By Jason La Canfora
Sunday, August 24, 2008
CHARLOTTE As Jim Zorn and his staff put the final touches on their game plan for this important regular-season tuneup with the Carolina Panthers, scripting the opening 15 plays during an early meeting Friday, the Washington Redskins' head coach made a point to include at least one seven-step drop (a rarity in this offense) for quarterback Jason Campbell in that mix.
Zorn's expectation was to stretch the field if at all possible with his starters playing in the first half -- hoping to take several deep shots -- but this outing quickly devolved into a rudimentary exercise in mere survival. His best wishes -- to see Campbell flash his big arm; to display a downfield component to offset the traditional dink-and-dunk look of his West Coast offense -- never materialized, with every facet of his offense utterly overwhelmed from the onset.
So much for the game plan. So much for three games worth of largely steady production and mounting positive vibes that the Redskins' latest transition to a new offense would be smooth. In this, the second-to-last preseason game -- and the final exhibition with the starters scheduled to play any significant role -- Washington's big-money guys left the field trailing 34-0 in what would end up a 47-3 loss, and Zorn was simply trying to salvage a yard or two by any means necessary.
The play the rookie coach most longed to see, Campbell launching a 50-yard strike down the middle of the field, never took flight, with his aging offensive line completely overrun by Carolina's front seven. The Redskins could barely execute a three-yard hitch, much less hold off the Panthers long enough for Campbell to drop back five steps or more and set. At least twice, Campbell undermined his own well-being, holding the ball too long to contribute to sacks and busted plays. Virtually everything Zorn aspired to was blown up before it began.
"We're going to take two or three shots with Jason, both over middle deep and on the side deep," Zorn said Friday afternoon, clinging to a huge binder filled with his game plan and printouts, charts on the prescribed playing time for every play in this tuneup game, breakdowns of his favored calls on third down. "We want to see him crank the ball down the field. Do I care whether it's complete or not? Yeah, sure. But I want to see us all handle that kind of play. There's a couple of shots we're going to take here, and I think that's important."
On this night, no one could handle it. "We got dominated, simple as that," left tackle Chris Samuels said. The only shots came courtesy of the Panthers' defense, primarily at Campbell's expense.
In one stretch of the first quarter, Campbell was sacked three times in six plays and was flung harshly to the ground to boot. Every part of the line crumbled. When Campbell failed to get rid of the ball in time, the Panthers plunged right through the interior of the line. Both tackles were victimized -- right tackle Jon Jansen's problems in pass protection were never more glaring, even before spraining his right foot; Julius Peppers plowed Samuels five yards directly into Campbell's back, causing a fumble and Zorn's rethink.
"We were taking a shot [downfield] there," Zorn said. "When that happened, I did not want to put Jason now into [another] long developing play and risk another [sack]."
The first-half stats, if looked at purely on paper, without having watched the game, wouldn't make sense. They read like a numerical mad lib, with numbers missing and decimal points misplaced. Twenty-eight plays for 49 net yards (and 0.2 yards per pass attempt)? Twelve of the 28 plays for no yards, or negative yardage? Three net yards passing (39 gross yards, minus the accompanying 36 yards given up on four sacks)?
"We took one on the chin," said Campbell, one of several players consoled by owner Daniel Snyder in the locker room. "I'm not going to make any excuses."
The Redskins had more punts (five) than first downs (three). Campbell, who had not completed a pass of more than 20 yards had nearly as many sacks (four) as completions (six). Zorn had more hurried sideline meetings with Campbell (an ugly 68.3 rating), tailback Clinton Portis (one run for 17 yards; the other seven for 15), tailback Ladell Betts (fumbled to kill the only promising drive) wide receiver Santana Moss (one catch for five yards), offensive line coach Joe Bugel, tight ends coach Rennie Simmons, running backs coach Stump Mitchell and most of the offensive line than productive plays.
As he scrambled from one group of underachieving charges to the next, for the first time this summer, Zorn's body language connoted something other than confidence. Nothing he tried worked.
When he opted to open it up, going to a four-receiver set while backed deep in his own territory on the opening drive, Carolina corner Ken Lucas read the sideline pass and nearly picked it off. He tried to utilize Moss's outside speed early in the second quarter, but suffered an illegal formation penalty. He called upon Antwaan Randle El on a stop-and-go route 35 yards down the right sideline, and watched the ball fall harmlessly incomplete.
Zorn aimed to complete at least five slant routes -- a staple of his methodical passing offense, as elementary to his scheme as 40-gut was to Joe Gibbs's power running game. Instead, he was lucky to watch his passers connect on anything of consequence.
Zorn said he may play his starters a little more in Thursday's preseason finale against Jacksonville in the wake of this, but even so they are not likely to play too much. He may have to wait a while to see his first-team flourish. The deep ball, in this offense, can probably wait, anyway. Finding a way to protect the quarterback cannot.