By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
In 2004, the Washington Redskins cobbled together a no-name defense that became the team's hallmark. The offense, with the return of Coach Joe Gibbs and addition of Pro Bowl talent, was supposed to lead the franchise, while a collection of vagabonds rounded out Gregg Williams's defense. There were few egos on the defense with coaches holding the trump card -- perform now or be tossed back on the street -- and most of the players were out to disprove the notion that they were merely replaceable cogs.
The majority had been cast aside by other organizations, and even regular starters such as Joe Salave'a, Brandon Noble, Ryan Clark, Lemar Marshall, Antonio Pierce and Demetric Evans had been fringe players much of their careers, undrafted or unwanted and staying in the league as special teams performers. Yet the Redskins finished that season ranked third in the NFL in total defense. It was the defense that kept them competitive as the offense sat near the bottom of the league.
Since then, the notion of a plucky, overachieving defense has stuck, but players say not to simply assume a carryover of that production and esprit de corps from year to year. Last year, the squad may have gone on a six-game rampage during its playoff run and finished ninth overall in total defense, but it slumped in the first half of the season and is doing so again in 2006. Since 2004, the entire defense has tasted some type of glory -- either individual or collective -- and almost all the players are heavily compensated now, raising expectations higher than ever. The addition of safety Adam Archuleta and defensive end Andre Carter, both signed to record free agent contracts in March, was supposed to make the defense more feared than ever. Instead, there's a crucial missing ingredient, veterans say.
"You can say it in one word -- chemistry," said defensive end Phillip Daniels, part of the core acquired when this staff came to Washington in 2004. "When you've got guys coming in and out, you lose a little bit of that chemistry. You lose a [safety] Ryan Clark, those type of guys are great role players and do their job, and you lose a lot of that chemistry, and right now we've just got to get it back and come together as a unit and get all that back.
"Once we can put all the pieces of the puzzle together and everybody trusts each other, then we'll be just like the '04 and '05 team, but if you ain't got that trust in each other, that's what hurts you a lot. And right now I think we're building that a little bit every game. As you play together you start to trust each other, and when you bring new guys into this equation that's one thing you've got to build is trust."
The defense, playing without cornerback Shawn Springs, has been off-kilter. There has little been pass rush (two sacks) -- the primary reason Carter was signed -- and the secondary has yielded big passing plays, with Archuleta languishing in coverage. Opposing teams are converting 45 percent of their third-down chances -- Washington is third worst in the NFC -- and the Redskins have produced just one turnover, tied for last in the NFL. The problems go well beyond the two individuals, but they are foremost in the spotlight given their lack of immediate success and $30 million contracts.
"This isn't where we want to be," Archuleta said. "We've got to get a win. We've got to start winning. There's no excuses. We've got to play better. It's part of the deal."
Archuleta and Carter were the first substantial additions to the core of '04; in 2005, only nickel back Pierson Prioleau and depth linebacker Warrick Holdman were signed, and both had played for members of this coaching staff before. Privately, some players worry about the confidence of this year's newcomers, they said, and have tried to instill in them the need to tune out critics and focus on team play.
"You can't just write a few guys names on paper and say, 'Hey, we're better,' " linebacker Marcus Washington said. "And it's hard on those two guys. They're coming from different places and they're adjusting to the packages we take into games and the way we're expected to play football around here. And it's tough to learn on the go, but I think they'll be fine."
Some wonder if perhaps the caustic nature of the coaching staff, from Williams, who declined to comment after Sunday's loss in Dallas, on down meshes with their mentality, and getting out from under the shadow of their contracts presents a unique challenge.
"That's the one thing that kills a lot of guys is the money," said Daniels, who signed lucrative deals with Chicago and Washington in the past. "That puts a bull's-eye on you, and sometimes no matter which way you step, you can't get out of the bull's-eye. If you start listening to outside sources saying, 'This guy might not be worth the money,' and this and that, it kind of brings your spirit down."
Still, the team has played only two games and has plenty of time to make corrections, but there are also no assurances the offseason machinations will work. The staff preferred Archuleta, who spent his career in St. Louis, to Clark, and paid about five times more in guaranteed money to land him. Carter, who had been switched to linebacker in San Francisco, was the top lineman on Williams's wish list because of his size, power, quickness and rush skills. But Carter was off the field in several key situations Sunday, and Evans has thrived in his spot in limited pass-rush duty.
Finding the best mix as quickly as possible is the goal with the Redskins trailing the pack in the NFC East. Since 1990, only three teams have started 0-3 and gone on to the postseason.
"Nothing is guaranteed," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "This year we've got to come together, man, and get everybody on the same page. Do we want to win games or not? We've got to play together on defense. In '04 we lined up on defense and it didn't matter what their record was, we were going to come at you and hit you for 60 minutes. It was understood. Now in '06 we've got different guys here and they're good players, but we've got to play together the way the Redskins play.
"Once we get everybody understanding how we played here and how we played in '04 and '05 -- more so in '04 -- we need to get back to the standard. Then we'll be a pretty darn good defense. Right now, we're just average. Mediocre. Nothing special about us, doesn't matter who's out there on the field."
Getting back to the level displayed during the six-game winning streak last season might be the most difficult chore. In those six games, the defense scored as many touchdowns as it has in the other 30 games of this regime combined, and produced sacks and turnovers at nearly twice the rate it had in all other games.
"We need to be held to that [six-game] standard," Daniels said. "We need to get turnovers. We need to fly around and make those things happen. And I think it will. The more we get familiar with the new guys on the team, I think the turnovers and sacks are going to come."