By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008
With fans eager to cheer at Redskins Park, wide receiver Santana Moss put on a show. The crowd erupted Monday when Moss made several impressive catches on deep balls from quarterback Jason Campbell as Coach Jim Zorn unveiled new elements of his West Coast offense.
After being slowed because of groin, heel and hamstring injuries last season, Moss, the Redskins' top wide receiver, said he is sound physically and excited about the potential of Washington's wideouts. Veterans Antwaan Randle El and James Thrash also are back, and the unit received a much-needed infusion of size and potential when the Redskins selected Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly with two of their top three draft picks.
Zorn and new offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said the group possesses the versatility they sought for their scheme, and the wide receivers envision doing big things after often having felt handcuffed by conservative game plans under former coach Joe Gibbs. But Moss, coaches said, still will shoulder much responsibility in the new offense, which is fine with him.
"I'm proud to hear that. I'm proud that that's how they look at me," Moss said. "I pretty much try to take the field like that. I try to handle my area and make sure I hold it down. I look at it like I'm one of the guys that this team is counting on, so I have to be accountable for myself and try to set an example for the younger guys, and it seems like everything is going to be great for us skill guys this year."
Zorn, who will call plays, has been preparing to open up the offense since he was promoted to head coach in February after being hired as offensive coordinator Jan. 25. Getting more production from the wideouts is a big part of his plan.
In addition to Moss's physical limitations last season, Randle El was hampered by a recurring hamstring injury, contributing to his significant drop-off after a fast start. Also, a consistent No. 3 threat never emerged from a unit that was in flux from the start because of injuries.
Free agent bust Brandon Lloyd continued to disappoint before breaking his collarbone in November and never was in the team's plans. He was released in February. The Redskins brought in free agents Reche Caldwell and Keenan McCardell -- at 37 the oldest wide receiver in the league last year -- and signed Anthony Mix from the New York Giants' practice squad during the season.
Caldwell and McCardell contributed offensively in Washington's late-season playoff push and Mix helped out on special teams, but Vinny Cerrato, executive vice president of football operations, determined the overall talent at the position was not sufficient for what Zorn has in mind.
The Redskins, who did not re-sign Caldwell and McCardell, focused exclusively on their receiving corps with their top three picks, selecting Thomas, Kelly and pass-catching tight end Fred Davis. Tight end Chris Cooley was selected to his first Pro Bowl after establishing career highs in receiving yards and touchdown receptions and will remain integral, but there will be more three- and four-receiver formations than under Gibbs.
"When I came here, that was one of the things" the Redskins said they would do, said Randle El, who signed as a free agent before the 2006 season. "That's what we wanted to do, but we never got to it, and we never really got going. That's what we expect to do some of this year."
In fairness to Gibbs and former play-caller Al Saunders, who now runs the St. Louis Rams' offense, injuries and the makeup of the receiving corps affected game plans. Moss sat out two games, Randle El was inactive for one game and they rarely were at full strength.
Caldwell and McCardell did not possess the speed to stretch defenses; Thrash, at this stage of his career, makes his biggest contribution on special teams; and Cerrato failed to acquire a proven big wide receiver who could have been a target for Campbell on third down (Mix is 6 feet 5, 235 pounds, but has three catches in his career).
In 2007, the Redskins' wideouts were the last unit in the NFL to record a touchdown reception. Thrash was the first wide receiver to reach the end zone -- scoring twice in a 33-25 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 11 at FedEx Field. But Thrash suffered a high-ankle sprain in the game and had one reception for the remainder of the season.
"When you looked at the talent we had with guys like Santana and Antwaan, we knew we had the type of receivers you need to have a great offense," Campbell said. "But when your guys are hurt, when they're out, it just makes it harder on the whole offense. With Santana and Randle El healthy now, and with the guys we drafted, I think our receivers can be" among the league's most productive units.
Thomas (6-2, 218) -- Washington's top pick -- and Kelly (6-4, 219) both are big. Thomas is starting out as the Z receiver, or flanker, which generally is the fastest and most physical receiver in the offense (Moss starts at that position). Kelly is playing X, or split end.
Moss, Randle El -- who is expected to primarily be in the slot this year, a role he covets -- and Thrash are learning Zorn's offense at multiple positions, but Thomas and Kelly are "playing one position, and one position only, so they can get all their reps on the same plays and in different formations to make it pretty easy for them," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said.
The rookies are making a good impression, Moss said. "They're talented guys, look like they're pretty good," he said. "But right now it's a learning stage. They're trying to grasp everything. They're learning from us, and we're just coaching 'em up the best way we can."
Early in offseason workouts, Thomas and Kelly displayed the skills that prompted Cerrato to make them the focus of the Redskins' draft strategy.
"I'm not going to put one of them over the other, but you can tell the difference in both of them," Randle El said. "Both have shown big-time flashes of the things that we want to see."