, the coach said in a phone interview.

That’s potentially the Redskins’ worst news since the commissioner’s office called to rap about the salary cap.

Meriweather’s career has taken an amusement-park-ride drop since he was a two-time Pro Bowler with the New England Patriots. Released by the Patriots before the 2011 season, Meriweather signed with the Chicago Bears but was demoted from the starting lineup after only four games.

A fresh start hasn’t immediately improved Meriweather’s fortune: He was arrested on drunken driving charges in April. In commenting about his problems on and off the field, Meriweather said he prefers to let his play do the talking, which is fine. It’s just that it hasn’t said much good about him lately.

Jackson also has had a rough time the past couple of seasons. Unlike Meriweather, he’s willing to talk about it. A five-year starter for Tampa Bay, Jackson joined the Redskins shortly after former Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris was hired as Washington’s new defensive backs coach in January.

Jackson, who underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, expects the safety competition to continue throughout the preseason (veteran newcomer Madieu Williams also is vying for a prominent role), “and that’s good because competition breeds greatness,” Jackson said.

Remaining eligible to play has been Jackson’s biggest problem. He sat out 19 games (14 in 2010 and five in 2011) during a 56-week suspension for twice violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy by using what were believed to be recreational drugs.

Considering Jackson played under Morris in Tampa Bay (Morris coached the Buccaneers’ defensive backs before ascending to the top position), one would think Morris is Jackson’s champion. It didn’t seem that way, though, before practice this week.

Given the opportunity to endorse Jackson while speaking with reporters, Morris punted. “We’ll see where it goes,” he said.

It would be easy to criticize the Redskins for being in a position in which these guys are likely their best options. This, though, is exactly the type of situation that occurs regularly throughout a league where the average player’s career ends after only about 3.5 seasons, according to research by the NFL players’ union. Teams have to fill roster openings quickly — and good help at this level is hard to find.

An Achilles’ tendon injury sidelined Landry, who signed with the New York Jets, for much of the previous two seasons. Atogwe was a free agent bust, in large part because of knee, toe and hamstring injuries; he’s still unsigned. “Obviously, it didn’t work out the way we wanted,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “But you have to take some chances. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Regardless of a team’s defensive approach, the best safeties are as good in run support as linebackers and as skilled in pass coverage as cornerbacks. Landry was one of the game’s biggest hitters at the position. Atogwe once had a knack for catching passes from opponents’ quarterbacks.

On paper, their pairing was a perfect fit. On the field, not so much. Their bodies simply gave out.

“Nobody is denying those guys [Landry and Atogwe] have ability. It’s just that in this game, it’s hard to commit to someone long term when there are health issues, whatever they may be,” veteran backup safety Reed Doughty said. “That’s why we have a new crop stepping in here again.”

And at some point very soon, yet another will follow. The players’ pain assures it.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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