By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
When the final minutes of their fourth and final preseason game sealed another loss as similar and complete as the previous three, the Redskins could take comfort in one major victory last night at FedEx Field: No starter was injured.
The initial value of the 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that concluded the first winless preseason of a Joe Gibbs-coached team in 24 years was tangible in that Gibbs offered his strongest support yet of backup quarterback Todd Collins, who played the second half surrounded largely by third-stringers. Gibbs said he would address who would be the backup quarterback at a later date.
Playing behind a reserve offensive line that over the past month has not yet jelled, Collins completed 13 of 22 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Collins threw two sure touchdown passes that were dropped, the most glaring a third-quarter end zone fade route that bounced off the hands of backup running back Nehemiah Broughton.
Long the handpicked choice by associate head coach-offense Al Saunders to work with both Brunell and Campbell in grasping the offense, Collins for the first time seemed to have gained the endorsement of Gibbs, while the coach referred to Campbell as "the future."
"Some guys stood out in my mind," Gibbs said. "Todd, with a bunch of young guys in there, I thought that was stellar. After the two touchdown passes that were dropped, I walked over to him on the sideline and said to him, 'That says to me that you've got something inside you.' "
The secondary value of the game was in the questions that persisted after an 0-4 preseason. Will the consistent deficiencies -- including last night's uneven play by the first-team offense, defense and, most notably, special teams -- that have plagued the Redskins over the past month remain? Or will, as the coaches and players suspect, these problems be harmlessly left behind, as meaningless as the scores of the games.
"If it were the regular season, I'd be real concerned," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "It's a totally different game once the regular season starts. You game plan. You don't just take one or two days to line up against someone. We don't have to live with this preseason. Right now, at the end of the day, we're 0 and 0."
For a team that has professed to place little emphasis on this preseason, the month-long dress rehearsal is over.
"I'll be happy to play a whole game, and actually get back to a normal schedule, knowing what to expect every day makes a huge difference," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "I think this whole preseason has been very deceiving. You can always get worked up about it because you always want to win, whether its Monopoly or tic-tac-toe, you want to win. But I think you can learn from it, but it is an evaluation time and you can learn from it."
The dichotomy between a new offense that has behind closed doors bolstered the optimism of the coaching staff and a Redskins team that against four opponents reached the end zone just once and struggled with penalties and inconsistency officially has been dissolved.
"We've been waiting for it, we've been anticipating it, and now it's here," defensive end Andre Carter said. "This is when the real deal starts. It's been a long time coming, and now it's here."
Each phase of special teams -- punting, kicking and coverage -- suffered significant breakdowns. The Ravens' first score was the byproduct of two crushing penalties, one on special teams, the other on defense.
"I'm relieved it's over," Gibbs said of the preseason. "We have to find a way in eight days here to play well. Just like everyone else we want to win ballgames."
Too many men on the field against the Redskins following a missed 49-yard field goal by Matt Stover sustained Baltimore's second possession. The second came three plays later, when on second and eight from the Redskins 22, starting cornerback Carlos Rogers was called for illegal contact. Two minutes later, Ravens quarterback Steve McNair hit Mark Clayton for a 15-yard touchdown pass.
As befitting the final preseason game, the Redskins exercised caution. In addition to the injured seven players, defensive linemen Renaldo Wynn, Cornelius Griffin and Phillip Daniels, cornerback Shawn Springs, running back Clinton Portis and linebacker Robert McCune, starting offensive linemen Randy Thomas and Chris Samuels were in uniform but were scratched from the lineup before the game.
Even important players who were not scratched weren't risked. Wide receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El donned full pads but were not on the field for any of the first team's 12 snaps.
Earlier in the week, quarterback Mark Brunell professed confidence in the Redskins' offensive scheme, and for the first time in the preseason, Brunell appeared comfortable for a sustained period. Unlike his blotchy performances in the previous three preseason games, Brunell appeared at ease with his place in Saunders's play-calling. Though he only attempted four passes, completing two for 12 yards, when he did pass Brunell dropped quickly, scanned and threw easily and accurately.
But the second-team offensive line struggled in pass protection. Throughout the week, both the offensive and defensive coaches took pains to defend their lack of tangible success as a team, instead focusing on the individual matchups. Last week against the New England Patriots, the Redskins' reserve offensive linemen yielded three sacks. Last night, with Jason Campbell playing the second quarter and part of the third, the line did not fare well in pass protection.
On second and nine from his 21, Campbell was sacked by linebacker Dennis Haley for a five-yard loss. On the next play, left tackle Jim Molinaro, playing for the first time this preseason after knee surgery, was called for a false start, placing the Redskins in third and 19.
On the Redskins' next possession, only Campbell's athleticism gave Washington a chance to complete a play. On first down, the left side of the line -- Molinaro and left guard Ikechuku Ndukwe -- were badly beaten, forcing Campbell to his right and hurrying an incomplete pass to James Thrash. Three plays later, on first and 10 from his 33, Campbell was dropped again behind the line.
In the final two games of the preseason, the second-team offensive line gave up eight sacks.
With final cuts looming, last night's finale lacked value only for players secure in their place on the roster. Players such as Brandon Lloyd and Moss stood animated on the sidelines waving a towel, exhorting teammates desperate for a spot on the roster.
One of those players was wide receiver Mike Espy, who signed as an undrafted free agent before rookie camp earlier this spring and impressed the coaching staff with his feel for the game and route running.
Espy enjoyed a big night. He made the block of the game when in the second quarter Collins hit Steven Harris with a short pass in the flat. Harris broke two tackles and raced down the sideline, aided by a ferocious block by Espy, who raced across the field to assist on the play. Later in the third quarter, Espy converted a first down on the Redskins' first possession of the half and caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Collins.
Espy is in a battle with wide receiver David Patten, who for the first time in the preseason received an extended look with Brunell at quarterback, and Jimmy Farris, to win one of the final wide receiver spots behind Moss, Lloyd and Randle El.