By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 1:13 AM
At 38, defensive end Phillip Daniels is older than seven of the Washington Redskins' assistant coaches and every player in the locker room. As the season has worn on and the losses have piled up, he has seen that age gap only grow larger.
"It does feel a lot more youthful. I'm the oldest guy on the team. I don't really got those guys that I can relate to," he said with a chuckle. "I just go home and go to sleep."
The Redskins began the season with the league's oldest roster. Though the team features 17 players who celebrate birthdays during the course of the season, the roster is actually younger than the one that opened this campaign. The Redskins are now the fourth-oldest NFL team, behind Minnesota, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Washington entered its season opener against the Dallas Cowboys with a roster featuring an average age of 28.1 years. The group that will travel to Dallas this weekend for a rematch is 27.3 years old, and they are significantly younger at several starting positions and among some key contributors.
Since he was hired as head coach, Mike Shanahan has been hesitant to speak the word "rebuilding" about his first team in Washington. Now that the Redskins are 5-8, mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and assured that they'll fail to post a winning record for the ninth time in the past 11 years, the final three weeks of the season amount to an audition for a group of young players. Many also have been thrust into more prominent roles because of injuries or poor performance by older starters.
"There's a lot to do in the offseason relative to the draft and free agency, as we all know," Shanahan said Monday. "And we still got three games of evaluation against three pretty good football teams. We'll get a good feel of who will be with us after we take a look at the next three games and how our players play."
Teams that are truly rebuilding tend to field much younger rosters. The Tampa Bay squad that beat the Redskins, 17-16, on Sunday, for example, is coming off a 3-13 season in 2009 and last weekend featured the youngest roster in the NFL. The Buccaneers' average age is just 25; their roster features 26 players in their rookie, second or third years in the league. The Bucs are now 8-5 and in the hunt for a wild-card berth.
The Redskins won't soon be mistaken for a team relying on a youth movement to turn the corner, but as the season has progressed, injuries and lineup changes have forced the Redskins to get younger. The various roster moves have given coaches a chance to evaluate several young players and better determine who might serve as building blocks for 2011.
"What you have to do is evaluate these players," Shanahan said. "If players keep on making mistakes like they're making, then you make a decision to go a different direction."
Shanahan pointed Monday to three offensive linemen - rookie left tackle Trent Williams, a first-round pick; left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, who is 25 and in his second full year; and 27-year-old right guard Will Montgomery - as players who have taken advantage of the situation. Lichtensteiger beat out 30-year-old Derrick Dockery in Week 3 and Montgomery took over for veteran Artis Hicks, 32, earlier this month.
"You're hoping that these players grow and at the end of the season are playing pretty good football," Shanahan said. "And they make mistakes, but they've made them full-speed, and you see, obviously, potential and what they can do."
Thus, four of the Redskins' offensive starters are now 25 or younger. There has also been change in the starting lineup at the skill positions, where 27-year-old Anthony Armstrong has supplanted 39-year-old Joey Galloway, 24-year-old Ryan Torain plays in place of 29-year-old Clinton Portis and 24-year-old James Davis is the backup tailback instead of 31-year-old Larry Johnson, who was cut in September.
The Redskins' team that beat the Cowboys to start the year had 10 starters over the age of 30. The group that lost the nail-biter to Tampa Bay featured only six. After starting the year with only two 2010 draft picks on the roster, the Redskins now have four - plus three undrafted rookies: wide receiver/returner Brandon Banks, running back Keiland Williams and tight end Logan Paulsen, who caught a touchdown pass against the Buccaneers.
"I think it's a good mix," said Armstrong, a first-year player who took over as a starting receiver in Week 5. "I think in some key positions, we have age where it's good to mentor and it makes it easier on everybody else. In some positions we have a lot of youth where it provides a lot of hunger and a lot of energy."
With youth comes youthful indiscretions. In just the second game of his career last month, rookie linebacker Perry Riley had a costly penalty that nullified a touchdown against Minnesota. On Sunday, Banks - who has proven to be a game-breaker as a returner - caught a punt inside his own 10-yard line rather than letting it bounce, giving the Redskins poor field position.
Armstrong thinks back to his professional debut against Dallas in September and can pinpoint two passes thrown his way in the end zone that would have been touchdowns if he had used better technique.
"I took that with me throughout the rest of the season," he said. "I try to attack the ball differently now."
Injuries and other circumstances already have forced young players into unfamiliar roles. With defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth suspended for the final four games, nose tackle Anthony Bryant saw his most significant playing time of the season in Sunday's loss to the Bucs. Second-year cornerback Kevin Barnes also has played more while Carlos Rogers's hamstrings heal and safety LaRon Landry has been sidelined by an Achilles' tendon problem that, Shanahan said Monday, will end his season.
Perhaps the best hope Sunday came from the backfield. With Portis finishing a second straight season on injured reserve, Washington's running back position beyond 2010 appears to be a bit of a question mark. But Torain, playing for the first time since injuring his hamstring on Oct. 31, ran for 172 yards on 24 carries, the most rushing yards gained by any NFL running back this week and the sixth most this season.
"The big question for Ryan: Can he stay healthy and do it consistently?" Shanahan said. "I think we saw yesterday what he's capable of doing."
Capabilities, Shanahan knows, are good. But the bigger question becomes: As the Redskins get younger, will they get better?
"Going from four wins [in 2009] to a chance to win a Super Bowl takes some time," Shanahan said. "It doesn't happen overnight. It's a day-by-day process."