Irving Fryar has said repeatedly that he is not here to be the show, he's here to be the third wide receiver, that he's here to fit in. It's nice of Fryar to be so accommodating and step so lightly as the newest Redskin. But sooner or later, the Washington Redskins are going to have to throw the ball downfield.
Okay, it's nothing to be alarmed about. The Redskins won another preseason game. The short passing game looks crisp, precise, in midseason form. The defense, particularly the defensive line, looks impressive. Champ Bailey, for the second straight game, got picked on for a few plays then said, "I may be a rookie but I wasn't born yesterday," and forced a turnover that led to Redskins' points. The Redskins are doing a lot of things right this preseason.
But here are a couple of things they're going to have to do a whole lot better: run the football and throw it down the field. Of course, both those things depend on the offensive line, which includes the left tackle, which isn't so glowing right now. If Fryar has a big buddy who can keep people off quarterback Brad Johnson for a couple of extra seconds, I don't think the Redskins would mind.
Johnson completed 12 of 24 passes for 117 yards. What that doesn't tell you is that nine of those passes went to the running backs and tight ends, which means only three (for a total of 30 yards) went to wide receivers. Part of the reason Johnson didn't go downfield is that he couldn't. Pass protection is still a problem. Buffalo defensive linemen were in his face constantly in the first half when starters were matched with starters, and that was with Bills' star nose tackle Ted Washington at home tending to the crisis of his house burning down earlier in the week.
Johnson didn't look particularly effective throwing the ball under great pressure. Then again, why would he? In Minnesota, he always played behind an offensive line studded with all-pros. He had all day to throw almost every week. Here, he has a left tackle who starts one week (Joe Patton) and can't get on the field the next. No matter how much the Redskins play musical chairs with Patton and Andy Heck, the team is unsettled at the critical position of left tackle. The Redskins' coaches are talking about Johnson getting rid of the ball in 2.8 seconds.
Also, Coach Norv Turner said after the game that Johnson was looking for the wide receiver routes to have been run a little differently. Have we heard that somewhere before? Turner didn't say so, but we've heard the coaches criticize route-running quite a bit in recent years. That's why a professional route-runner like Fryar can't get into a uniform quickly enough. Just like Johnson enjoyed great pass protection in Minnesota, he also enjoyed Cris Carter and Jake Reed's ability to get open whenever they wanted.
If the line can't hold people off and the receivers for whatever reason are struggling to run great routes or get open consistently, you've got to go to the short game.
That's not Turner's take on it, however. Asked about the lack of downfield passing, he said after the victory over the Bills, "We can call those plays when we want. But right now, we're emphasizing protection and getting rid of the ball quickly. We want a high percentage passing game."
Indeed, taking no chances with Hall of Fame-bound Bruce Smith, the Redskins did whatever necessary to hold him at bay, which means double-teaming, chipping-in with a running back, etc. It's a necessary evil. My worry about the three draft picks-for-Johnson trade all along has been whether the Redskins have the line to keep him upright. The two preseason victories, while setting the right tone for the upcoming season, don't answer that concern.
Also, there's an issue concerning the starting running back. Skip Hicks was penciled in at No. 1 to start camp. Last night, he carried nine times for 12 yards, which is average of 1.3 yards per carry. That won't cut it. Stephen Davis carried nine times for 38 yards and ran much harder. For that matter, Norm Miller (six carries, 32 yards) was more effective carrying the ball.
"Stephen Davis, he [ran with] a real sense of urgency," Turner said. "Skip, we have to get on track. He was not at his best tonight."
Fortunately for the Redskins, though, the defense was really good for the second straight week. It whitewashed the Patriots' starters in New England last week. And though nobody can really smother Doug Flutie, the Redskins' defense fought him to a standoff. The defensive line is coming along well, as Turner and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan find themselves with at least six linemen who can contribute now. Dan Wilkinson shouldn't have to lead the NFL again in number of plays by a defensive tackle.
Ndukwe Kalu, the 6-foot-3, 246-pound free agent signee from Rice, has picked up two late-hit penalties which are the kind of mistakes that can get you cut. But he rushes the passer so well, gets into the opponent's backfield and delivers such a pop, he must be a keeper. Marc Boutte, while he's been around awhile, is better than ever. And Anthony Cook, No. 75 in your program, keeps forcing his way into more playing time by stuffing one running play after another. Coaches fall in love with guys who want to earn a spot by doing serious dirty work.
The defense, from front to back, seems ready to rock and roll. Any offense that has Larry Centers and Brian Mitchell can find a way to move the ball underneath. But the Redskins aren't so explosive going downfield that we aren't wondering how things might change with Fryar in uniform the next couple of weeks.