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Third Man Still a Mystery for Redskins

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

When Joe Gibbs looks at the Washington Redskins, he sees characteristics indicative of his classic offenses. The backs run with power and speed, assuming a greater share of the load as the season progresses. His quarterback throws short but can go deep. The coaches free up receivers from stifling defensive schemes with constant motion and movement. The offensive line crushes anything in its way.

The formula is all so simple and familiar that Joe Theismann, who played for Gibbs for five seasons, analyzes the Redskins' offense and can't tell if the year is 1985 or 2005. "He does a lot of the same stuff we used to do," he said. "It's amazing."

There is a concern, however, over the lack of production from the second wide receiver position. While the Redskins have two legitimate threats in wide receiver Santana Moss and H-back Chris Cooley, limited contribution from the number two wideout has left the impression that their offense could have difficulty against the sharp defenses in the postseason should the Redskins advance to the playoffs by beating Philadelphia on Sunday.

It is an imbalance unheard of for a Gibbs team and extremely rare for winning teams in general. Before this season, the two leaders in receptions for virtually every one of the 13 Gibbs-coached teams have been wide receivers. The exception was the 1987 Super Bowl team, but only because injuries slowed Art Monk, leaving running back Kelvin Bryant the second-leading receiver with 43, behind Gary Clark.

With this team, the last time a wide receiver not named Moss caught a pass was Dec. 11, when Taylor Jacobs caught one pass for seven yards in Arizona. The last time a secondary wideout caught two or more passes was more than a month ago, when Jacobs caught four passes for 44 yards Nov. 27 against San Diego.

Not having that second wideout has given defenses little reason to fear the deep threat outside of Moss and illustrates the lack of production from Jacobs, the third-year pro who after injuries to David Patten and James Thrash seemingly has squandered a golden opportunity to ignite his career.

"It really hasn't materialized," Redskins wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said of Jacobs. "At times, he shows his ability, but he has to transfer it from practice to the game. The effort is there. The determination is there. He needs to get it into the game."

Of the 14 teams that have either clinched a playoff spot or are in contention entering this final weekend of the regular season, no team's passing game has relied on two players as much as the Redskins. Moss and Cooley have combined for 149 of the 269 passes the Redskins have completed, or 55.4 percent.

No team in football has gotten less production from its secondary wide receivers than the Redskins. Thrash, Patten, Jimmy Farris and Jacobs have combined for 47 catches. Even teams such as Kansas City and Dallas, which feature marquee tight ends, have found a way to extract production from at least two wide receivers.

"I think by read or by coverage, the ball just moves back to their side," Hixon said of Moss and Cooley. "Chris is having such an awesome season, he's been getting the balls other receivers catch. And Santana, we've been going to the well a lot. When we have a chance to get Santana the ball, you get him the ball."

A dearth of production from the Redskins' second wideout might appear to be nothing more than a statistical oddity. It could be argued it does not matter which players are contributing as long as someone -- whether a wide receiver, running back or H-back (a hybrid tight end/fullback under Gibbs's offense) -- is catching passes. Even more important is that their reliance on Moss and Cooley has not seemed to cost them.

"When you ask if they can continue winning without production from the other side of the field, you have to say yes, because they are," Theismann said. "When you look at it, the games they lost weren't because of a lack of offense, but from the defense giving up big plays late. Can they do it? Absolutely. Not only can they, but they have."

In a league where passing games often rely on four and five wide receiver sets, defenses have had little reason to fear anyone other than Cooley or Moss. The Redskins brought in Patten from New England to address the issue, but he was placed on injured reserve Nov. 18 after knee surgery.

That left an opportunity for Jacobs, who Redskins coaches say needs to improve getting off of the line of scrimmage and sharpening his routes.

"Taylor Jacobs is one of the great question marks. It's one of the areas they'll have to address in the offseason," Theismann said. "The number one thing a receiver can do for a quarterback is be where he's supposed to be when they're supposed to be there. Once that's established, everything else that happens is part of football. But there's only a short amount of time before a quarterback has to get rid of the ball, and the receiver has to be there. Seriously, if you can't get off the line, what good are you?"

Jacobs appears down, if not frustrated, that he has not been a big option in the offense. "You take the opportunities when they come to you," he said. "It's had its ups and downs, but we're winning, so I'm not complaining. You can't call the plays, so you do what they say to do. It's just waiting."

Among the Redskins, theories abound as to why Jacobs has not emerged. Weeks ago, Gibbs raved about his speed, but Brunell has not attempted a deep pass to him since Patten was injured. Cornerback Shawn Springs, who covers Jacobs in practice, says in terms of tools, he's the "most talented receiver on the team."

Gibbs says Jacobs's low production is no indictment.

"With Santana and Chris playing the way they are, there just aren't a lot of opportunities," Gibbs said.

Redskins assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel seems resigned to Jacobs.

"What you see in Taylor is what you get right now. You could put Humpty Dumpty out there, and you still have to cover him," Bugel said after Jacobs did not catch a pass against the Giants and, at least for that game, fell behind Antonio Brown on the depth chart. "He's a little rough around the edges right now, but he can be a good one. Sooner or later it's going to come for the kid."

At this late date, the Redskins are not likely to alter the game plan much in terms of the approach, Gibbs said, acknowledging he has never had a passing attack quite like this one.

"They're leaving the dance with what brung them," Theismann said. "They've proven they can win this way and aren't going to go changing now."

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