By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007
When Phillip Daniels invites company to his house, invariably they end up in his den, thumbing through the team pictures from his 11 seasons in the NFL, marveling at how fleeting this line of work can be. The Redskins defensive end said goodbye to three friends in the past few weeks -- linebacker Lemar Marshall, and linemen Renaldo Wynn and Joe Salave'a -- as Washington reconfigured its defense for tomorrow's season opener against Miami, and never has it been clearer that this is a young man's game.
After the Redskins' once-fierce defense plummeted to 31st overall in 2006, many braced for a roster shakeup, but the most profound transactions came among the final cuts, when the staff parted with the only defenders who had been here when Coach Joe Gibbs returned in 2004 -- Marshall, Wynn and cornerback Ade Jimoh.
Marshall, Wynn and Salave'a were former starters and veteran leaders who eagerly accepted the ancillary responsibilities of team-building and locker room mediation.
Several of the remaining veteran defensive players said they realize that a year from now, they could be gone as well, because of age, health, declining performance or hefty contracts. A youth movement is clearly afoot; coaches have picked a roster in which 11 of the 25 defensive players are 25 or younger, and six of nine newcomers on defense replaced an older player.
"Guys like Joe Salave'a and Renaldo Wynn were great leaders for us and they helped me a lot to develop my football technique," said first-year lineman Lorenzo Alexander, 24. "Guys like that are hard to come by. I just hope I'm able to live up to their standards."
While the coaches had difficulty parting with veterans whose savvy and mentorship will be missed, their jobs require making calculating decisions, particularly for a club trying to improve from a 5-11 season.
"It just happens to be, in this tryout period through the offseason and through training camp, we've had some younger guys prove that they deserve an opportunity," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "And we're going to give them that opportunity."
Salave'a, 32, and Wynn, 33, were released to make room for players entering their first seasons on NFL active rosters. End Chris Wilson, 25, from Division II Northwood State and two years in the Canadian league, showed speed-rushing ability; Alexander was on the practice squad last season and played on the offensive line during much of this spring's practices, but forced his way onto the roster at defensive tackle.
Youngsters Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery heaped credit for their development on their departed pals.
"I'll really miss Big Joe," Montgomery said. "He was always the one in there getting everybody going, giving energy to the weight room. Joe always took care of the music [in the weight room], the dancing, the singing. Whatever it took, Joe was going to get us going."
"I'll miss Renaldo's attitude, that smile, his positive energy," Golston said. "He was a great man of God, and the glow that was in the room when he was there, you didn't even have to talk to Renaldo to know that he was an outstanding man and outstanding citizen."
However, the deans of this defense acknowledged they understand the direction the team is heading and are enthusiastic about the young talent on the roster. The departed all could see it coming, at least somewhat.
"With Joe and Lemar and some of key people on the team [getting released], it wasn't anything I was surprised with when my number was called," said Wynn, who was among the last cuts before Saturday's deadline.
The veterans agreed that rookie safety LaRon Landry, 22, is an upgrade over departed Adam Archuleta, 29, and could be an immediate playmaker. They expect second-year linebacker Rocky McIntosh, 24, to produce well beyond what former weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman, 31, did last year. Montgomery looks ready to be a competent reserve.
"That guy has all the ability, the size, the tools, the speed, the long arms," veteran lineman Demetric Evans said. "He just had to get himself in shape and he's done that now." Golston should be ready after 12 starts last year, with Wilson and Alexander able to contribute in certain situations best suited to them.
"Yeah, we lost a lot of knowledge," Daniels, 34, said, "but you also gain something from the young guys that can move, and move around, and do the things we need to get done."
There will certainly be some youthful mistakes to overcome, but there also should be no lack of hunger and intensity, intangibles that seemed missing at times during a dismal 2006 season. The nine new defenders average 27 years of age and four years of experience -- the point at which players hit their primes -- and just seven defensive players have been here continuously since the start of Gibbs's second tenure, leaving some holdovers to contemplate whose team picture they will appear on a year from now.
"It's funny, I look back at the team pictures and see how much the team changes over the years," Daniels said. "And it changes a lot and it changes fast."