By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008
In a joyous locker room late one evening last month at Texas Stadium, Santana Moss sifted through compliments and congratulations. The Washington Redskins had beaten the Dallas Cowboys that day, an upset that instantly transformed perceptions of the team and what it could do. Moss was a primary reason why, bursting into vast meadows of open turf, catching eight balls, gaining 145 yards, looking every bit the elite wide receiver he believes himself to be.
Yet in the midst of the euphoria and the explanations for how it came about, Moss -- 29 years old and in his eighth NFL season -- quickly offered some caution.
"It's great and all," he said. "I'll enjoy it, because we won, and that's what counts. And I know it won't always be like this."
Just three weeks later, the explosive start to Moss's season -- 27 catches and 421 yards in the first four games -- has petered out. Two weeks ago against Philadelphia, Moss went without a reception for just the second time in his past 85 regular season games. Last week in a loss to St. Louis, he caught a pair of passes and dropped two more. Coming into today's game against the Cleveland Browns, he has accounted for 22 yards in two games. Defenses have all but taken him away.
"You kind of [get] frustrated at times, just wanting the ball," Moss said last week. "But my big goal, my main focus, is to win the game and be able to be an asset to the team no matter how it is. If I got to block more, I'm going to block more. It's one big circle. It's going to be a chance for me to get off again."
The variations in Moss's production are perhaps the best indication of the nature of Coach Jim Zorn's offense, a West Coast system that places significant pressure on quarterback Jason Campbell to go through a series of reads and take the first open choice, regardless of the name on the back of the jersey. According to wide receivers coach Stan Hixon, Moss was the first option on a dozen plays last week against St. Louis, yet circumstances dictated that Campbell threw his way just four times.
It is a strange dynamic, then, that Zorn can say the day Campbell barely used Moss, his most explosive wide receiver, was the day the quarterback had his best game in terms of using what was there for him, making the right choice.
"When we read, and he's not there, why force it to him?" Zorn said. "Somebody else is going to be there. That's kind of the philosophical difference. Instead of trying to force-feed something, and all week long you go through all these intricate things to try to free him, and he has five catches for 45 yards."
Zorn shrugged and held out his hands as if to say, "Big deal." The implication is clear: Zorn will not adjust his offense for one player.
"I'm not going to revamp what we're doing," Zorn said. "Things will come around."
It would be easier, though, if Campbell had just one more option, another reliable place to turn when two defenders focus on Moss.
"That'd be great," Moss said. "But even if it doesn't happen, I'm going to keep working."Helping the Rookies
On an unseasonably warm afternoon last week, the Redskins' wide receivers waited their turn to catch balls lobbed over their shoulders. Malcolm Kelly, a rookie from Oklahoma, stood with his helmet off at the back of the line. Devin Thomas, a rookie from Michigan State, made a move on cornerback Justin Tryon, yet another rookie. Thomas caught the ball and began yelling in mock celebration. He and Tryon then ran at each other, jumped in the air, bumped chests.
That, though, has been about the extent of delight for Kelly and Thomas. There remains a huge gulf between such midweek moments of frivolity and what happens on Sunday. The Redskins selected the two wide receivers in the second round of this year's draft precisely because they have a quality Moss does not. Moss is 5 feet 10. Thomas is 6-2; Kelly is 6-4. They were to be the options Campbell could turn to on those days when Moss drew attention he could not overcome.
To this point, it hasn't worked that way. Thomas and Kelly have combined for five catches. "These rookies, at least our guys, are seeing that it's much harder than it looks," Zorn said before the St. Louis game.
The previous week, against Philadelphia, Thomas was on the field enough to help the offense when Campbell was struggling to get the ball to Moss. In the third quarter, as they held on to a two-point lead and faced third down, Zorn called a quick pass to Moss, who was lined up to Campbell's left. Thomas lined up wide left as well. His job, eventually, was to block.
"When we go out there to line up, my corner is staring Santana down," Thomas said. "Santana's beside me, so I'm like, 'Okay, I'm pretty much a decoy on this route, so I'm going to try to get a head start on this guy.' "
Campbell took the snap and immediately made the pass. Thomas laid into his man. Moss caught the ball. And then the penalty flag came out. Offensive pass interference on Thomas. Moss's catch, as well as a first down, were erased. One play later, the Redskins punted.
"In that situation, what Devin did was completely out of character for the play," Hixon said. "There wasn't much more to say. The players knew it. He knew it. He made a mistake."
But at this level, and at this point in Thomas's development, mistakes have ramifications. "We tried to get Devin Thomas more and more involved," Zorn said later that week. "He has to play with more and more discipline, or he's going to get less and less play. . . . He's not ready, really, to take on any kind of responsibility, to be honest with you. We're having to spoon-feed him there."
Moss is part of the spoon-feeding. When the Redskins took the two wide receivers in the draft, Moss looked at it not as a threat but as a potential benefit. Unsolicited, Moss has approached the young wide receivers when he noticed a flaw in their technique. He has, Thomas said, even told them that they could do certain things differently than Moss can. Early in offseason workouts, Moss took a look at Kelly's frame and thought back to his days at the University of Miami, where a Hurricane hero, Michael Irvin, taught a similarly built wide receiver, Andre Johnson, how to physically abuse defensive backs. Moss, unable to use such tactics himself, passed on the thought to Kelly.
"There's certain ways of grabbing DBs and throwing them out of the way, because they're not expecting that," Kelly said Moss told him. "And most DBs, they can't overpower you. Use what you have."
Moss believes what the rookies have could help the Redskins, and therefore help him. Yet of the top 25 offenses in the league, only one other team, San Diego, has failed to get three wide receivers at least six catches. Moss has 29, Antwaan Randle El 26, but veteran James Thrash has just five. Thomas has four, Kelly -- active for only two games because of a nagging knee injury -- just one.
Zorn and Hixon said both Thomas and Kelly improved in practice last week. But could they change games to the point where Moss isn't completely eliminated?
"We don't know that," Zorn said. It is a dangerous point in the season for such discoveries. Though Kelly's knee held up in practice last week -- Zorn said he made a pair of excellent catches Thursday -- he may not be active against Cleveland. Thomas, too, must determine whether he will help the offense this year at all.
"You can kind of picture them, holding on to the train, man," Zorn said, curling his fingers in a tense grip. "They're trying to be on it, and it's just moving down the line."
On Wednesday afternoon, Thomas trudged off the practice field, dripping with sweat. In his left hand, he held the helmet and shoulder pads of Randle El, a rookie doing a rookie's duty, to this point the most he or Kelly have been able to help the team.
"What you gonna do?" Thomas said. "They give you their wisdom, you can't blow them off."Moss's Task: Get Open
Campbell and Moss are next-door neighbors in Leesburg, though they rarely discuss football back in the development. Occasionally, Campbell said, he'll receive a text message from Moss. "What if we ask Coach about this route?" it'll say.
It is not, Campbell said, a just-give-me-the-damn-ball approach. "I'd never be that selfish to say, 'Let me do something different,' " Moss said. So Campbell will go through his reads again today, against the Browns. If Moss is the first option, he will look to him, long and hard.
"You want to get him the ball as much as you possibly can, but you can't force it," Campbell said. "You put the team in a bad position. You've got to continue to utilize the other guys around him, just knowing that his day will come, and he'll get freed up in the end."
That, too, is the faith Moss must have in Zorn's offense. Kelly said that over the past two weeks, Moss has come off the field after a drive and laughed. "He'll say, 'Man, they ain't going to let me get nothing today,' " Kelly said. But it is not, players said, with an eye on those stats that, after four weeks, had him second in the NFL in catches and yards.
"Somebody who got upset might not block," said running back Clinton Portis, a teammate from college. "They'd go to the sideline and pout. Not once have you heard him pointing the finger. He could be the one [saying], 'Oh, if you throw me the ball, I'll go get it.' No. He [will] come in and actually work hard in trying to figure out a way to get open."
That is Moss's task today: Get open. Zorn's offensive system won't wait for rookies such as Thomas and Kelly. But it won't wait for a potential Pro Bowler, either. On Friday, Moss finished practice and sang to the old-school hip hop tunes that blared in the locker room. "I'm ready," he said, smiling. Zorn is, too.
"Remember this," Zorn said. "I know he's sitting out there. And I want to get him the ball."