If the preseason serves as a measure of an NFL team's maturation, the Washington Redskins' 3-1 campaign, which concluded with Friday's 16-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, revealed a defense that has come together in dramatic fashion and an offense that is still finding its footing.
But against Tampa Bay, which entered the game with the NFL's stingiest defense and most productive offense, the Redskins and quarterback Brad Johnson learned a few things about themselves that should serve them well in the regular season.
In playing the Buccaneers close, the Redskins' offense tested a few new weapons with good results: A no-huddle offense, for one, and several three-wide receiver sets that made use of recently acquired veteran Irving Fryar.
The game also illustrated a few glitches that the Redskins must address in the practices that remain before the Sept. 12 regular season opener against Dallas. The Redskins had kept penalties and mistakes to a minimum through most of the preseason. But Friday, the offense had a botched formation on third and three and was called for two false starts and roughing the passer.
Finally, the preseason finale served as one more step toward Johnson becoming acclimated to a new system and surroundings.
"I think that Brad will improve a great deal as he plays a whole game because he's not gotten the chance at some of the plays he's capable of making," Coach Norv Turner said. "I feel good with the group. In six weeks, we're going to be a lot better than we are now. But most teams have some things they've got to still work out right now."
While Johnson's surgically repaired knee was a concern entering training camp, it doesn't appear to have hampered his play. He wears a knee brace, sits out one practice every week to 10 days and ices the area immediately after each game. In five preseason quarters, Johnson was 27 of 52 for 308 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Turner was particularly pleased with Johnson's command of the no-huddle offense, employed for the first 10 plays against the Buccaneers. "It gave us a little change-up," Turner said. "We can run the ball out of it; we can throw the ball out of it; you can use it to change up a game."
Johnson predicted the tactic would be used on occasion during the regular season.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that we'll begin with it the first series," Johnson said. "It could be the first series of the second half. It's great because we were able to communicate and pick up protections."
While just one of Johnson's two drives Friday produced points (the first ended with a missed field goal attempt and the second was capped by a successful 36-yard kick), Johnson said he was satisfied with the way the offense moved the ball. The unit picked up four first downs in its first series and another on a 40-yard carry by Stephen Davis in the next series.
Turner said he thought part of the reason the offense struggled to score from the red zone was the difficulty of game planning during the preseason. That's because teams show different defensive looks in the preseason, he said, making it tricky to counter.
"A lot of teams go away from what they like the most to try to break tendencies," Turner said. "When you get to the season, they get back to tendencies real fast. It's a little easier to game plan."
The Redskins' offensive attack has been balanced. That is virtually a necessity because the roster lacks an overpowering weapon, with neither a dominant running back nor wide receiver.
Davis carried 30 times for 151 yards (5.0-yard per carry average) and one touchdown in the preseason. Skip Hicks, whom Davis edged for the starting job, carried 42 times for 164 yards (3.9-yard average) and two touchdowns.
Fullback Larry Centers caught the most balls in the preseason (11). Wide receivers Albert Connell and Michael Westbrook had eight and six receptions, respectively.
"I don't think we're a powerhouse type of team where we're just going to be a one-dimensional type of team," Johnson said. "I think we're going to have to mix it up, like we've done. I think that's going to be a key to it."
While Johnson noted that five quarters of football is hardly the basis for predicting the potency of an offense, he said he felt that the Redskins' offense was steadily coming together. Certainly Johnson is feeling more at home.
"The first day of practice, it was just hard calling a play in the huddle," said Johnson, acquired in a February trade with Minnesota. "Coming into a new system, having to forget everything that you've known. . . . Where to line up in the huddle? Who are the guys I'm playing with? It sounds kind of funny. But it's been a big change for me."
Redskins Notes: Tight end Stephen Alexander resumed practicing yesterday after missing two weeks with a sprained knee ligament. Defensive end Anthony Cook filled in for Kenard Lang (ankle), who is expected to rejoin practices Monday. Both Alexander and Lang will be ready to play against Dallas, Turner said.
CAPTION: In the final preseason game Friday, the Redskins used a three-wide receiver set that included Irving Fryar.