In Search of Creativity

By Jason La Canfora
Saturday, December 6, 2008

With the Washington Redskins' offense stalling and only four games remaining in which to make a push for the playoffs, Coach Jim Zorn conceded this week that perhaps more trickery and deception, as some of his players are privately clamoring for, might coax more points from his offense. He need only look a few miles up I-95 -- and across the field tomorrow night -- for evidence of how far dedication to the running game, coupled with a few well-timed gadget plays, can carry an offense, even one in transition and guided by a young quarterback.

Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has excelled at doing more with less, since he has few of the kind of pricey offensive veterans at Zorn's disposal, and the Ravens have topped 30 points in four of the last five games, a total Zorn's team has yet to reach.

In lieu of unearthing another star tackle, a true No. 2 wide receiver or a tall playmaker to unleash in the red zone, it might be time for Zorn to call a double reverse, release fullback Mike Sellers on more routes near the goal line or let wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a college quarterback, line up under center and join the Wildcat formation craze sweeping the NFL. (That play was an effective staple of Cameron's arsenal when Randle El played quarterback for him at Indiana; Zorn says he wants to study it in the offseason before deploying it.)

"I think it's a good suggestion and a good question," Zorn said when asked about using more trick plays. "I'd like to just see the sound plays we have work, so we're building a foundation, and I think within that foundation there are some solid principles that we're trying to adhere to. But when we don't have it, maybe a reverse or a misdirection even in the run game could help us out."

Last Sunday, the Redskins scored a rare touchdown off a reverse -- the first big play from rookie wide receiver Devin Thomas -- and Randle El completed his first pass since Oct. 12. Such twists have been uncommon and, true or not, there is a feeling among many Redskins players as well as some NFL executives and opposing defensive coordinators that other teams have made adjustments to Zorn, that there is a certain sameness to the Washington offense. Many believe this is because of a lack of true playmakers in the passing game beyond wide receiver Santana Moss and tight end Chris Cooley.

"Right now we're not really surprising anyone, and teams have adjusted to us," one veteran Washington offensive player said. "We're lining up in certain formations and doing a lot of the same things and not really mixing it up. Look at what the Giants did to us with [tailback Derrick] Ward, running screens and slants for him, getting all their people involved."

The basic way to attack the Redskins' offense is well known: If a defense can key on Moss on first down, stop the run on second down, and cover Cooley on third down and inside the red zone, Zorn's options, and those of quarterback Jason Campbell, are minimized.

Despite the presence of running back Clinton Portis, the NFL's second-leading rusher, most Redskins opponents play a preponderance of cover-2 zone-pass defense, with two deep safeties and fewer defenders at the line. They are willing to concede rushing yards between the 20s, knowing that when the Redskins get to the red zone, they are the least effective team in the NFL. "They don't create any matchup problems when the field gets short," one defensive coordinator said. "There's no Randy Moss type to get up and just get the ball. Teams believe that if they neutralize Moss and Cooley, and gamble that Randle El can't beat a bigger, physical corner off the line in press-man coverage in the slot, they will win far more plays than they lose."

"Teams are doubling two guys," Moss and Cooley, "and running combo coverages to take those guys out, and forcing your hand," Campbell said.

For Moss, who has been prone to having big games followed by long droughts during his Redskins career because of a lack of a complementary deep threat, Sundays are like Groundhog Day: no matter the opposition, the approach to defending Washington is generally the same.

"I hope to see different things when we go out on the field against different teams, but I never do," Moss said. "It's one of those situations where teams are going to play you to where your strength's at, and being as we know where we're strong at, we've got to find a way to either make other people strong, or put us at equal level to where we don't have to worry about one or two guys getting keyed on more than the others."

In the running game it has become apparent that the Redskins prefer perimeter plays -- they have run more plays outside the tackles than any other team in the league, according to an NFL statistical database. They also have attempted fewer deep passes than almost anyone else, which is at least partly due to the lack of pass protection for Campbell.

Zorn may be an offensive innovator in training, but given the current limitations he might be wise to crib from Cameron's play sheet.

Since the franchise's arrival in Baltimore, the Ravens have lacked a consistent passing game, with the team annually searching for a legitimate quarterback and impact receivers. Expectations were ratcheted down even more this season with Joe Flacco, a rookie quarterback from Delaware, thrust into duty; seemingly broken-down receiver Derrick Mason, 34, as the only proven wideout; and featured running back Willis McGahee, who skipped much of the offseason, either injured or out of shape.

Yet after a slow start, Flacco has a 101.1 passer rating in the last seven games, and each week new playmakers emerge. Baltimore's first touchdown of the season came on a double-reverse option pass. A few weeks later, Flacco caught a 43-yard pass from former Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith after pitching the ball to Smith off the snap. Last week, wide receiver Mark Clayton threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Mason.

With McGahee often ineffective, Cameron converted fullback Le'Ron McClain into a primary ballcarrier. With a young offensive line, and Flacco in need of protection, Cameron has called 29 more run plays than any other team. The plays often come off behind an unbalanced line featuring three tackles, some playing as tight ends. Cameron uses gargantuan defensive tackle Haloti Ngata as an offensive tackle and even sends him out into pass patterns as a tight end.

Whereas the Redskins have just one player with two or more receiving scores this season (Moss has five touchdowns), Baltimore has four players with at least that many touchdown catches, many of them coming as a result of some form of deception.

Cameron is doing the same things he once did for Redskins running back Brian Mitchell when he was on Washington's staff from 1994 to 1996. "We were doing this Wildcat stuff with Brian, because he was a college quarterback," Cameron said. They are the same schemes he concocted for Randle El in college.

"You don't have to work on that stuff with Antwaan, you probably don't even have to practice it," Cameron said. "He's been doing it since he was this big. He did all that stuff on his high school tape. If you have to work on that gimmick stuff too much, then it's probably not going to work. But certain guys have a knack for it. You just find the guys who can do it."

Redskins players see the potential rewards, whether it be in a multi-quarterback Wildcat formation or otherwise. Randle El said he sometimes gives Zorn "the look," just a nod to remind him of what he could do under center, but says nothing.

"We'll get to that, but I have to wait," Randle El said. "You can't press the issue on these things, but it will come."

There may be no better time than the present.

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