By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Wilson had both of Washington's sacks Sunday, Heyer was steady in his fourth consecutive start at right tackle, coaches said, and Caldwell, the third wide receiver in the game behind Santana Moss and Randle El, provided Collins with another dependable target. And then there's Collins, whose rise from obscurity was the most surprising development in the team's once-improbable run to the playoffs.
Primarily a backup throughout his 13-year NFL career, Collins, 36, has been outstanding since becoming a starter after Jason Campbell dislocated his left kneecap and strained a knee ligament in a 24-16 victory over the Chicago Bears on Dec. 6. (Campbell is not expected to be on the active roster against Seattle). In the winning streak, Collins completed nearly 64 percent of his passes for 888 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He posted a passer rating of at least 104 in three of his four games, and his 106.4 rating overall was second best in the league in December.
Collins went 22 for 31 for 244 yards and one touchdown in the victory over Dallas. "You couldn't expect him to play any better," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
Of all the players thrust into more significant roles, however, Doughty probably faced the biggest challenge -- he had to follow Taylor. At the time of his death, Taylor, who was 24, was leading the league with five interceptions. In nine games, he had 42 tackles, including 32 solo, and one forced fumble while serving as the anchor of the Redskins' base cover-2 defense.
Statistics, however, told only part of the story. Taylor, named posthumously to the Pro Bowl, had a well-deserved reputation as one of the biggest hitters in the game, and opponents were reluctant to challenge the Redskins with deep passes because of his presence at the back of the zone coverage.
With Taylor sidelined because of a sprained knee, Doughty made his first career start and struggled in pass coverage Nov. 18 in a 28-23 loss to Dallas at Texas Stadium. Since then, however, Doughty has been a consistent member of a defense that ranked fourth against the run and eighth overall in the league, coaches said. "How far young Reed has come has been miraculous," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense.
Being part of a group that has helped the Redskins achieve more than many expected is the best part for Doughty, he said.
"There was some uncharted waters, and I'm sure they [coaches and players] were wondering how I'd respond," Doughty said. "I'm glad that after that first Dallas game, I've kind of come around and been able to help the team.
"There's a lot of guys that are stepping up and taking care of opportunities like H.B. Khary, he's a great special teams player, but he's playing well on defense, too. Randall, he was inactive for a couple of games, but when he does play, he's playing really well. We've got guys that we can go to."