By Jason La Canfora
Monday, December 29, 2008
This game, like the season, left more questions than answers. There was nothing on the line in the finale between the Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, nothing more significant than a starting point for 2009.
Washington Coach Jim Zorn opted to play it like a playoff game anyway, leaving a large chunk of his draft class out of uniform, or on the bench, same as it was all season. Quarterback Jason Campbell alternated between moments of brilliance (particularly when dashing away from the rush for huge scrambles) and mistakes (holding the ball too long). Although he finished the season as the least-intercepted starting quarterback in the NFL, he remains a work in progress and the subject of divergent opinions. Indeed, aside from seventh-round pick Chris Horton, no Redskins player age 26 or younger took a major step forward to any degree.
Playing essentially all available veterans, and still finishing 8-8 -- 2-6 in the season's second half -- brings the question of how much worse it would have been if, for instance, third-round pick Chad Rinehart had finally seen the field instead of say, 35-year-old guard Pete Kendall, who has arthritic knees. Defensive end Rob Jackson, a healthy scratch, may have been of more use trying to rush the passer than Jason Taylor, 34. Second-round pick Malcolm Kelly, whose knees were so battered coming out of college that some on the Redskins' medical staff believed he might only have a limited NFL career, according to sources, may have gained more from playing than from cheering from the sidelines, but was inactive again.
"They'll have their time," Zorn said after the 27-24 loss to San Francisco, offering no regrets. "I wasn't very concerned about whether Rinehart got established. I have to say no to that, really, to be honest to myself and the group. He's going to have his opportunity. In those four preseason games next year, he'll have his opportunity, as well those younger players."
As the organization moves forward this offseason under the guidance of owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the executive vice president for football operations, it will have much to decipher and tangible evidence upon which to base those decisions. They first must self-scout, as they consider long-term contract extensions for Campbell and cornerback Carlos Rogers, both 2005 first-round picks whose deals expire after 2009. They must address needs along both lines and at outside linebacker. And they must evaluate a group of wide receivers that has been pedestrian in spite of all of the draft picks and money spent in attempts to upgrade.
The Redskins, shunning draft picks in favor of veterans for much of Snyder's ownership, do not have a well of youngsters and Horton was the only one of this year's 10 draft picks to play with any regularity. Thomas, Kelly and Fred Davis combined for 18 catches and no receiving touchdowns. On the final offensive play of the season -- fourth and goal from the 2 -- James Thrash, 33, joined the starting receivers in the three-receiver formation, over all the youngsters, a telling moment on which to end the 2008 campaign.
"James Thrash does the right thing that he's supposed to do every time," Campbell said. "That's why coaches rely on him in those types of situations, because they feel he has a better understanding than the younger guys and can be in the right place."
Meantime, Stephon Heyer, 24, could not supplant Jon Jansen at right tackle, despite all of the veteran's struggles. As Heyer suffered from breakdowns and penalties Sunday it was hard to see him as a sure thing as a starting tackle in this league. Safety LaRon Landry, 24, the sixth overall pick in 2007, was not a regular playmaking threat in the secondary, forced to spend much of the year 30 yards off the line of scrimmage as a single high safety. Rogers, 27, was at a Pro Bowl level through eight games, but lost his starting job in the second half, and Sunday's interception aside, his inability to come up with interceptions and his poor skills have led many in the organization to prefer midseason acquisition DeAngelo Hall, 25, whom the team would like to re-sign.
With Campbell stagnant down the stretch, there have been no indications from management that they are inclined to give him a new deal. The two sides potentially are heading to a crossroads this winter, with the NFL's uncertain collective bargaining situation likely causing Campbell to lose his unrestricted free agency after next season.
Restricted free agent defensive tackles Anthony Montgomery, 25, and Kedric Golston, 25, as well as Lorenzo Alexander, 25, are solid as part of a rotation, but none has the size or skills to be a massive run-stuffer or game-changer. Linebacker Rocky McIntosh, 26, whose knees have been a concern since college, slowed considerably in the second half coming off major knee surgery, with defensive coordinator Greg Blache benching him at times.
The Redskins' young place kicker, Shaun Suisham, was the least accurate in the NFL and will face competition in camp, Zorn has said, while punter Ryan Plackemeier, 24, was erratic at times.
There is an aging core -- comprising primarily veteran free agents signed in 2004 -- that many around the team suspect might be on the way out. Releasing Taylor; oft-injured linebacker Marcus Washington, 31; defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, 32; and cornerback Shawn Springs, 33, would free up roughly $20 million in cap space. Cerrato has spoken lately about his desire to add draft picks -- Washington has just four in April's draft -- and players such as Rogers or reserve running back Ladell Betts among the few younger commodities who might bring a decent return.
Many veterans realize that this may have been their last game with Washington; some privately were surprised the organization didn't make such moves a year ago. Kendall said that if the Redskins did begin more of a youth movement, and it started with rebuilding what is an older offensive line, he wouldn't blame them. Change is inevitable, and sometimes mandatory.
"I absolutely understand that point," he said. "There's no two ways about that. There's no future in 36-year-old guys, the future is now. But it is still a win-now league as well, so there is that decision that people charged with making those decisions have to make: Do you perhaps take a step back to get better [long-term]?
"Nobody will ever talk about what an organization thinks that their window [to win it all] really is. But in reality I think they look at that all the time, and sometimes it's this year, or sometimes it might really be two or three years out. And you can't say to your fans, 'We're rebuilding,' and you can't say to your players, 'We're not trying.' And you can't say that this guy is not as good as that guy, but I think that's probably the reality of the way it goes."