By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Santana Moss made a game-winning, and potentially season-changing, 68-yard touchdown catch in overtime to beat Jacksonville in Week 4, providing the first real glimpse of the potential for wide receivers to make plays in Al Saunders's offense. It turned out to be a fleeting proposition, however, because the Washington Redskins' wide receivers have made no impact since Moss's three-touchdown afternoon against the Jaguars.
The Redskins, who have three wideouts -- Moss, Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd -- earning about $10 million each, hired Saunders in the offseason to enliven the aerial attack. Yet the wide receivers' production is far below even last year's pace. While players and coaches repeatedly have said that veteran quarterback Mark Brunell, who lost his starting job to novice Jason Campbell after Sunday's loss at Philadelphia, was not the sole cause of the stagnant offense, they hope that the team rediscovers a modicum of downfield presence behind Campbell.
Moss, suffering from hamstring problems in recent weeks, is struggling after setting a franchise record with 1,483 receiving yards last season. He said he will miss tomorrow's game against the Buccaneers at Tampa Bay. Lloyd and Randle El, signed to $30 million contracts this offseason to form one of the most balanced and skillful trios in the NFL, have combined for one touchdown catch (Randle El, on a screen pass in Week 3) and just 404 yards through nine games. Lloyd has no touchdowns and just one 50-yard game; Randle El has not caught a pass the last two games even with Moss out for one and hobbled in the other.
"Part of us being as productive as we want to be is getting the ball to our playmakers," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "And I think that's been a struggle for us."
Brunell rarely put the ball deep, instead opting out of long-range options on plays with check-downs to wide receiver screens and dump-offs. For the past three seasons, Gibbs has spoken almost weekly about the importance of not turning over the ball, making sound decisions and throwing it away when necessary, and at times this season it seemed as if Brunell was too quick to do so.
Tailback Ladell Betts is second on the club with 30 catches, one fewer than Moss, and even when Brunell completed an NFL-record 22 straight passes against Houston in Week 3, almost all were behind or near the line of scrimmage.
Washington was held without an offensive touchdown for the third time on Sunday, and only four times have the Redskins scored as many as three offensive touchdowns in a game.
"You could understand it maybe in the beginning where we're trying to grasp the offense and learning it," Brunell said this week. "But at this point it's very frustrating."
Campbell is taller, quicker, more mobile and has a stronger arm than Brunell. But he also may struggle with his accuracy, as many young quarterbacks do. However, the responsibility of getting the ball to the wide receivers is the entire offense's. The line, tight ends and running backs must excel in protection to allow downfield patterns to develop, and several linemen said that has been too big of an issue this season.
"There have been opportunities that Mark was probably going to complete a deep pass if we get some better pass protection up front," tackle Chris Samuels said. "At this point, I just feel sorry for Mark because of that, because everybody could have played better. It's penalties, it's offsides, it's holding. All of these things factor in. It's not just one guy. I think he's taking too much of the heat."
The wide receivers also are not immune from blame. They must find ways to get off the line, gain separation and find seams. Even now there are routine complaints about the difficulty of beating a Cover-2 zone defense -- made famous by tomorrow's opponent, Tampa Bay -- with both safeties back to help double-cover the perimeter threats.
"You have to have those [deep pass] chances enough where [the quarterback] sees them and you're all on the same page," Moss said. "Chances is one thing, but getting the job done is another thing. This year our chances have been seldom. They cover us with Cover-2. I watch other players, man, and I get ticked off, because everyone else gets one on one, and we get Cover-2. But what it boils down to is Jason is finally getting his chance."
Having a quarterback more willing to thread the ball over the middle would help against such coverage, but Moss and James Thrash have been the only wide receivers to show an ability to get open in those areas.
"Jason's got a strong arm, so he's going to let it go early and sometimes he'll try to fit it in there," Randle El said. "So we've just got to make the plays."
The Redskins have just eight passing touchdowns this season. Only four teams have fewer and two of those (Tennessee and Oakland) have used rookie quarterbacks. Moss's 452 yards equate to the fourth-lowest total to lead any NFL team this season; Lloyd and Randle El have combined for four catches and 73 yards the past two weeks in key games against division foes.
"I have to look beyond that," Randle El said of his limited role. "My day is going to come to shine as a wide receiver here, I'm just waiting on it. I don't get caught up in too much."