Whatever concerns the Washington Redskins have so far in training camp, quarterback isn't one of them. For a change, quarterback shouldn't be a mini-drama. There's no late-signing bonus baby to groom, no late-round draft pick to evaluate, no unknown quantity lurking in the shadows. The franchise that has had numerous starting quarterbacks in recent seasons and more celebrated quarterback controversies than any other NFL team, is as settled as can be at the game's most important position.
Brad Johnson, the starter, is having a better camp than the coaches dared dream. Rodney Peete, the No. 2, is so comfortable running the offense, it's as if the schemes were made specifically for him. The third-stringer, Casey Weldon, is a 30-year-old who has enough skills and experience to be the No. 2 man for more than a few teams.
One of the reasons morale is so high is that balls aren't hitting the ground left and right. Norv Turner's frustration level is way down now that he has three quarterbacks who make the right reads and proper decisions.
Johnson, though he is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, has been so good these first two weeks the coaches are raving, almost in disbelief. Some of the veteran assistants say Johnson has been the easiest-to-coach quarterback they've seen in many, many years. "When we made the deal to get Brad," Turner said, "I knew we were getting a really good veteran quarterback. But he's been a lot better than I thought he was. He's awfully talented."
Of course, talent isn't the issue with Johnson; injuries are. He's a big (6 feet 5, 225 pounds) strong, tough guy who has been forced to the sideline more than a couple of times with injuries. The reason Johnson became expendable to the Minnesota Vikings is that injuries forced him out of action twice last year, allowing Randall Cunningham to have the best season of his career.
Anybody who was paying attention in 1996 and 1997, when Johnson threw for a total of 5,300 yards, 37 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, knew the Redskins were getting a Pro Bowl-caliber player. But there are more than a few folks--your friendly neighborhood columnist included--who believe the Redskins gave up a whole, whole lot (a No. 1 draft pick, a No. 2 and a No. 3) to get him. The cynic asks, legitimately, "If Minnesota's offensive line, arguably the league's best, couldn't keep Johnson out of sick bay, how is Washington's leaky line going to keep him out of harm's way?"
It's apparent that left tackle isn't as resolved for the Redskins as quarterback is. While a quarterback can suffer a serious injury without even being hit, about the most serious problem a right-handed quarterback can have is uncertainty at left tackle. The No. 1 left tackle on the depth chart is Andy Heck, a terrific player for many years, but most recently cut by the sorry, no-account Chicago Bears and vulnerable to a challenge here from Joe Patton. Asked this week how concerned he is about keeping Johnson upright, Turner said: "There are some things we'll do to protect Brad." Clearly, this is a topic that has been on the coaches' minds since Day 1 of camp.
While the Redskins' scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday mainly matched third- and fourth-stringers, one couldn't help noticing how Turner has tinkered with the passing game. In Minnesota, Johnson could hold the ball quite a while because the line was like a fortress. Not here, though. "He has to speed up his drops," Turner said, "and he can't hold on to the ball as long as he did in Minnesota."
Also, the team's most proven receiver is a fullback, free agent acquisition Larry Centers. The team also is expecting big things from second-year tight end Stephen Alexander. That means shorter, quick-hitting passes. That helps negate whatever advantage a pass rush appears to have. All three of the Redskins' quarterbacks move well and are comfortable throwing while running, meaning the team can use more bootlegs, more misdirection, anything to slow the pass rush. That was very evident during Weldon's 14-for-15 passing performance Saturday. Players such as Centers and fullback Larry Bowie have been ecstatic over how Johnson's accurate short passing allows them to catch the ball in full stride, giving them momentum and room in the open field. "The tight ends and fullbacks are finding the ball is not only catchable," Turner said, "but exactly where it needs to be for them to make a move."
Of course, the best thing a team can do to prepare for a possible injury to its No. 1 quarterback--regardless of the team or the quarterback--is to have a No. 2 guy who can come in and start a half-dozen games or so if necessary. Peete, 33, has a 37-35 record as a starter, compiling that record with some up-and-down Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles teams. He was 9-3 as a starter with the Eagles in 1995. He has thrown for more than 13,000 yards in his 10 years in the league. After Peete's one season in Dallas (1994), Turner wanted to bring Peete to Washington to start while the Redskins groomed Heath Shuler. But it couldn't be worked out. The Redskins went with John Friesz, and Peete went to Philadelphia.
"Rodney has really taken to this offense," Turner said. "The thing about him is he has such composure. He's played a long time, he knows his way around. He's a little bit of a streak passer, but when he gets it going, he really gets it going."
During the next two weeks, we figure to see plenty of Peete and to some extent Johnson. Assuming Johnson starts the season opener against the Cowboys, he'll be the Redskins' seventh starting quarterback in six years, following Mark Rypien, Friesz, Shuler, Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler and Trent Green. "I know there's been something of a revolving door here," Johnson said. "But I'm excited about what's going on here. . . . I'm moving around very well right now."