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The Washington Redskins have sunk below their depth

Tight ends Chris Cooley, left, and Fred Davis, give the Redskins their only depth at any position on the roster.
Tight ends Chris Cooley, left, and Fred Davis, give the Redskins their only depth at any position on the roster. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 12:46 AM

There's no mysterious jinx, no hex hovering over the Washington Redskins. The explanation for why they annually collapse is simple: They aren't very deep. For a few fleeting moments this season, the Redskins had a veneer of quality. The problem was that it was a thin veneer, easily punctured, and there wasn't much below the surface. When you look at the roster, there just isn't a whole lot of team there.

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The Redskins' bumbling - the fumbled snaps, the mismanaged clocks, the missed tackles - is the natural extension of a decade of haplessness in the front office. Stupid mistakes are what happen when any organization is chronically understaffed and overstressed. That's why no matter who the Redskins sign or hire, their individual saviors are unable to change the culture of failure - instead the culture seems to change them. The Redskins screwed up the most basic gimme in football on Sunday, an extra point, because no one on the field could feel very confident in the people around him.

The Redskins are under duress at virtually every position on the field. A cascade of troubles, a domino effect, results from the fundamental fact that the Redskins lack some crucial actors. When certain players are injured or don't perform well, it puts the entire organization under enormous pressure. That's why they invariably erode about eight games into every season. Their record in the second half of the schedule over the past three seasons is now 5-16. When they get a little banged up, the whole thing caves in. "I thought we'd be further ahead," Chris Cooley said last week. "It seems to me we've diminished a little the last couple of weeks. Teams that win fight through adversity."

Name a position at which the Redskins are comfortably deep. Go on, try. I can name one: tight end. Cooley, Fred Davis and Logan Paulsen give the Redskins quality depth. Now try to name a position at which they are set with young players for the foreseeable future. You can't do it.

Now ask yourself the most worrisome questions of all: Who on the current roster would you keep? Who could you trade something for?

As this so-called rebuilding season wears on, it becomes more apparent each day just how much damage owner Dan Snyder and his playmate Vinny Cerrato truly did with their Toys R Us buying sprees. In the last eight years the Redskins have traded away 22 draft picks for high-priced free agents, most of whom were busts. Instead of building patiently and professionally through the draft, acquiring layers of young talent, they threw the future away on crackpipe dreams such as Jason Taylor.

Had those 22 picks been kept in hand and used with even halfway sound professional judgment, the Redskins would be in a different position today. Instead they will have to sweep their last three games just to finish 8-8. And they appear to be at least two more years away from pursuing Snyder's stated mandate, winning a Super Bowl.

It's hard to overstate the reverberating effects of those lost drafts, and the pressure they still create today, on the field. The Redskins have pressing needs at offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, secondary, wide receiver and running back. Name another team in the NFL with that many downright needs. And they have exactly seven draft picks.

For all of that, there are some reasons to feel the Redskins are finally on the right track. It has only taken a single season for Mike Shanahan to lay down the most important paving stone of all, basic managerial competence. He has established the independent authority of the coaching staff, scrubbed the locker room of its toxic mold of entitlement and established some long-needed discipline.

He's shown a creative ability to find and use talent lying at the bottom of the pile, in guys like Brandon Banks and Anthony Armstrong. He promised his zone-blocking scheme would eventually pay off, and it did as a battered offensive line still managed to open huge holes for Ryan Torain, with 172 yards against the Bucs. There are healthy signs that the offense's biggest problem, a basic lack rhythm and cohesion, might eventually be solved. "When you have holes like that everybody is playing pretty good - wide receivers, obviously the offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks," Shanahan said. "In the National Football League, when you have those types of holes . . . guys do a lot of things right."

There is of course plenty to second guess in what Shanahan has done this season. It's hard to tell whether Donovan McNabb was the acquisition they hoped he would be, or whether they mortgaged more of the team's future in giving up a draft pick for him. We can't yet know whether the new 3-4 defense, flatly a short-term failure given the personnel they had available, is the right thing for the long term. But on the other hand is there ever a good time to change entire schemes?

For this to be anything other than a transitional season, Shanahan and his staff needed to guess right on some guys, and be a little lucky in staying healthy. They didn't, and they weren't. The Redskins simply aren't a team that can go into a game with 11 players listed as questionable with injuries, as they did on Sunday, and come away with a victory.

But though the Redskins have no tangible goal to play for over the last three games that doesn't make them meaningless exercises. "It's important to continue to keep fighting and gain that confidence for each and every person because I think it's important that we lead that into next year," McNabb said.

It's obvious that Shanahan sees them as a chance to lay down another paving stone, a standard of basic professional performance. If nothing else, the players in the Redskins clubhouse understand the level expected of them if they want to stay on the roster. "What you look for is guys playing extremely hard," Shanahan said. "And if they're not playing hard they're part of the problem, not part of the solution."


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