By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Before next season, the Redskins absolutely and unequivocally have to add one crucial player. Everything else is peripheral. Somehow, they must acquire a potential 1,000-yard wide receiver to complement Santana Moss. The rest of the team's decisions -- whether to keep LaVar Arrington, trade or release Patrick Ramsey -- are mere fluff by comparison.
If the Redskins get that key receiver, they should be a full-blown Super Bowl contender next season. Either that or the whole NFL will know Joe Gibbs's offensive system is no longer good enough to produce a champion. Does Gibbs's attack, which has changed little since the 1980s, work in postseason conditions in the 21st century? Or were the sputtering offensive frustrations of the past two weeks in the playoffs the best that can be expected in the future? Either way, an answer is needed.
Until Gibbs has the same kind of personnel that he used in his first era, no verdict on his system can be reached. For 12 years, Gibbs never doubted who his most valuable weapon was. Quarterbacks, running backs, H-backs and deep-threat wide receivers came and went. Four quarterbacks took the team as far as the NFC championship game. Three runners had 1,000-yard seasons. Charlie Brown and Gary Clark each started in two Super Bowls as the Redskins' fastest man on the flank. However, Art Monk was the constant. Every season, the reliable third-down possession receiver, who should be in the Hall of Fame, lined up at wide receiver opposite some burner.
Back then, Gibbs always had a hero to complement his home-run-bomb speedsters. Six times Gibbs had a pair of receivers who combined for more than 2,000 yards. Once, he even had three 1,000-yard receivers on a team. Multiple gifted wide receivers were constantly a key part of his total package. This month, however, Gibbs had zero -- zip, zilch -- to help Moss. The main reason the Redskins are out of the playoffs, instead of dreaming of a Super Bowl, is also the reason they have a right to imagine themselves in the Super Bowl in Miami next year: This season, the Redskins played offense with only 10 men.
For the last seven regular season games, plus two playoff games, Taylor Jacobs and James Thrash played the wide receiver position once manned by Monk. They caught a pathetic seven passes for no touchdowns. From the second quarter of the Arizona game to the second quarter of the Eagles' season finale, no wide receiver except Moss caught a pass. These overmatched fellows replaced injured David Patten who, in the first nine games, was little better, catching only 22 passes for just 217 yards.
For public consumption, Gibbs and others on his staff praise Patten's work ethic and Thrash's toughness. Nobody has a good word for Jacobs. (If you run off the field yelling, "I think I have a concussion," then you probably don't.) If, in private, the Redskins believe that this pair is good enough, then they are wrong. Neither has ever had an 850-yard season. Both are on the wrong side of 30. As third and fourth receivers, they'd be fine, perhaps evoking memories of Ricky Sanders. But that's all.
"We know it," said one Redskins source of the gaping need at wide receiver. "Believe me, we know it."
The team's dream solution would be to acquire free agent Reggie Wayne of the Colts or perhaps free agent Antwaan Randle El of the Steelers. However, a trade to move into the first round of the draft would be an alternative. As pieces in such a trade, the Redskins can offer their second-round pick this year, first-round pick next year and quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who won't be back. Ramsey deserves a chance to fight for a starting job somewhere else. Gibbs made it clear yesterday with his praise of Jason Campbell that the Quarterback of the Future has already been anointed, though his ETA is as yet unknowable.
Perhaps the most important reason for the Redskins to move heaven and Daniel Snyder's wallet to get a quality receiver is that, in the space of the last two months, the Redskins' entire future changed dramatically. "Marty Schottenheimer used to say, 'Who knows which comes first, confidence or success?' " said veteran Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer. "All I know is that, after those six wins in a row -- including a win on the road in the playoffs -- this whole organization has a lot of confidence again."
After two years, much of Gibbs's Return can be evaluated. The icon of Washington sports can still motivate, evaluate, delegate and go without sleep as well at 65 as he did at 45. Nobody fosters better team chemistry or identifies core players more wisely or assembles and then trusts exceptional assistant coaches better than Gibbs.
However, before celebrations of a second coming by Gibbs go any further, one huge question must be answered. Does his offense still work?
Gibbs and his offensive staff are up to speed on the NFL of '06. But they still believe that fundamental football, properly executed, will work in any era. Fine offenses work for a reason. Each play complements other plays and disguises future options. The success of one play, which must then be defended, sets up the success of entirely different plays. Gibbs and his buddies have not worked all their lives to throw away that enormous accumulated knowledge for the sake of a few new wrinkles.
"Some offensive concepts work year after year," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux. "You can tweak them. But the truth is that a lot of us do the same things. And, with computers, it's now much easier to see anything new that anybody in the league develops. It just flies around the league in no time. We incorporated some things that New England does during the last offseason. But any coach who has accomplished anything has a belief system. Joe has a system and he believes in it."
So, don't expect to see new formations, new strategies or significantly different play-calling next season. It's just not going to happen. Gibbs will be Gibbs. To find out if that approach to offense is good enough in the current NFL, one thing is essential. Gibbs has assembled his new Hogs and his 1,500-yard running back. He has as good a deep receiver in Moss as he's ever coached and in Chris Cooley he may have his best H-back ever. Between Mark Brunell (23 touchdown passes, only 10 interceptions) and the young Campbell, he now has quarterbacks who are comparable to his list of non-Hall-of-Famers in the past.
What Gibbs does not have is a second wide receiver who is even remotely equivalent to the kind of player his system demands. Until that void is corrected, the Redskins probably won't go any further than they did this season. If they do, then Gibbs will have a fair chance to prove that, past the age of 65, he can go all the way to a fifth Super Bowl.