A Good Word Leads to Statement
Saturday, January 7, 2006
On the cusp of spring nearly a year ago, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder packed his private plane with his team's offensive nerve center and headed south. Coach Joe Gibbs and his assistant coaches flew to Miami to pick up Santana Moss, the wide receiver they had just acquired from the New York Jets for Laveranues Coles.
The Redskins play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today in the NFC playoffs in no small part because of Moss, but last March he was no sure thing. Moss himself has long been frustrated by the Jets' perception of him as nothing more than third receiver. And despite erratic quarterback play and overall offensive weaknesses, Coles had caught 90 passes for Washington in 2004, twice as many as Moss's 45 catches with the Jets.
But before the trade Gibbs had canvassed people he trusted about Moss, and the word of one player stood out. Running back Clinton Portis told Gibbs if he made the deal for Moss, the Redskins' offensive troubles in 2004 would be over. Moss could do things offensively that a Gibbs offense craved. And how did Portis know this? Because the two had been teammates at the University of Miami.
"I told him the only person I ever saw cover Santana in the slot was Phillip Buchanon," Portis said of the Houston cornerback who was a teammate of Portis and Moss at Miami. "Phil was my roommate. Santana was my homeboy, and it was impossible to cover Santana in the slot. Phillip was the only guy who could do it. I knew once we got him here, that slip screen was perfect for him. That deep ball, with his adjustments, he'd been doing that forever. The catches that were impossible to make, he'd been making them forever."
And so the Redskins added another Hurricane to their roster to go with Sean Taylor and the since-departed Michael Barrow. There is a fraternity of former Miami players, mostly Florida natives, who are now in the NFL pushing one another, training together in the offseason, lobbying for one another, but never pampering each other. Over the last 20 years, no school has produced more NFL players, or more first-round picks. When the 2005 season began, only six teams -- Detroit, Kansas City, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Tampa Bay -- did not have at least one Miami alum on the active roster.
"You feel it, because you know if anything happens, there's a guy you can go to," Taylor said.
For the Redskins, the benefits have been obvious. Taylor has been a fixture at safety since being drafted. Ten months after the plane trip, Moss has been transformed from a question mark to a player coaches describe by using words like "blessing" and "godsend." And Portis returned to the elite plateau of 1,500-yard rushers whose company he kept in Denver. The two did not only produce extraordinary seasons as the Redskins returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season but Portis and Moss broke the club single-season rushing and receiving records, respectively. Portis rushed for 1,516 yards, breaking Stephen Davis's 2001 club record of 1,432, while Moss's 1,483 yards surpassed Bobby Mitchell's 1963 mark of 1,436 (in 14 games).
For both records to fall in the same season has only one precedent, the Dallas Cowboys of 1995, when running back Emmitt Smith rushed for 1,773 yards and Michael Irvin totaled 1,603 receiving yards.
"Isn't that something?" Moss said of Irvin, whose receiving record he broke at Miami. "Another Hurricane, just like me."
When Moss arrived at Miami, he quickly noticed the parade. Irvin, the great Cowboys wide receiver, would return covered in jewels, driving luxury cars, as would Kevin Williams. Miami has had a first-round draft pick for the last 11 years.
"When we were in college, we just wanted to know what they had. We were young, you know. They had the glory, all those things," Moss said. "Michael Irvin, seeing those guys like Kevin Williams. Even if they weren't the biggest stars, every guy that was on this level had something to show for it. That was the thing, being a young guy. And one thing that school gave us was seeing that those guys went there, we had the opportunity to do what they were doing."
While it is fun to turn a highly competitive, billion-dollar industry into a local block party with players they have known in some cases since grade school, Portis says the Miami influence is built largely on peer pressure.