By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008
The thought occurred to Jason Campbell long before the current buzz began. It came to him back in March, as the Washington Redskins took a new direction on another long road and no one quite knew what to expect.
When the quarterback began to work with the receivers in the privacy of a closed practice field at Redskins Park, Campbell quickly became encouraged about the return of a familiar sight. Santana Moss was doing things effortlessly again, Campbell observed, and that could be big for the Redskins.
"You could just see the way he was moving, the stuff he was doing out there, that he was feeling good again and he knew it," Campbell recalled. "It wasn't just one day or one thing, it was everything and every day. We didn't talk about it a lot because anything can happen in this game, but you knew everybody else would see it eventually."
The secret, it appears, is out. Slowed by numerous injuries the previous two seasons, Moss is physically sound again and has returned to the form that enabled him to set a franchise receiving record in the 2005 season. He has re-emerged among the league's top deep threats in his eighth season in the league, and, more importantly for the Redskins, has become the go-to receiver, playing a key role in Campbell's impressive performance this season.
The Campbell-Moss tandem has contributed significantly to the fast start of Coach Jim Zorn, Washington's play-caller, who saw the spring in Moss's step and made him a big part of his new spread-offense scheme. Moss, 29, took significant time off in the offseason, for a change, in an attempt to let his body heal, and the experiment was a success, coaches and players said. The Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) on Sunday host the Redskins (3-1), and Washington plans to lean on Moss again.
"There really aren't any secrets in this league, and if there are secrets they don't stay secret for long," offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said. "Everybody in this league knows what type of player Santana is, but he wasn't healthy the last couple of years, so maybe some guys didn't look at him the same way. But Santana has his legs back now, he's healthy, and I think that's pretty clear."
Moss leads the Redskins with 27 catches for 421 yards (a 15.6-yard average) and three touchdowns. Among NFL receivers, Moss is tied for second in receptions and is second in yards. Again displaying the ability to make big plays, Moss is tied for second in the league with six receptions of at least 20 yards and tied for third with two of 40 yards or more. Only two receivers have more first-down catches than Moss's 18, and he has equaled the number of 100-yard games (two) and touchdowns (three) he had in 14 games last season.
"When you're fresh, you're fresh," No. 2 wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "And when you're feeling good, you're feeling good."
Moss's increased production has coincided with the Redskins' three-game winning streak. Although he had a touchdown reception among five catches in the season-opening loss to the New York Giants, Moss finished with only 37 yards. Campbell struggled in his first regular season game in Zorn's version of the West Coast offense.
In the days between that loss and the Redskins' Week 2 home opener against the New Orleans Saints, Moss reassured Campbell that "everything would work out, just to trust in the guys I have around me, 'cause we're all in this together," Campbell said. "He just told me that it's not on all me, we're learning everything as a team, and we're going to win as a team."
Moss's words were well timed, as Campbell had come under scrutiny after the opener. Then Moss provided more support on the field for Campbell, catching seven passes -- including the go-ahead 67-yard touchdown pass on a deep ball from Campbell late in the fourth quarter -- for 164 yards.
"He's up there in the league standings" of the best wide receivers, Zorn said. "When I first started, I didn't know, to be honest with you."
With seven catches for 75 yards and a touchdown against Arizona, Moss was solid again in Washington's second victory. And he was superb against the Dallas Cowboys.
At Texas Stadium on Sunday, Moss had eight receptions for 145 yards. He was instrumental in Washington taking a 17-10 halftime lead, catching six passes for 125 yards. His 53-yard catch (Dallas cornerback Terence Newman froze on Moss's double-move) set up place kicker Shaun Suisham's 20-yard field goal. Washington, which scored on three straight possessions to close the first half, won for only the second time in its last 13 games at Texas Stadium.
In Washington's loss last season at Dallas, Moss also had a big game with nine catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. The difference this season, many of his teammates said, is that Moss is healthy.
"It ain't the old 'Tana, it ain't the new 'Tana, it's just 'Tana," said running back Clinton Portis, among Moss's closest friends on the team. "The man is healthy. That's all you need to know."
Moss experienced a significant drop-off in production after he set a Redskins record with 1,483 receiving yards during the 2005 season, breaking the mark of 1,436 set by Bobby Mitchell in the 1963 season. Hobbled by a hamstring injury in the 2006 season, Moss sat out two games and his reception total dropped from 84 to 55.
Groin and heel injuries were Moss's main problems last season. Again missing two games because of injuries, Moss had 61 catches for 808 yards. He was a major factor in Washington's late-season, four-game winning streak that resulted in a playoff berth, Moss catching eight passes for 115 yards and a touchdown in the playoff-clinching victory over Dallas at FedEx Field.
Overall, though, the season was the most difficult of Moss's career. The injuries affected his ability to gain separation from defensive backs (Moss was fitted with a special shoe to relieve pressure on his heel), and he often was a non-factor. In a 17-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Moss was held without a catch and botched a 30-yard reception in the second half, and his fumble on a reverse in the third quarter was returned 57 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Moss shouldered responsibility for that loss, and his teammates rallied around him. And when Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor, another of Moss's closest friends, was killed in November, Moss felt as though the walls were closing around him.
"Just a whole lot of stuff, man, one thing after another," Moss said. "You never know what to expect from life, you never know what's going to happen, and you just have to keep fighting and pushing."
Exhausted, Moss took a break from football after the Redskins' playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He did not lift weights, run routes or think about the game for three months. "I just shut it down," Moss said. "I was scared to do that throughout my career because I had never done it before.
"I always leave here, take a week or two off, and I'm back in the weight room in late January, you know, or early February. . . . I rested so long to where I just started doing different things. I took up taekwondo. I really truly believe that, right now, it's showing. It's giving me the feedback that I wanted."
Well rested, Moss eagerly participated in Washington's voluntary workout program that began March 17. Moss helped set the tone for players in their first group encounter with Zorn and his presence at workouts was especially important for Campbell, who has worked under three offensive coordinators in three systems during his four-year career. Amid more change for Campbell, Moss provided a calming effect. "Our relationship has definitely grown over the past year," Campbell said. "It's my second full year as a starter, I've had the opportunity to throw the ball to him a lot."
The bond was strengthened during those long throwing sessions, which was "one of the reasons why I made sure I was up here during the offseason," Moss said. "Just to make sure I can get that familiar touch with him because I didn't want to be out there thinking on the job."
Four games into the season, Moss prefers not to look ahead "because you never know what's around the corner," but the Redskins are excited about where Moss could be headed. "Right now, there are 31 teams that are aware of him and what he's doing," Smith said. "Everyone we play will try to take him out of the game, but he's a playmaker, and playmakers find a way to make plays."
Staff writer Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.