Supporting Cast Steps Into Starring Roles
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
With the final NFC wild-card berth at stake for the Washington Redskins on Sunday, second-year safety Reed Doughty broke up a pass in the end zone during the second quarter to help the Redskins preserve a 10-point lead over the Dallas Cowboys. And just before halftime, veteran wide receiver Reche Caldwell made a nifty 19-yard catch near the sideline, contributing to a drive that was capped by Shaun Suisham's short field goal.
The Redskins ended the regular season with a 27-6 victory over Dallas and advanced to the playoffs despite losing many starters throughout the season. The timely performances of inexperienced players and veteran backups such as Doughty and Caldwell helped Washington overcome an inordinate number of injuries in arguably the most difficult season in franchise history, and revealed depth that surprised even the Redskins.
As Washington (9-7) prepares to face the Seattle Seahawks (10-6) in a wild-card game Saturday at Qwest Field, the unsung players who emerged in the Redskins' late-season playoff push now are key contributors. Everyone on the roster is expected to do more, and Washington's higher-profile players welcome the help.
"Guys [have] been forced into roles," running back Clinton Portis said. "I don't think any other team in the league went through as many injuries as we went through, [and] the good thing about it is we [are] finding a way to just plug people in and continue. It's all under the scheme, and guys giving all they got. It might not be the same talent level, but it's the same effort level. They're giving all their effort and making plays. That's how we [are] finding a way to win."
Relying on first- and second-year players and veterans initially projected to play smaller roles, the Redskins won four straight -- after losing four in a row -- to earn a playoff berth. In addition to Doughty, versatile lineman Lorenzo Alexander, linebacker H.B. Blades, defensive linemen Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery, tackle Stephon Heyer, safety LaRon Landry, cornerback Leigh Torrence and pass-rush specialist Chris Wilson are the other young players who grew up quickly for the Redskins this season. Quarterback Todd Collins, wide receivers Caldwell and Keenan McCardell, linebackers Khary Campbell and Randall Godfrey, guard Jason Fabini, safety Pierson Prioleau and tackle Todd Wade are veterans who have performed well when given opportunities to play because of injuries to others.
In their playoff push, the Redskins displayed "real quality depth," Prioleau said. "Some people call 'em backups, we call everybody starters on this team. Everybody has to be prepared to play, and this year is more of an example than any other year. You see guys playing out of their backup roles and stepping up as starters."
The groups of experienced and inexperienced reserves blended well at a time of need for the Redskins, who have reached the playoffs for the first time since after the 2005 season and only the third time in the last 15 seasons. Because of an inordinate number of season-ending injuries (five players expected to have significant roles are on injured reserve), qualifying for the postseason is impressive, many players said, and the accomplishment takes on added significance because of the death of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor.
Taylor -- considered Washington's most talented player regardless of position -- died of a gunshot wound Nov. 27. While Washington struggled to cope with Taylor's death and mounting injuries, it became apparent that something unexpected would have to occur for the Redskins to experience a turnaround. Many players who began the season lower on the depth chart helped provide the difference in Washington overcoming its problems and returning to the playoffs after going 5-11 in 2006.
"We've benefited from what those guys have done, no doubt, and that's what we always talk about," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "I say it over and over again, 'You need guys to step up when guys go down.' You've got to be able to step up and play. Certainly, the guys we have on this team have come in and filled the roles. They've made the big-time plays for us to be able to keep this thing rolling."
Against Dallas, Doughty and Landry tied for second on the team with five tackles apiece. Godfrey and Blades each had four tackles as the defense limited Dallas to one yard rushing on 16 carries and 147 net yards on 45 total plays (a 3.3-yard average).
"I came in knowing my role," said Godfrey, a 12-year veteran who signed with Washington in training camp. "A guy goes down, I had to step up. Guys like Keenan McCardell, Reche, came in and played well. . . . It's been remarkable.
"To do that, guys have to really make a commitment to knowing what they have to do regardless if they're playing or not. It's worked out for us. Guys have been prepared and stepped up and played."