By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008
With their offense sputtering during the first half last Sunday against Cincinnati, the Washington Redskins turned to rookie wide receiver Devin Thomas. Needing four yards on third down, quarterback Jason Campbell threw a short pass to Thomas, but he ran the route incorrectly and dropped the ball.
"With that route, yeah, I was short on it and I didn't" make the catch, Thomas said Wednesday before practice at Redskins Park. "It all comes down to them, the coaches, trusting that you're going to be where you're supposed to be and then making the most out of your opportunities when you get them. On that one, I didn't do that."
The Redskins punted on that possession, their fifth consecutive three-and-out to open an embarrassing 20-13 loss to the lowly Bengals that all but eliminated them from playoff contention, and Thomas's problems continued in another unproductive performance. Fourteen games into his NFL career, Thomas -- Washington's top draft pick -- still is adjusting slowly. He often makes the same mistakes in route running and rarely demonstrates a good command of the playbook. Thomas's lack of progress, and that of wide receiver Malcolm Kelly and pass-catching tight end Fred Davis, also in their rookie seasons, has had an adverse effect on the West Coast scheme that Jim Zorn, the Redskins' head coach and play-caller, has only started to implement this season.
Although the Redskins have remained hopeful that Thomas could emerge as a productive player, he has not displayed the playmaking ability of other wide receivers in the 2008 draft class. But Thomas has had few opportunities to showcase his talent, he said, and Washington's ineffectiveness on offense also has contributed to his poor season.
"It's been hard," he said. "Coming into a new environment, and just trying to grasp everything, it's tough. As far as financially, living on your own and doing all the things you're supposed to do as an NFL player, I mean, there's a lot going on.
"You have to get into that routine of knowing how to come in on time, knowing how to be where you're supposed to b e and how to handle off the field with on the field. That's kind of how the situation has been for me the whole season. I'm just trying to find my comfort zone."
Drafted from Michigan State in the second round (34th overall), Thomas appeared overwhelmed by his new surroundings from the outset. Zorn criticized Thomas and Kelly for their poor conditioning at the beginning of training camp and they fell behind while rehabbing from injuries. Early on, however, Kelly made a favorable impression on veterans and coaches, teaming with Campbell on big plays in practice.
After recovering from a hamstring injury, Thomas ran wrong routes, was tentative on kickoff returns and often out of position in three preseason games. Things have not improved much for him in the regular season. Thomas, whose role has steadily increased in the offensive game plans since the season began, has only 14 receptions for 103 yards and no touchdowns, though he did score on a 29-yard reverse against the New York Giants on Nov. 30.
Kelly has been sidelined for most of the season because of knee problems the Redskins were aware of when they drafted him, and Davis's lack of understanding of the offense, in large part, prevented him from rising up the depth chart. But Thomas has been active in every game for the Redskins (7-7), who hoped he would fill a key role in Zorn's spread scheme, which features many three- and four-receiver sets. That has not happened, and with Kelly and Davis also contributing little to the receiving corps, Zorn's approach has not succeeded. With an average of 16.5 points per game, Washington ranks 29th in the league in scoring. The Redskins are averaging 11 points during their 1-5 slide.
Thomas expected more of himself at this stage of the season but "I was set back with the hamstring. I felt I had to hurry up and get back. When you get hurt, you want to get back as fast as possible, and sometimes that can be rushed by your feelings of feeling like, 'Man, I got to get out there and show what I can do.' With me early on that's kind of how it went with the hamstring issue. I kind of jumped into the preseason a little too fast. I wasn't really ready for that speed.
"Obviously, with my performance, not really doing much and not looking that smooth, I just couldn't perform. My speed wasn't there and I was rusty. Things like that happen and then you just got to get your mojo back and have confidence and get that support from your teammates and coaches and keep it rolling. You don't want to get yourself in a down-and-out position. You want to get yourself in a spot where they can start looking to put you in position to get the ball and get your confidence back up. That's pretty much how the season's been for me."
Thomas's performance has been especially disappointing for the Redskins in comparison with rookie wideouts DeSean Jackson, Eddie Royal and Donnie Avery. Jackson leads Philadelphia with 58 receptions for 852 yards and has caught two touchdowns. Royal is second on Denver with 75 receptions for 847 yards and five touchdowns, and Avery is second on St. Louis with 43 catches for 578 yards and two touchdowns. The Redskins could have drafted each player.
"Just to see them guys being successful and getting the opportunities, that's just the number one thing in my mind that stands out to me. I'm happy for them and excited about that," Thomas said. "But as a competitor, and knowing what I can do and the things that I wish I could have done so far, that's obviously the thing that hurts a little bit. I feel I could have done more this season just given the opportunity. But just the way things been rolling for us hasn't been a great situation. We're trying to figure out how to put points on the board, so I can't sit here wondering, 'Why am I not getting the ball?' That's just how it is."
Veteran wideout Antwaan Randle El encouraged Thomas to work harder after observing his study habits in training camp. "He's improved a lot, especially from the beginning, from where he was, but it's still a work in progress," Randle El said. "He's got to keep on going. It can be a little difficult and he's still got some improving he could do. He could get better in a lot of areas."
Thomas initially did not realize he needed to make changes. The coaching staff "felt like maybe I could have been in the books more, but I felt like I was doing the right thing at the time. Also, what it has to do with is reps. How many times do you get a chance to have repetition of a certain play? In the NFL, you don't get a lot of chances. In practice, you might rep one play all week. Regardless if you're starting or not, they just might rep a play one time all week.
"But then it's in the game plan for the game and you're expected to know it. That's a tough thing in itself. In college, if you make a mistake, you go over it. You talk about this, that and the other until you get it down completely. And it's pretty much set plays and you repeat the same plays. In the NFL, you've got a book so big, and a coach can pull a play from anywhere in that book. That's where it's tough. He might go to a play that you did three weeks ago, and you've still got to remember how it's down, routes, splits and everything."
Well, not exactly, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. Under former coach Joe Gibbs and play-caller Al Saunders, the Redskins would at times draw from plays they used earlier in the season, "but in this offense right here, it's basically the same plays each week," Hixon said. "The wildest we get is different formations. We're in Week 16. There may have been one or two plays that we called that weren't in the game plan."
Despite Thomas's shaky season, he has the physical tools to become a successful NFL wide receiver, Hixon said. "The guy has ability," he said. "We drafted him because he showed what he could do, and we're just going through a process."