A combination of the Redskins' pass-first offense and his own abilities as a receiver could enable Joe Washington to have one of those special seasons that few running backs have enjoyed in pro football.
"Joe can catch 60, 70, 80, who knows how many passes; he's that good," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "He's extremely difficult to cover. But defenses are going to notice that, too. They are going to try to take him away from us."
And that's where the other Redskin receivers come in. To prevent opponents from double-teaming players such as Washington and end Art Monk -- and to make Gibbs' offensive philosophy work efficiently -- the Redskins must have a fine balance among all their pass catchers. If Ricky Thompson, Virgil Seay and Co. can't hold up throughout the season, Gibbs' options will be limited severely.
Gibbs proved in the season opener against Dallas that he isn't hesitant to throw as many as 49 passes. But this isn't San Diego, and the Redskins don't have John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, as Gibbs did last season when he was the Chargers' offensive coordinator. In 1980, his quarterbacks averaged 37 passes a game.
"I think we are capable of handling a lot of passes in a game here," Gibbs said. "We are still searching for the right combinations, and how to best use people, and who does what things the best. We're not there yet. But this offense is based on reading the defense, taking what is given you. Your major receivers don't have to be your ends, nor do they have to be the halfbacks every game.
"But the balance we get, the kind of numbers we produce, will depend on whether defenses really worry about our receivers. Once they have to respect all five guys in a pattern, then you get the balance you are after."
Still, it seems likely that Gibbs, who kept only three ends, will continue to emphasize the role of his running backs as passing targets much more than he did in San Diego. For example, in the Dallas game, in which Joe Washington was employed frequently as a wide receiver, backs were responsible for 16 of the 23 Redskin completions. Thompson was shut out and Virgil Seay had two receptions.
The decision to go with such a small wide receiving corps (the majority of pro teams keep at least four ends) was made in part because backs Terry Metcalf, Wilbur Jackson and Clarence Harmon are quality receivers.
And Gibbs was swayed by the special talents of Joe Washington. Winslow (89 catches), Jefferson (82) and Joiner (71) each had more than 1,000 yards receiving last season. This year, Washington (and perhaps Monk) could be headed for the same kind of impressive statistics.
"Joe Washington is unique," Gibbs said. "He's got that ability to go down field from the backfield, and run good deep patterns. And he knows how to lower his weight and shift his feet instinctly. Once he makes his cut, he really . . . scoots."
Mike Thomas led the San Diego running backs last year with with 29 catches. But Gibbs said Winslow, because he was used so much as a receiver in place of a fullback, wound up being the target of passes that normally might have gone to someone in the backfield.
In the Redskins' offense, those passes could go now to Joe Washington, who caught 10 in the first game for 124 yards, the second-best output of his career. He already has had an 82-reception season (Baltimore, 1979), which ranks as the third best by a running back in NFL history, behind Rickey Young's 88 and Earl Cooper's 83.
And Monk could be headed for at least 60 catches.
"We pass enough that we all know balls will come our way," Thompson said. "It's up to us, obviously, to catch enough to make defenses respect us. This offense is unlimited, but we have to show it works on the field to use it to its full benefit."
This is a unique situation for Thompson, who long has been considered too fragile to be an effective receiver in the NFL. But he has maintained that, given enough opportunity, he can far exceed his career-high of 23 catches. He knows this is the year he should find out if he is right.
"I've always had confidence in my ability, but I think you have to have that," he said. "But catching passes is not the only way to help the passing offense. The way you run your patterns even when you aren't the target affects things. We are all still learning this offense. I love it, but it takes time for things to come natural. But you'll never hear a receiver complain when the ball goes up 49 times."
At least Thompson has five years of experience. Seay, who has the kind of speed to make him a deep threat, made his pro debut Sunday. At 5 feet 7, he lacks the size to stand up under a constant battering by defensive backs.
That's one reason Gibbs said tight end Rick Walker will be given additional work as a wide receiver. Ideally, the Redskins would like another receiver who matches Monk's physique (6-3, 209). At 6-4 and 230, Walker at least gives them an additional large target, even if he lacks the requisite quick moves for the position.
"There's no reason why all the receivers shouldn't be more effective in this offense," Monk said. "When you know there are going to be a lot of passes, you can get pysched up better. Last year, you had a tendency to press because you didn't know how many times we might throw. Now, it just seems a natural thing. You are much more relaxed."
And, he agreed, more tired. Thompson and Monk were so worn out by all the patterns in the Dallas game that Gibbs has told them not to hesitate to ask for a breather.
"But extra work is one thing I can get used to in a hurry," Thompson said.
Rich Milot probably won't do contact work the rest of the week. He hopes his bruised shoulder will improve enough so that he can play Sunday against the Giants . . . For a change, Gibbs was pleased with the Redskins workout yesterday, calling it "one of the best practices we've had" . . . A local restaurant treated the players to cake and ice cream after practice . . . Quarterback Joe Theismann, who has a sore thumb, looked sharper than usual in throwing drills . . . Joe Washington was sidelined by flu.