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Redskins Gain Little From Wide Receivers

Disappointing Unit Could Face Changes in Offseason

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page D01

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Coach Joe Gibbs crisscrossed the country last winter, wining and dining free agents to rebuild the Redskins. But as they overhauled the roster, one group of players was left largely intact. There were no significant changes made at wide receiver -- James Thrash was the lone addition, and he has played primarily on special teams -- but after a lackluster 2004 season, major changes at this position could be looming.

The Redskins' draft position will not be determined until after Sunday's season finale against Minnesota, but the team has a good chance to pick as high as fifth overall, with explosive wide receiver Mike Williams, who was ruled ineligible to play for Southern California this season after trying to enter the 2004 draft, an enticing commodity.

Laveranues Coles, hobbled with a foot problem for the second straight season, has only one touchdown catch. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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Washington's top wideout, Laveranues Coles, has been plagued by a toe problem for two seasons and, despite another year with 80-plus catches, has just 913 yards and one touchdown. The team has lacked a deep threat with him hobbled. Rod Gardner, the secondary option at receiver, is finishing another inconsistent season. And Thrash, Taylor Jacobs and Darnerien McCants never found a productive role and have combined for just 30 catches, 315 yards and no touchdowns through 15 games.

Gibbs wanted to reprise his offense of old, which won three Super Bowls between 1981 and 1992, and hoped to revive a power running game that is complemented by a long passing attack. Neither element of that equation fully materialized, however, and as the staff next week begins to mull over how to improve the offense and potential personnel moves, considerable energy could be focused on receivers. The Redskins need a playmaking wide receiver and could pursue one in free agency or the draft.

"Obviously, we've got some real talented guys there, but that's something we'll go through," Gibbs said. "We'll sit down and say this, this, this and this at each position, and then we'll make up our mind on what we think we can get and how we can help ourselves. I'm not going to talk about individuals or something, but we're going to be doing that at every position, and certainly receiver was one, you're right, that we didn't think [last year] that we needed to add a lot there."

Washington's wide receivers have combined for just six touchdowns, third worst in the NFL. Twenty-two wideouts already have more than six touchdown receptions, and 21 NFL teams have at least 12 touchdown catches from their wide receivers.

Gardner leads the Redskins with a 12.8-yard average per catch, the second-lowest total to lead any team. Overall, Washington's wideouts have combined for a modest 1,869 yards, placing them in the bottom 10 in the league, although erratic quarterback play is responsible for some of the problem.

Coles has been sapped by his foot problem, which has hindered his ability to accelerate and gain separation from defenders. Coles, who also has played with an injured right middle finger the last 13 games, told coaches he does not want to undergo offseason surgery for his chronic toe condition, and he has responded well to a recent cortisone shot. But rest alone did not alleviate the problem last winter, when Coles and the team opted against surgery at that time.

"One of the things I'm interested in is sitting down with [the] medical team and talking about L.C. and other people like that," Gibbs said. "What's the best choice and how do we get him totally healthy?"

Gardner has been the subject of trade rumblings, and, with one year left on his contract, could be playing elsewhere next season. He has failed to improve since being drafted 15th overall in 2001, and has not come close to matching his career highs of 71 catches, 1,006 yards and 8 touchdowns set in 2002. Gardner, who is not speaking to the media, went 10 weeks between 100-yard games this season, catching just 22 balls in that span, and had a spell of dropped passes as well.

"He has to continue to work on catching the ball and focus on the ball as it comes into his hands, and I think as of late he's done a better job of that," receivers coach Stan Hixon said.

McCants, a fifth-round pick in 2001, tied for the team lead in touchdown catches last season and was rewarded with a $2 million signing bonus, but this year he has been inactive for nine games, has just five catches and has yet to impress the coaching staff. Thrash helps out on special teams and as an H-back in certain formations, and Jacobs has the speed and smarts to be an asset but does not get on the field much because the Redskins do not run many three- and four-receiver sets.

"I think he's going to be one of the better players in the league by this time next year," Hixon said of Jacobs.

The receivers should benefit from knowing who will be throwing to them next season, as Gibbs has named Ramsey the starter after he battled Mark Brunell for that right through minicamp and the preseason in 2004.

Gibbs will continue tweaking his offensive system as well. He has slowly incorporated more multiple-receiver sets into the offense, but he is loathe to sacrifice pass protection for more downfield targets and has defended his conservative play calling, saying there are numerous deep "shots" built into the game plan each week. Many of the screen passes are designed to go for bigger gains, Gibbs said, with blocking schemes set up after the catch, but the receivers have largely been unable to beat the first man after the catch. "We practice the way we're supposed to run after the catch and make things happen," Jacobs said. "Those are the kind of things Coach Gibbs grooms us to do, and that's what we have to do."

The Redskins have just three receptions of 40 yards or more -- only Arizona and San Francisco have fewer -- while 32 individual wide receivers in the NFL have at least three catches of that length. Minnesota leads the league with 17 such plays from their wideouts. The Redskins do not have a 40-yard reception in their last 11 games, and Gibbs has made improving that a priority.

"We have four-wide-receiver sets, we have three-wide-receiver sets, we have two-wide-receiver sets and one-wide-receiver sets," Gibbs said, "and we've been in and out of those all year long. So scheme-wise, we're trying to be progressive and do all of those smart things that you can do. We'd like to be balanced and we'd like to get big plays and we'd like to run the football. . . . We're looking at everything as far as that goes."

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