By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The plays Washington Coach Jim Zorn stews over late at night, when his head is on the pillow but his eyes remain wide open, are so apparent on film it makes him sick to his stomach.
Why, when rookie wide receiver Devin Thomas comes wide open for what Zorn said would be an "easy touchdown," does quarterback Jason Campbell not have time to see him? Why, when Campbell does have time to throw downfield, does wide receiver Santana Moss just barely miss a pass that would have advanced the Redskins inside the Dallas 10-yard line?
Put all those toss-and-turn moments together, and the Redskins have scored 16 points in their past two games, both losses, and are averaging more points than just five other teams. Zorn's offense, 10 games into its installation in Washington, is now sputtering more often, and it -- not a defense that ranks fourth in the league in yards allowed -- is the major cause for concern heading into a crucial portion of the season.
"I think we're kind of treading water," Zorn said. "We haven't just put the hurt on anybody, no question. Is it frustrating? Yeah. We haven't dominated."
Zorn's assessment came a day after a 14-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that further muddled the NFC playoff race. The Redskins, a month ago the surprise of the difficult NFC East, are now tied with the Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons at 6-4 in a race for two wild-card spots. Tampa Bay (7-3) and Philadelphia (5-4-1) are also in the mix, as is just about everyone from the NFC North (Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota are all 5-5) and New Orleans (5-5).
Whether the Redskins are able to negotiate the final six games of the season and land in the playoffs for the second straight year will depend largely on whether Zorn's offense -- a West Coast system based in a rhythmic, horizontal passing game -- develops into what he envisions.
Suddenly, Washington's problems are multifaceted, involving crucial issues such as pass protection and production in the red zone. The results are indisputable: The Redskins' offense hasn't generated more than 19 points in its last five games; the team's 25-point output against Detroit on Oct. 26 included a punt return for a touchdown (and was followed by a failed two-point conversion attempt).
Thus, Washington's offense is averaging fewer points than the much-maligned Joe Gibbs-Al Saunders unit through the same time period last year. And it leads to questions about whether Zorn's offense, which averaged 351.2 yards through the first five games, 321.4 yards over the last five, has been deciphered by teams such as Pittsburgh and Dallas.
The Cowboys, the first team to face Zorn's offense twice, allowed the Redskins 381 yards in the first matchup, just 228 yards Sunday night.
"Teams are going to try to figure you out," said fullback Mike Sellers, who scored Washington's only touchdown of the past two games. "They didn't know what Coach Zorn was going to call. This isn't all Coach Gibbs's offense. We're not moving around in motion. They had to get a feel for what we're doing, watching film and doing that type of thing. And they get paid to play the game. They study."
Zorn and most other players, however, disputed the notion Washington's struggles are the result of opponents' familiarity with the offense. Zorn said after the disheartening loss to Pittsburgh, the Redskins' only game this season without a touchdown, that a lack of execution held Washington back. He reiterated that theme yesterday, answering, flatly, "No," when asked if he thought opponents had figured him out.
"We're just not executing plays," tight end Chris Cooley said. "We have mistakes happening. We're looking back at film and we're saying, 'If he could have got a block' or 'If he could have done it this way.' It's not like we're not right there."
Indeed, Zorn said there were a "handful" of plays that caused him his restless night. But making them work is more complicated than just staring at the ceiling in darkness.
Take two plays from the Redskins' only possession of the fourth quarter, after Dallas had taken its first lead of the game at 14-10. On the first play of the drive, from their 36, Zorn called a deep "go" route to Moss on the left side. The Redskins had struggled in pass protection for much of the night, and even on plays in which Campbell wasn't sacked, he was frequently forced to slide out of the pocket, forgoing his best option.
But on this play, the protection was perfect.
"It was executed well," Zorn said. "It was thrown well. He had to go to heroics to make the catch."
Moss, covered by cornerback Terrence Newman, leapt and twisted in an effort to make the catch. It hit his hands, then fell incomplete. First and goal at the 9 turned into second and 10 from their territory.
Moss's viewpoint, however, is that it takes more than one chance to convert such a play.
"We took one shot," Moss said. "You have to take shots to really make big plays, you know what I'm saying? That's plain and simple. When you're a receiver in this game, you just don't [say], 'Here's your chance, and let's go.' I feel like you have to have opportunities to make big plays."
Still, the Redskins had other opportunities, even on the same drive. On third and four from the Dallas 37, Campbell looked to Thomas, who was slanting in from the right. Campbell threw the ball hard and low. It hit Thomas's hands and fell incomplete.
"You got to come through in those clutch situations," Thomas said. "It's tough, especially when you get an opportunity on third down toward the end of the game. You got to come through, man. That's the bottom line."
Thomas did not. Zorn, though, faulted his quarterback. "I scratched a big 'minus' for him," Zorn said about grading the play. But that one incompletion exemplifies a slew of problems for the offense -- its inability to consistently convert on third down (in which the Redskins rank 21st in the NFL); their lack of a consistent third wide receiver behind Moss and Antwaan Randle El (Thomas has 11 catches; James Thrash, seven); and their recent struggles to extend drives at crucial moments.
"We have to improve . . . because you can't tread water in this league for very long," Zorn said. "You got to be swimming. And we're not swimming yet."