Long on Potential, Short on Points
Thursday, October 25, 2007
The Washington Redskins have spent the better part of four years collecting and cultivating a nucleus of gifted offensive playmakers. They traded up to select quarterback Jason Campbell in the first round, traded for tailback Clinton Portis and wide receiver Santana Moss, rewarded wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd handsomely and spent millions on contract extensions for tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, tight end Chris Cooley and tailback Ladell Betts.
But through six games, with their offense ranked 25th in the NFL, the big plays have been missing at a time when they should be prevalent in the second season since Al Saunders took over the offense. Injuries across the offensive line have stunted the group, and Coach Joe Gibbs has prescribed a conservative game plan at times, but the lack of breakout performances has been glaring. The problems are more confounding considering that Campbell is exceeding expectations in his first full season as a starter, but even his growth and lively arm have not resulted in a more productive offense.
"We had some offensive linemen go down, and that's a reason for a lot of stuff we've not been able to do," Randle El said. "But we're going to take off sooner or later and really get going. There's a lot of things we want to do with Jason, and a lot of things Jason wants to do, but it's just a matter of having the right guys in the right places in order to get it done."
Portis and Moss, both trying to overcome dormant offseasons because of injuries, have not come close to duplicating their franchise yardage records of 2005. Cooley has often been forced to help with blocking, and produced the bulk of his yards in one half against Green Bay. Randle El was off to a career-best start before hurting his hamstring in Week 4, while Lloyd has been a bust and Betts rarely plays, with Portis the featured back again.
The wide receivers have yet to score a touchdown, while Portis and Cooley are the only Redskins to cross the goal line more than once. The Redskins rank 25th in average yards per rush, and 26th in passing yards per game. The offense has scored just 12 touchdowns in six games, and Washington has amassed three offensive touchdowns in a game just 15 times in 56 games (including the playoffs) since Gibbs returned in 2004. This was to be the year when the confluence of personnel, coaching acumen and scheme resulted in a diverse offense, but instead the Redskins are grappling for an identity on that side of the ball with a game at New England ahead Sunday.
"Talent-wise, I think we [are] the most talented team in the NFL. It's discipline. It's coming together and playing as a team," Portis said. "When it comes to talent, I think we've got more talent than anybody, including the Patriots. You look at the receiving corps they put together, I think our receiving corps is just as talented."
Many would argue with that assessment, and the contrast between New England's multi-faceted, top-ranked offense -- which is producing 40 points per game -- and Washington's group is sharp. Moss, Portis, and a refocused offensive line carried Washington to the postseason with a late surge in 2005 -- Moss set the team's receiving yardage record and Portis set the rushing mark -- but they have yet to reach such heights again.
Portis, who recovered from knee, shoulder and hand injuries over the summer, is averaging 3.9 yards per carry this season -- below the NFL average -- and has one 100-yard game since the start of 2006 (a span of 14 games). In 2005 he had nine 100-yard games among his 16 starts -- including five straight to end the season -- and ran for 1,516 yards and a 4.3 average; he has 929 yards in 14 games since with a 4.0 average. Portis maintains he is getting stronger by the game -- though his production the past five games is well below what he achieved in Week 1.
Moss has suffered from repeated groin and hamstring problems in recent years and has not looked like the game-breaking force that tormented safeties on deep passes in 2005. Moss set a franchise mark with 1,483 yards in 2005 with five 100-yard games and nine touchdowns; in 19 games since, he has 997 yards with three 100-yard games and six touchdowns. In the past two weeks, since returning from his latest groin injury, Moss has two catches for eight yards, and while not seeming to accelerate as well as usual, the Pro Bowler says his health is not holding him back.
"I felt good enough to play, and that's all I need to do," Moss said. "And as long as I can play, I'm not worrying about nothing else."
Similarly, Randle El has gone from being Washington's primary deep threat to less of a factor since suffering a groin injury late in the first half against Detroit three weeks ago. In his first four games Randle El caught 18 passes for 338 yards (an average of 84.5 per game), and in two games since coming back he has five catches for 84 yards.
Randle El says he, too, is healthy enough -- continuing to return punts -- but he was not on the field as much as usual against the Packers in Week 6 and the coaches made few attempts to get the ball deep to Moss or Randle El last weekend. Center Casey Rabach and other players believe Campbell is ready to do more in the vertical offense if given the chance.
"Just call it and we'll be good," Rabach said.
Cooley, who was given $14 million guaranteed on a contract extension before the season, has just 20 catches for 188 yards -- averaging just 31 yards per game. Blocking responsibilities have cut into some route running, but not to the point where he would go from Campbell's favorite target to a spectator in the passing game some weeks. Cooley had seven catches for 97 yards in the first half against Green Bay, and has just 13 catches for 91 yards in the other five-and-a-half games combined.
"We want to get big plays down the field, we talk about that all the time," Gibbs said. "We have to find a way to get that done. That has been a big negative for us. We don't like it and it is something that we want to try and correct."