The first sign that safety Ifeanyi Ohalete's future with the Washington Redskins was in jeopardy came in early March, when newly acquired tailback Clinton Portis flashed Ohalete's number 26 jersey during his introductory news conference at Redskins Park. In late April, the Redskins drafted Sean Taylor to start at free safety, forcing Matt Bowen to his natural position at strong safety and displacing Ohalete.
Despite starting 15 games last season, Ohalete entered training camp third on the depth chart behind Bowen and Todd Franz. And after struggling in Washington's two preseason games against second- and third-stringers, Ohalete's brief Redskins tenure screeched to a halt yesterday morning when he was released.
"I kind of saw it coming. I'm sure everybody saw it coming," said Ohalete, who signed with Washington in 2002 as an undrafted free agent from Southern Cal. "So it wasn't too much of a surprise."
The move marked a sudden downfall for Ohalete, who amassed a career-high 105 tackles (including 72 solo) while intercepting three passes (second-most on the club) last season. He also contributed significantly on special teams.
Ohalete is the first major cut during training camp by Coach Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, and his release exemplifies how a player's performance last season has minimal relevance to the new Redskins' coaching staff. "Every day is an interview for all of us, including coaches," said Williams, who surprisingly released middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter this summer. "That's part of this league. He [Ohalete] worked his tail off. These guys here are working hard. We're not trying to send any messages."
Williams said that by releasing Ohalete now, the Redskins were improving his chances of landing a job with another team before the start of the season. However, several returning Redskins said they believed that Ohalete's release provides additional evidence that there will be more surprises before the team's final roster is set.
The Redskins, who have more than 90 players in camp, must trim the roster to 65 by Aug. 31. The regular season roster must be down to 53 by Sept. 5.
"They don't care what you've done in the past," right guard Randy Thomas said. "You've got to re-prove yourself. If you don't you're probably going to be released or cut. It's just so obvious that that's what they're looking for: guys who are going to play hard and run the system right. It's all about the system."
Gibbs, who informed Ohalete of the decision shortly before the 9 a.m. practice yesterday, said the team takes in "a total context" when deciding when to cut a player. "It's everything," Gibbs said. "One thing that impacts us is the other players that you have at that position. It could be probably 101 issues. I think what you do is discuss the whole situation.
"In Ifea's case, we thought it would be a lot better for us now to make a decision for him early."
"Every new coach that brings in a different scheme will bring in different type of players to fit that system," Ohalete said. "Maybe that has something to do with it. I didn't fit the mold or live up to their standards. I respect what they did, letting me go early. They know I can play in this league, and this gives me another opportunity."
Offensive lineman Brandon Winey's release on Monday barely registered a blip when the team added offensive lineman Marcus Spriggs. But the decision was just as surprising as the one involving Ohalete because Winey was let go instead of other offensive linemen in training camp who have never played an NFL game. Late last season, Winey performed well, starting three games for an injured Chris Samuels as the Redskins improved their pass protection. Winey played in 11 games overall, and was considered a solid reserve. But an ankle sprain hindered the third-year player.
"If you're not on the field I don't think you can make the team," Thomas said. "I was a bit surprised, but I think this team is so looking forward and trying to get things done quick, that they can't wait on you. They brought in another guy who's healthy."
Team Vice President Vinny Cerrato said: "There are new guys here that are competing. It's a competitive environment and there's only so many jobs."
Wide receiver Cliff Russell and fullback Rock Cartwright are two returning players whose situation is tenuous because the staff hasn't yet decided if they fit into the team's new offensive schemes.
Cartwright is coming off a solid season starting at fullback and specializing in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Because of injuries last season, Cartwright temporarily started at tailback (three games) and finished with a career-high 411 rushing yards on 107 carries.
However, fullbacks are rarely used in Gibbs's two-tight end offense. Cartwright has shed 20 pounds, dropping to 210 to become more agile while attempting to make the roster as a tailback.
"I try not to worry about stuff I can't control," said Cartwright, who rushed for a team-high four touchdowns last season. "Last year really doesn't matter. It's what I've been doing so far in the preseason and in training camp."
Despite a bevy of talented wide receivers last season, Russell was ensured a spot because of his relatively high draft status -- a 2002 third-round pick -- and speed tailor-made for former coach Steve Spurrier's offense.
In his first NFL training camp session, Russell suffered a season-ending knee injury. Last season, he was active for only three games, and caught two passes for 10 yards. Now, Russell is suffering from a hamstring ailment that won't allow him to practice before next week. "My main focus is getting well," Russell said yesterday, "so I can get back on the field and have a chance to make this team. It's pretty frustrating."
. . . cut despite 105 tackles and 3 interceptions last season.