By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007
Even in times of despair, with the Washington Redskins' once robust running game skidding toward the depths of the NFL, there remained an undercurrent of optimism that better times were ahead. Randy Thomas, a lineman singularly capable of rallying a team and rejuvenating the running game, was inching closer to returning after tearing his triceps.
However, that hope ended yesterday as Thomas, 31, was placed on the injured reserve list, shutting him down for the rest of the season, with the injury to his triceps and elbow. Guard Rick DeMulling, who was largely inactive during a stint here earlier in 2007, was re-signed. Thomas attempted a comeback last week but essentially was operating with one arm against the Chicago Bears and left the game in the first quarter, in what became his last action of the season.
Thomas tore his triceps in the second game -- an injury that is often season-ending -- but is considered so important that the Redskins held open a roster spot for months in case he could return. The team is 3-0 with Thomas active, 3-7 without him.
"In the back of my mind reality sets in that maybe I'm just not right," Thomas said. "We gave it a run, and the training staff did a great job getting me ready. I think I was probably as strong as I could be at the time. Me and [Coach Joe] Gibbs had a great talk, and we decided it was best for the team and me personally to let this thing heal. I have a long career to play and I don't want to jeopardize it."
Thomas said he was instructed to rest the arm -- on which he had surgery Sept. 19 -- and is unsure when the swelling will dissipate and he can resume strengthening and rehab work. Thomas will undergo another MRI exam to determine if he damaged the arm during his one quarter of play (he fell on it several times), though he expects to be back for offseason work. Gibbs said the MRI is precautionary and the team does not anticipate further surgery or significant setbacks.
"He's such an integral part of our football team, and that's a tremendous loss," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense and offensive line coach. "That was tough because he wanted to play so desperately."
There are myriad reasons for why the Redskins' running game, the team's offensive identity for two years, has plummeted this season. Tailback Clinton Portis has been slowed and largely ineffective after suffering a litany of long-term injuries, and the offensive line has lacked punch and continuity with so many starters hurt or ailing. As a result, opponents have overloaded against Washington's run-heavy approach and stopped it, save for consecutive weeks midseason when Portis ran 66 times for 333 yards. In 10 of 13 games, Portis has not rushed for more than 75 yards.
The Redskins are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry -- tied for 21st and well off the 4.1 league average -- and in his last four games Portis is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. "We've got to find a way to be able to run and pass," Portis said. "We can't let teams make us one-dimensional." Two scouts said that Portis, though still skilled and capable of a big play, does not seem to be the consistent "home run hitter" he once was -- he has just one carry over 20 yards -- and said they are unsure if he is still a feature back at this point.
"With his contract [Portis is scheduled to count $8.4 million against the 2008 cap] they've got a tough decision to make there," one NFC team executive said. "We think he's a better back than [Ladell] Betts, but I wonder about his focus. I'm not sure he's a guy to carry the ball 25 times a game for you."
The Redskins rushed for only 111 yards as a team the past two games (2.1 per carry) and several scouts contacted this week identified Thomas's absence, coupled with the loss of fullback Mike Sellers (who is now back and healthy), as the chief cause for the dwindling rushing production.
"Without Thomas they don't have a pulling guard, and that's a big part of who they are," said one NFC scout who has prepared a report on the Redskins this season. "They can't do the things on the perimeter they like to do, and it takes away their sweeps and outside stuff. So they have to go to pretty much all stretch plays and zone blocking, and they're a much easier team to prepare for."
The scout said he expects teams to continue to overload the line of scrimmage with defenders -- "mugging" linebackers with all three stepping into a gap in unison -- and running stunts and run blitzes. Teams continue to also "slant" their defensive linemen to the left side of Washington's line, which clearly is the side the team is most comfortable running behind with Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels and veteran starter Pete Kendall.
"Teams are overloading the box and we can make all our blocks up front and there's still one or two [defenders] free," Samuels said. "That's what we've been looking at, and we haven't been that effective running the ball and we have to do better.
"We've been beat up up front, our whole right side we lost quick and me and [center] Casey [Rabach] are the only two returning guys from last year. We've got to factor that in, but we're not making excuses."
Two scouts said they have been impressed with the overall work of veteran Jason Fabini, who has replaced Thomas, but few players measure up to Thomas.
"That's been a good pickup for them, but Fabini isn't going to blow anyone off the ball and they can't pull with him," said another scout who has evaluated the Redskins recently. "The injuries aren't an excuse, and I know people get sick of hearing about it, but losing Thomas and Sellers, that's going to set you back."
Rebuilding the right side of the line during the season is nearly impossible, and, with a passing game that has lacked explosive plays and has lagged for years, opponents focus primarily on stopping the run. Of course, the same was true last season, when quarterback Jason Campbell was playing for the first time. Despite that, Washington was the league's second-best rushing team in the final six weeks -- with Betts replacing injured Portis -- but the offensive line was also injury-free and more cohesive a year ago.
"I don't know if its personnel, but it's not scheme," Rabach said, "because we're doing the same things we did last year."
Gibbs remains committed to the ground game. Only five teams have run the ball more than Washington this season, and only one NFC team, Minnesota, has more attempts. The Vikings lead the league with a 5.5-yard average, nearly two yards better than Washington.
When asked how to improve the run game, Bugel said: "Block better, stay on your feet, finish [blocks]. Backs run hard. It takes 11 people to make that running game go and our people got the message. Joe did a good job of telling them, 'Hey, we've got to run the football. That's our personality.' "