By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Whenever the ball found its way into Fred Davis's hands, an onslaught of words quickly found its way into his ears. With each touch at Saturday morning's practice, tight ends coach Scott Wachenheim made sure Davis heard the message. Again and again.
"Hold on to it!" he'd yell. "Cover it up!" "Protect the ball!"
Davis, who fumbled twice in the Washington Redskins' preseason opener Thursday against the Baltimore Ravens, says he didn't really need a reminder -- it's not like he's trying to fumble. "Fumbling, to me, it feels like someone just died," Davis said. But the coach's bellowing underscores the hopes and expectations the tight end and his suddenly suspect hands carry.
In Coach Jim Zorn's first season, he didn't have the personnel to run his preferred brand of a high-powered, multifaceted West Coast offense. One key to executing such an offense this season is the Redskins' ability to have two tight ends on the field at the same time.
Davis was one of the team's three second-round draft picks in 2008, but he had minimal impact as a rookie. Coaches are counting on him to play a bigger role this year. The team has spent a lot of time these past two weeks experimenting with Davis and starting tight end Chris Cooley.
"We're going to basically put the 11 guys on the field who give us the best opportunity on offense," Cooley said. "If both Fred and I are a part of that, then that's great. But I think we want all 11 guys to be able to contribute and play good football."
But Davis will have to show coaches that he is ready. He didn't do that in the Redskins' first preseason game. In fact, depending on how you view it, it was Davis who largely fumbled away the team's best chance of making it a competitive game.
In the second quarter, quarterback Todd Collins and the Redskins were in the midst of their longest drive of the night. After crossing the 50-yard line, Collins hit Davis for a 13-yard gain when linebacker Prescott Burgess rocked Davis and jarred the ball free.
"A hit is a hit. I still should've caught it," Davis said. "My job is to hold on to the ball."
Fortunately for the Redskins, Davis recovered the fumble. Unfortunately for the Redskins, the same thing was about to happen again.
Three plays later, on third and 11 from the Ravens 35-yard line, Collins hit Davis with a short pass over the middle. It wasn't a clean catch, though, and it didn't take much for safety Tom Zbikowski to pop the ball loose.
The Ravens recovered the ball on their 31 and scored a touchdown in the closing seconds of the quarter, giving Baltimore a 13-0 halftime lead. That drive was the closest the Redskins came to the end zone all night.
"Could've been a touchdown on that drive. Who knows?" Davis said. "Even though it's a preseason game, it seems like a little thing, but it's a big thing. It's such a big change in the game."
Leading up to the preseason opener, Davis had played a much more prominent role in training camp.
A year ago, he wasn't even listed as an active player for the team's Week 1 game at the New York Giants. He got off to a rocky start with coaches when he overslept and missed a minicamp practice shortly after being drafted. And throughout the season, coaches weren't sure he was picking up the offense and saw little consistency from him in practice.
But this year, coaches have complimented Davis's work ethic since minicamp, and he has had a steady stream of balls thrown his way since players reported to camp more than two weeks ago.
"The thing that I think he was excited about was that we continued to do that in the game," Zorn said. "Now, I think he realizes that a full-speed NFL game is different than full-speed practice and putting the ball away -- making sure he secures that -- is something that was a learning lesson for him."
If he can master that -- and Davis says he fumbled just once in four years at Southern California -- the Redskins have big plans for their 6-foot-4, 257-pound tight end. If Davis can help with pass protection, Cooley might be freed up and have more opportunities for receptions. With few options last season, the Redskins are desperate to identify both a downfield target -- presumably a flanker, such as Devin Thomas or Malcolm Kelly -- and another receiver for short-yardage situations.
To prepare for that, not only has Zorn been tinkering with a two-tight-end set, he has put Cooley at wide receiver at times and Davis at fullback other times. Both have been sent into motion and both have been used as blocking backs.
"Look what you can already do with just Chris Cooley's ability," offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said of his Pro Bowl tight end. "He can line up at receiver and run routes, and you get good matchups. Most defenses will stay in the same personnel groups, so you get these mismatches that will help the passing game and the run, too."
Cooley already owns four of the top five receiving seasons ever posted by a Redskins tight end. He knows adding Davis to the mix could open the field even more for him.
"Since Coach Zorn got here, this hasn't really been a two-tight-end offense," Cooley said. "So a lot of what we're doing right now is experimenting and seeing who can do what. Seeing if I can play a receiver position or Fred can be in the backfield. Just moving us all over and seeing what works.
"I think we'll stay pretty basic in the preseason and maybe try do some other things down the road."
That's similar to the goal coaches set before last season. But it didn't take them long to accept their limitations. What's different this year, coaches say, is that offensive players have had a year to learn the system's basic tenets, and the coaches have time to install new concepts and new positions one at a time.
"Last year was kind of a tough transition for Fred, all the stuff we were asking him to do," Smith said. "What we've had to do was really limit what we're asking him to do. There are so many things we're asking of him. So we can limit him a bit, and he can feel like he can go full speed the way we want him to do."
Davis says he already feels comfortable juggling roles in the offense. At Rogers High in Toledo, he played wide receiver, running back, quarterback and strong safety. And when he settled in as a tight end at USC, he was often used in two-tight-end formations.
"You never know what's happening," Davis said. "It adds an extra blocker. There's more motion. The defense has to switch up their personnel. Linebacker's got to worry about more things. It just adds so much."