By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The tenor that ran through the locker room yesterday at Redskins Park combined annoyance with optimism, familiarity with frustration. Last year, the Washington Redskins needed to win their final four regular season games to reach the playoffs, and they did just that. This year, after three losses in four outings, they could be in that precise spot again, and it is wearing on the entire operation.
"I'm tired of going on December runs," special teams captain Rock Cartwright said. "Tired of it. We've been that way for a while now, putting ourselves in this position, and I have no clue why. I have no clue."
Twice in the four years under former coach Joe Gibbs, the Redskins turned stirring Decembers into playoff appearances. Now, if they're to do so again, it will be under a first-year head coach, Jim Zorn, who is evaluating how to revive a stagnant, unproductive offense over the final month of the season.
The Redskins' offense has five touchdowns in its last five games combined, including just one in Sunday's 23-7 loss to the New York Giants. Zorn called the situation "a major frustration."
Circumstances are so dire that Zorn said yesterday -- six days before the Redskins play the Baltimore Ravens, who boast the league's second-ranked defense -- he is considering which parts of the offense to jettison, potentially simplifying a system that was more productive in the season's first two months than in November.
Even as he defended quarterback Jason Campbell -- emphasizing the coaching staff has given no consideration to turning to backup Todd Collins, who led last year's playoff run -- Zorn said the installation of his West Coast offense has not produced the results he envisioned in November losses to Pittsburgh, Dallas and the Giants. The Redskins remain one of three teams who have yet to score 30 points in a game.
"Each week, as we try to grow in our game plan, I'm always torn between that fine line of pushing the envelope a little bit," Zorn said, "or should we back off and not work so much on the things that I'd like to do, but work on those things that we have to do? I continue to try to push us to say, 'Well, we can do this. Well, we can do that.'
"But it's obvious, I think, in these last several games, we can't do it all. So we might have to take a step back before we can take another forward."
Throughout November, when his team averaged 10.8 points and 288.8 yards (down from 20.6 points and 364.3 yards through the first eight games), Zorn consistently blamed the struggles on execution. He touched on those themes again yesterday.
He said Campbell, for instance, underthrew a deep ball to Antwaan Randle El that was picked off, a "poor throw." Though Campbell threw four interceptions and two touchdowns in the four November games, Zorn said any adjustments to the offense would come about not only because of the quarterback.
"I wouldn't try to eliminate the complexities for Jason only," Zorn said. "It's really for the whole group. . . . Everybody's in the mix, and there's a QB that's learning to deal with all of it."
Now Zorn must learn how to deal with the perilous position his team, 6-2 midway through the season, finds itself. Three teams -- Carolina (9-3), Atlanta (8-4) and Dallas (8-4) -- are ahead of Washington for the two NFC wild-card playoff spots. When the Redskins (7-5) ran off their four straight victories at the end of last season, they reached the postseason at 9-7. After 11 games in the 2005 season, the Redskins were 5-6, and they finished with five straight victories to get to 10-6. This year, 10 wins might not guarantee a berth.
"We've been in this position before," Randle El said. "We got four games, and we're probably going to need 11 wins to get in."
Being in this position before, however, doesn't guarantee anything this time around. The idea there is a switch that can be flipped to yield better performances is ludicrous, players said.
"I don't think you can hang your hat on that and say, 'We've been here before, we know we'll be able to do it,' " middle linebacker London Fletcher said. "You can't just automatically assume that it's going to happen for us. The bottom line is, over the last five, six ballgames, we haven't played well. We're kidding ourselves. . . .
"We have to continue to [have] each man look at himself individually, each coach look at himself individually."
That is what Zorn is trying to do, by looking both at his scheme and how his players are executing it. There will not, it seems, be major adjustments to the routines of the week. When the Redskins reached December with no room for error under Gibbs, the veteran coach was harder on the team in practice, often putting the players in pads at a time when most teams are scaling back. Zorn said he would not alter preparations.
"I think if we had just total chaos and disarray," he would change things, Zorn said. The solution, he said, is simpler. "I think we have to score points."
That involves examining the offense, particularly the passing game. By the final month of the season, Zorn had hoped to have his unit improving each week. That has not happened. And because of it, Zorn -- with his team facing a playoff-like situation each week -- probably will not expand the game plan against the Ravens, but scale it back.
"There is that balance there, and I probably have tipped the scales," Zorn said. "Those are things you find out as you go along. I'm trying to push it. Now, maybe I take a step back."