With Washington Redskins officials all but ruling out having injured tight end Stephen Alexander available for Sunday's game against Detroit, preparations began in earnest yesterday for the first major reshuffling of the offense's starting lineup.
Second-year player Mike Sellers, who has played primarily at fullback this season, took the majority of snaps at tight end. Larry Bowie was back at fullback, showing a good bit of rust after not playing in a game in 14 months. Bowie estimated he was 85 percent back to game shape after breaking two bones in his left ankle since October 1998.
Coach Norv Turner said he likely would decide during pregame warmups Sunday whether Alexander would play despite a strained hip flexor, which has helped limit him to one reception in the last two games. He won't practice until Friday, at the earliest.
Said Turner, only half in jest: "How much will we use Stephen? I'd like to have Stephen available obviously on third downs. And on first downs. And second downs, too."
But given the uncertainty, Turner is preparing to do without him.
It has been a frustrating season for Alexander, who showed tremendous promise as a rookie last season with his sure hands and unusual speed. He had worked on his blocking skills and bulked up in the offseason to become more versatile at the position. With neither of the Redskins' starting wide receivers having played 16-game seasons, he figured to be a prime target of quarterback Brad Johnson this season.
But Alexander has been hampered by injuries, starting with a knee in the back against Dallas, and has been held to 23 catches and three touchdowns. His latest setback, the strained hip flexor, feels almost like a muscle cramp, he said, which prevents him from moving his leg normally.
As the Redskins' most reliable receiving tight end, Alexander serves as a threat inside and helps dissuade defenses from double-teaming the outside receivers. With his speed, he also helps stretch defenses, which in turn helps the running game.
While playing Sunday wouldn't necessarily hurt him further, it might not help the Redskins, either.
"It is not threatening to him in any way, shape or form," said tight ends coach Michael Pope. "It's just a matter of how effective he can be. If he isn't able to use his speed and get behind the linebacker and stretch the defense, it's a double-edged sword. It doesn't help us that much, and it certainly is not giving him the best chance."
The adjustment represents the first major offensive shuffling this season. The only change to the starting lineup so far was a straight swap: Brad Badger taking over at left guard for Keith Sims, who missed two starts with a knee injury. The continuity on both the offensive line and at skill positions has been a key factor in the success of the Redskins' offense, ranked second in the NFL.
"It hurts any time we lose someone--especially when it's Stephen Alexander," said Brad Johnson. "He is a threat all over the field. Everyone has to pay attention to him."
The result means plenty of work for Sellers and Bowie in a short practice week. Detroit has rested since its Thanksgiving day victory over Chicago and boasts one of the fastest, most effective defensive fronts in the NFL (ranked fifth against the run).
For Sellers, the challenge is largely tuning out what he has done at fullback. At 6 feet 3 and 260 pounds, he has thrown some huge blocks for running back Stephen Davis this season. Things happen faster at tight end, and the tempo will seem even faster on the Pontiac Silverdome turf.
"It's entirely different when you're in the backfield," Pope said. "You're not going to approach the defender quite as fast. You have time to judge or measure a guy when you have a running start at him. When you're less than a foot or two feet away from him [at tight end], one wrong step and he could be around you."
Sellers, 24, became the youngest player to sign with the CFL at age 19 after one year at Walla Walla Community College. He is more comfortable at fullback, where he has the most experience. But Turner expressed confidence in his ability, and Sellers and Pope stayed after practice yesterday to work on plays.
"The thing I like about Mike: He wants to be good so bad that he'll do anything you ask him to do," Turner said. "He is relentless. When he has had setbacks for some reason because of his lack of experience, he hasn't let those keep him from working and saying, 'Hey, I'm going to get this done.' "
While Bowie has worked on the scout team since being re-activated last month, he isn't in game shape.
"He hasn't gone full speed, he hasn't gone and blocked people," Turner said. "He has been getting a little work [in practice], but it was noticeably different when he was in there in the first group and going. He just needs to focus in."
Bowie will play with a brace on his lower leg. He broke his left fibula Oct. 4, 1998, against Dallas and was placed on injured reserve two days later. Before the final preseason game of this season, he broke another bone in the same area during practice.
"I feel like I'm starting over," Bowie said. "It's two years that I've been out. I'm trying to get back in shape. It's hard, but I'm going to get out there and see what I can do."