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Receiving Unit May Be in for a Change

Redskins Wideouts Struggled as Team Posted NFL's 30th-Ranked Offense

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page D05

Rod Gardner departed Redskins Park on Monday afternoon while talking on his cell phone, moving hurriedly toward his car and avoiding reporters as if they were defensive backs. When Laveranues Coles, Washington's other starting wide receiver, was approached by reporters after the final team meeting, he referred inquiries to his agent.

Gardner and Coles stopped taking questions from the media midway through the 6-10 season, and several teammates believe it's because they didn't want to say anything controversial.

Redskins wide receiver Rod Gardner may not be back with the team next year after struggling this past season. (Lou Dematteis - Reuters)

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Coach Joe Gibbs and his staff yesterday began a four-day process of evaluating their offense, scrutinizing the performance of the unit into the night. Sentiment among Redskins players is that the wide receiving corps -- perhaps the team's most disgruntled group -- will be the segment of the NFL's 30th-ranked offense most likely to be changed.

Much of Washington's struggles to complete deep passes -- only four for 40 yards or more -- stemmed from the quarterback play. However, Gibbs has proclaimed his quarterback situation set, saying Patrick Ramsey will retain the starting spot he took from Mark Brunell late this season.

"Obviously, I follow what Coach Joe Gibbs wants to do," Ramsey said. "But I feel like those guys [wide receivers] played well towards the end of the year. I think they continued to step up when I got in there. And I feel good about those guys."

Wideout Darnerien McCants said that he probably won't return, based on being inactive 10 games. Coaches have said that Taylor Jacobs and James Thrash will take increased roles next season, an indication that Gardner may finally be dealt after incessant trade rumors the past two seasons.

The Redskins, who have the ninth overall pick, can turn to the draft or free agency to find new wideouts. Several top receivers are expected to become free agents, including Plaxico Burress of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Muhsin Muhammad of the Carolina Panthers and T.J. Houshmandzadeh of the Cincinnati Bengals. Muhammad is perhaps the most intriguing possibility after setting club records in receiving yards (1,405) and touchdowns (16). However, the downside is that Muhammad will turn 32 before next season and has stated his desire for an exorbitant contract.

The Redskins -- who set an NFL payroll record last season at roughly $120 million -- are about $4 million under the projected $85 million cap for the 2005 season. That margin might increase if players such as left tackle Chris Samuels agree to restructure their contracts. Gibbs has expressed confidence in the ability to make key, if limited, free agent acquisitions.

The Redskins also have enticing options at wide receiver with their top pick. The top wideout is expected to be USC's Mike Williams, who was projected to go ninth last year after declaring for the draft following his sophomore season. But a judge sided with the NFL to maintain its policy barring freshmen and true sophomores. Williams, who had 176 catches and 30 touchdowns in two years, didn't play this season. The 6-foot-5, 228-pounder is such a strong prospect, he might not be available when Washington picks.

Washington should be able to land Michigan's Braylon Edwards, considered the second-best wideout in the draft. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder seems similar to Gardner -- he has the size and speed to make spectacular catches, yet occasionally botches routine plays.

Gardner produced the worst numbers in his four-year career: 51 catches for 650 yards (an average of 12.7 yards), plus five touchdowns. Coles set a career high with 90 catches -- the most receptions in franchise history by anyone not named Art Monk. But Coles finished with only 950 receiving yards for a career-low average of 10.6 yards and had only one touchdown.

One person close to Coles said he has been unhappy throughout the season mainly because of the losing compounded by Washington's inability to get the ball downfield. (Coles played the final 14 games with an injured middle finger, and all season with toe trouble.)

For much of this season, wide receivers lobbied their position coach to seek a four-wideout set. It was finally unveiled Dec. 5 during Washington's best offensive showing -- a 31-7 victory over the New York Giants. The coaches believe that the wideouts should have done a better job getting open in one-on-one coverage. The coaches also feel that imprecise pass routes helped lead to some of the 38 sacks Washington gave up.

McCants would cost the Redskins a cap hit of $1.3 million if he is released before June. Being waived after June 1 would spread the figure out evenly over the next two years. "Paying me the money they did, not to play me, is basically giving away money," said McCants, who signed a three-year, $4.5 million deal in the offseason. "So with Thrash and Taylor ahead of me now, I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't here."

Redskins Notes: The Redskins finished with the NFC's top defense, third overall in the NFL. Star linebacker LaVar Arrington was one of several key players who didn't play much because of injury. Last year, when Arrington made his third straight Pro Bowl, the Redskins were ranked 25th. Does it diminish Arrington's value?

"That's up to the coaches and you guys," Arrington replied. "There are two sides. Some people feel LaVar is valuable. Some people feel you can do without him. You can't dispute the fact that the defense played very well without me. That's reality." . . .

Gibbs said that he doesn't expect anyone from his staff to resign because of their age. What Joe Bugel, 64, has dubbed the "Medicare Bunch" includes offensive coordinator Don Breaux, who has had a hip replaced and will turn 65 next season; tight ends coach Rennie Simmons, who will turn 63; and linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, who will be 62. . . .

Shawn Springs became the first cornerback in NFL history to lead his team in interceptions (five) and at least tie for the lead in sacks (six). Springs, voted a second alternate to the Pro Bowl, was tied in sacks with defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin. . . .

The Redskins promoted cornerbacks James Bethea and Korey Banks and defensive linemen Nic Clemons and Melvin Williams to the active roster from the practice squad.

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