Trench Rot

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It's not Jason Campbell who should be the talk around office water coolers the rest of the week. It's not Jim Zorn's bizarre "benching" of Clinton Portis that should be the chatter that fills the airwaves and Internet sites. What ails the Washington Redskins more than anything else is simple, even if it's not a sexy topic. It's the line play, silly. The Redskins' line play, on both sides of the ball, is completely inadequate.

The offensive line didn't measure up before Chris Samuels was pronounced out for the season and before Jon Jansen had a sprained knee diagnosed, and it figures to be a huge problem over the final three games of the season.

Only three quarterbacks in the NFL had been sacked more than the Redskins' Campbell entering Week 14, which of course is an indictment of the offensive line. The Redskins can't generate even a decent pass rush with their front four, which of course is an indictment of the defensive line, as is the fact that power teams have simply trampled the Redskins in fourth quarters.

Playing in the power division of a power conference, the Redskins can't play power football. They've looked downright puny in losing to the Giants twice, the Ravens, the Steelers and the Cowboys once Dallas realized the way to beat the Redskins is go right through them. All those are power football teams, and they've handed the Redskins five of their six losses. In any game where the other guy is playing power football, the Redskins are going to be overmatched. And that adds up to, well, 8-8, which is what the Redskins will probably be after they end the season with losses to the Eagles and 49ers.

Don't tell me this is about the quarterback, which is the overly simplistic and completely naive story line Washingtonians traditionally fall in love with. We knew Campbell, in his first full season as a starter, would be a work in progress, and he is. But what he needs is the time to go through his progressions. What he has, operating behind a line that can be pushed around, is barely enough time to throw to his first read.

Look, nobody wanted to believe what Clinton Portis said on the eve of the season about this team's offensive line being average at best, but Portis was right. It's not that his linemen can't play well enough some weeks and it's not that they can give any more than they have; it's that individually and collectively they're not good enough.

Portis, who is unquestionably the heart, soul and MVP of this year's team, hasn't had an easy yard all year. The great majority of his yards have been a struggle. If Zorn doesn't realize Portis's willingness to fight for every yard is the greatest asset this team has, then I'm still left to wonder what kind of head coach Zorn will be.

But all that stuff, Zorn vs. Portis and Campbell's evolution, is secondary. The lack of great line play is primary, and it's the fault of the people selecting the talent. No fault will be found in this space with Jansen and Chris Samuels, who've played admirably over the years and usually pretty darn well, as anchors no less. No, this is a failure of judgment by the people who procure talent. For the better part of 10 years the Redskins have been obsessed with drafting receivers at the expense of both lines, and it's showing now.

Repeatedly, they've traded draft choices for receivers or reached in the draft to take receivers who weren't worth selecting high. The last time the Redskins took a lineman in the first or second round of the draft was 2000 when they selected Samuels with the third overall pick (behind LaVar Arrington). They took Jansen with a second-round pick in 1999, behind Champ Bailey.

Since then? They took wide receiver Taylor Jacobs with a second-round pick in 2003 and he gave the team nothing. They took wide receiver Cliff Russell in the third round in 2002. They took Rod Gardner, who had an okay but brief run, 15th overall in 2001. A couple of years ago they traded a third- and a fourth-round pick for Brandon Lloyd, who was a disaster for the minute-and-a-half he was here. And of course, in 2008 they took three pass-catchers -- Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Malcolm Kelly -- who together don't have 20 catches this season.

Yes, Jason Campbell needed receivers, but the Redskins essentially picked three knuckleheads, pass-catchers who still haven't convinced the coaches they know the plays. Imagine if the team had used those picks on linemen over the years? Imagine if they'd simply used the two picks they dealt to the 49ers for Lloyd on linemen. A team playing a power division like the NFC East can't go the better part of a decade without using a single high pick on a player who can protect the quarterback. The Redskins knew they were old and injured on the offensive line when they went into the draft and did nothing.

And on defense, they haven't selected a player like Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth, who might be the league's defensive player of the year. You think the Redskins could generate a little more pass rush up front if they'd used a third-round pick to take Justin Tuck, as the Giants did in 2005? Or Mathias Kiwanuka with the first pick in 2006? Perhaps Campbell might have a little bit more time to go through his progressions if the Redskins had taken Chris Snee, as the Giants did in the second round in 2004, or David Diehl, as the Giants did in the fifth round in 2003.

The Giants can rush the passer, protect their own quarterback and stop the run when it is necessary to do so in the fourth quarter. The Redskins cannot. Drafting and trading for receivers, especially ones who aren't ready to play by the end of their rookie seasons, doesn't help you do any of the above.

The Redskins' failure to contend this year has precious little to do with quarterback play, how desperately the players want to win or Zorn's play-calling. Every minute spent examining those things is needlessly diverting precious time from addressing what's actually wrong with the team.

If the Redskins spend the next two offseasons acquiring (mostly through the draft) offensive and defensive linemen they might be able to protect Campbell and stop running backs like Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber from embarrassing them. But if they continue to stupidly waste draft picks on receivers year after year we'll be talking next December and the December after that, too, about why the Redskins can't handle teams that are talented and tough in the trenches.

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