The Key to Redskins' Success Continues to Rest With Moss

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009

There are a pair of tubs outside the locker room at Redskins Park, shielded from both the sun and the rain by a tent, and on Thursday morning Santana Moss hobbled up to one of them and slid in, uniform pants, thigh pads and all. The relief washed over his face, because the ice-cold water in what amounts to a kiddy pool hit his hamstring, his 30-year-old hamstring, and the tightness began to go away.

Moss sat in the frigid water, staring out past the edge of the tent to the drizzle that came on down as his Washington Redskins teammates made their way off the practice field. On into the locker room went tight end Chris Cooley, the man who caught more balls than any other Redskin last year. On into the locker room went Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, the second-year wide receivers who must develop in order for the Redskins' offense to improve. And on into the locker room went the linemen who are entrusted with opening holes for running back Clinton Portis and protecting quarterback Jason Campbell.

Moss garnered attention only when cornerback Carlos Rogers, whose own calf was wrapped tightly, saw him in the tub, pointed and smiled. "I need it, man," Moss called out, and went back to staring past his teammates.

In a training camp in which Moss is easy to overlook, it is imperative the Redskins don't do just that. On Saturday, he sat out the Redskins' first scrimmage of the preseason with that hamstring strain, making it easier for Washington's defense to dominate. His frame is just 5 feet 10 and 200 solid pounds, but his impact on the team's ability to stretch the field is enormous.

"The whole passing game," said wide receivers coach Stan Hixon, "runs through Santana."

This August, no defensive coach in the NFC East is preparing a game plan that might stop Kelly or Thomas, who are unproven and, outside of Ashburn, scarcely discussed. As Moss said, "I know what I can do," and that means defensive coaches do, too. If one Redskins wideout is to come up in discussions beyond the walls of Redskins Park, it is Moss, and only Moss.

"He's got a full knowledge of the offense now, too," said Coach Jim Zorn.

That, then, would seem to indicate that Moss could improve on his fine 2008 season, a year in which he caught 79 passes for 1,044 yards, the third 1,000-yard season of his eight-year career, his second in four years with the Redskins.

But that little tightening of the hamstring last week is both a warning of Moss's past and, potentially, a harbinger of his future. Though Moss has generally been durable during his time with the Redskins -- missing four games total in his four years, two each in 2006 and '07 -- he has an acute sense of injuries, of his own finely tuned body parts. So in each of the last two offseasons, he has prescribed himself something he used to abhor: rest.

"I should've did this when I was younger, honestly," he said. "I was one of those guys that just [doesn't] know how to stay out of the gym. And you know, when college kids get ready for the combine [in the spring], I'd be in there with them, like I got to get ready for something. And then you look at the seasons, and how they pan out and how you feel, I kind of start saying to myself like, 'Man, I done had two seasons already.' "

That, though, is about all you'll get from Moss by way of discussing his physical well-being. Last year, when one of his hamstrings tightened during a game in Detroit, causing him to sit out practices but ultimately no game time, Moss loathed giving daily updates on how he felt. He is following that line of thinking this season, too, calling his latest setback the "same old same old" on Sunday, when he again sat out the Redskins' workout.

"All you can do is go day by day, man," he said. "Me telling you every day something is getting better -- you see me practicing, you'll know I'm ready to go. Other than that, man, all I can do is go day by day."

Zorn and the Redskins, though, need Moss on the field not only for what he can do to defenses -- "He's the guy we know we can go deep to," Campbell said -- but also for the trickle-down effect he has on the offense.

"This is our fifth year together," Hixon said. "And what I was telling him in year one, two and three, he's telling the younger guys now."

That includes aspects of the game only coaches and players with a complete knowledge of the offense can pick up. Zorn, for instance, said he can have conversations with Moss about the subtleties of a certain play that he simply can't have with Kelly or Thomas, because they don't yet understand the game at that level.

"He's learning how to beat defenders with the patterns that we've got," Zorn said. "Where maybe last year, where he was just learning terminology and a route, now he's learning how to run it to beat a defender. He's trying to know whether he can cut his split down, widen his split. He's trying to learn if he can take a little time on the release, or whether he's got to go and just get there. Based on his knowledge of the pattern itself, he's getting better and better."

Because of that, Zorn's West Coast system allows for Moss, more than any other receiver, to tinker his routes within a certain play. Hixon said he has to work with Moss to slow things down -- "He's not a patient guy," Hixon said -- because he sometimes is so anxious to get the ball that he cuts off a pattern at, say, 18 yards rather than the 20 it's supposed to be run. But as long as he and Campbell are communicating well, Moss can improvise a bit.

"Santana plays with imagination," Hixon said. "So as a coach, the head coach and the coordinator have got to give him some leeway to be creative. If the [defensive back] is still seeing the same route run the same way every time, they hop on it. He'll run the same route about three different ways."

To do that, though, he has to be able to run. Moss celebrated his 30th birthday, which was June 1, in fine style, with parties at a Washington nightclub and a Miami hotel, with fellow University of Miami players, Redskins, even a lingerie show. But in that ice-cold tub in the heat of an August training camp, such celebrations can seem so long ago.

"I know what I need to do to get ready," Moss said, "and that's what I'm going to do."

Staff writer Bill Oram contributed to this report.

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