By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
As the Washington Redskins filed out of Redskins Park yesterday for their first slice of freedom in 3 1/2 months, Jim Zorn gathered his coaching staff in a room and began a process that will have an impact on his team's success the rest of the year. What plays should they keep? What ideas should they toss? What should they overhaul? What should they tweak?
"We're not going to reinvent the offense," Zorn said. But as the Redskins head into their bye week, they are going take a serious look at several problem areas, such as why the offense has scored just three touchdowns in the last three weeks, why only two teams in the NFL have generated fewer turnovers and why the club has had trouble in the punting game.
The bye week is a chance for the players to rest, "and we need it, bad," quarterback Jason Campbell said. But following Monday night's thorough 23-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the coaching staff and the players understand that if their current 6-3 record is to lead to a playoff berth, the status quo will not do.
"Obviously, we're going to have to come up with some answers to some things from an X's-and-O's standpoint, and also from an assignment standpoint because other teams are going to see what happened" Monday, guard Pete Kendall said.
Through nine weeks, the Redskins have the 10th-ranked offense in the NFL and the fourth-best defense, both based on total yards. But they can't score consistently, ranking in the bottom fourth of the league in points per game. And after the Steelers' seven-sack, two-interception performance Monday night in which they effectively slowed the Redskins' previously powerful rushing game and simultaneously eliminated deep passes, there could be a template for other teams to follow.
"Part of what goes on during the week here is self-scouting and trying to determine if we've fallen into any predictable patterns," Kendall said. "The other thing I know about this league is you're going to see something until you stop it. . . . There are lessons to be learned."
With his team hosting all of its division opponents at FedEx Field over the remaining seven games, Zorn said his broad view of how the Redskins must improve has more to do with execution than game-planning. But when the season began, the league did not know how Zorn would call a game or what might be the Redskins' strengths. Now they have nine games of evidence, and the divisional opponents -- Dallas, the New York Giants and Philadelphia -- will all be playing against Zorn and his scheme for the second time.
"Every week, they're going to learn something new about you," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "But that's not stopping us from moving the ball and doing what we do."
That is Zorn's point. Though the Redskins gained 221 yards of offense -- their first time under 320 since a season-opening loss to the Giants -- the coach said he felt comfortable with the game plan and the play-calling.
"It's just not up to speed yet," Zorn said. "That's the broad view. It really has to do with technique and execution of the play. Going fast. And we're not there yet."
Take, for instance, a play on the Redskins' second possession, when they already held a 3-0 lead. It was third and five from the Steelers 25, and Campbell had wide receiver Antwaan Randle El on a crossing pattern from right to left. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu trailed Randle El slightly. Campbell's throw was behind Randle El. It fell incomplete.
"If Jason makes a decent throw, he strains for the first down," Zorn said. "Now, we're deep into the red zone. We have a chance to again get three more plays to try to get that ball in. It stopped us.
"Several occasions were like that, where the ball was not thrown accurately. That really hurt us. Some of those were combinations of Jason feeling the pressure, throwing it early or throwing it poorly. And then some of them were [when] we just didn't have a good enough route by the receiver or receivers to give Jason a chance to really throw the ball in there."
To some extent, Zorn said the stalled progress of the offense is understandable given that this is the players' first season in his system. He emphasized he is pleased with their work habits and effort in games. Still, "I think the negative part of where we're at, it's the execution," he said. "Being together, playing together for a long period of time [helps], and we haven't done that in the schemes we're in."
But the results over the first half of the season -- including wins at Dallas and at Philadelphia -- raised the idea of what is possible for the team. "All our goals are still out there," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said.
"I guess we've been better than expected," Kendall said, "but now I think we've raised the expectations to the point where performances like [Monday] night and the last few weeks have been a little bit disappointing."
While the players are away, Zorn and the coaching staff will try to minimize those disappointments. Zorn said they will go over specific plays and analyze the percentage of times they have been successful. And they also will get to that central point when it comes to what's not working: Is it the way the play is drawn up, or is it the way it is being carried out?
"We have to answer those questions," Zorn said.
That, then, will help answer the remaining questions about the Redskins and their prospects when they return from their week away. Zorn gave the players time off through the weekend, and they will not report back for work until Monday. The Cowboys, who are reeling but also off this week, come to FedEx Field on Nov. 16. What the coaches toss and what they keep -- and how it is all carried out by the players -- will determine whether the team returns to the playoffs.
"I feel like we're talented enough to be a very productive offense," Kendall said. "But fantasy football is just that. In the real game, you have to go out and do it, and we've struggled with that a little bit of late."