A host of characters has been stepping forward this season to take responsibility for the Washington Redskins' poor offense. Coach Joe Gibbs does so with regularity at his Monday afternoon news conferences, while quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Clinton Portis have taken turns shouldering the blame. The offensive line has accepted criticism for its blocking mishaps and the wide receivers have done the same for dropping passes and failing to get open.
But one part of the offense has been largely overlooked: the tight ends and H-backs who are central to Gibbs's approach to the running and passing game. They are among the least productive players at their positions in the NFL.
Some of their anemic output is attributable to their heavy blocking duties and the overall struggles of the offense. But the tight ends and H-backs have not been much of an asset to the passing attack -- a collective failure that contributed to the release of starting tight end Walter Rasby last week.
With only 15 total receptions for 140 yards among the four primary tight ends and H-backs through six games, and with the Redskins sporting a 2-4 record and the league's 28th-rated passing offense entering today's game against Green Bay at FedEx Field, there is abundant room for improvement.
"Their production is not where we'd like it to be," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "And I think eventually, particularly our 'H,' will get more involved. Yes, we would like more production there, but it's not all their fault."
Only three teams have fewer combined receptions among their tight ends (many teams do not use an H-back, a hybrid fullback and tight end, to the extent the Redskins do) even though Washington has a total of five tight ends and H-backs dressed for many games. That group has included Rasby, Chris Cooley, Robert Royal, Mike Sellers and little-used Brian Kozlowski. It has not combined for 40 receiving yards in any game, has been held below 17 total yards in half of Washington's games, and was limited to two total catches or fewer in three games. Cooley, a rookie H-back, has more than half (eight) of the group's receptions but only two over the last three games.
Rick "Doc" Walker, a tight end for the Redskins during Gibbs's initial tenure with the team and now an NFL commentator and local radio personality, said it is unfair to judge Washington's tight ends and H-backs against those on other teams because of the differences in what is expected of the players within Gibbs's system. They are not focal points in the passing game and bear much more demanding blocking chores. The tight end is usually aligned like an additional tackle on the line of scrimmage, and is asked to help open holes for runners and protect the quarterback; the H-back must be aware of all of the motion and multiple sets in the Washington offense, as well as the responsibilities of the various players in running and receiving routes.
"This group's stats will never be big," Walker said. "This system is not a cover-boy system; it's a function that works in conjunction with the tackles and the running backs, and everything is in there to create the running and the passing game and protection. There's a lot of difficult functions involved in that. I don't see them doing anything that sticks out in my mind as not going well. They're all smart guys, they've got good size, good feet."
If a tight end, who rarely is involved in pass routes and exists almost solely as a blocker, catches 10 to 15 passes in a season in this system, "then he's very fortunate," said Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense. "Basically, he's an offensive lineman for us."
The H-back must be more of a playmaker, however. "They probably have the hardest job on the team because they're asked to do so many different things," said offensive lineman Ray Brown, a 19-year veteran who played in Gibbs's system previously. "Lead block where they're isolated on linebackers. Block defensive ends in pass protection and the running game. So they're an intricate part of what we try to do offensively and their versatility allows us to do things that most teams don't do, like pulling and a lot of zone blocking."
Cooley, taken in the third round in April's NFL draft from Utah State, has shown signs of being that type of blocker and receiver, and has two touchdowns. The other primary H-backs, Sellers and Kozlowski, have combined for one catch. Sellers, not a receiving threat but a bruising hitter, is being used more as a fullback to lead block for Portis on inside runs, while Kozlowski has been inactive most weeks and was cut briefly before being re-signed.
For Cooley (6 feet 3, 265 pounds) to assume a starting role is no small achievement, and the coaches are thrilled to have landed him with the 81st overall pick. "We got exactly what we thought we got there," Gibbs said. "He's a real productive guy. If you get the ball to him, I think he runs good after the catch."
But as Brunell points out, the H-back becomes more successful when the wide receivers are in top form, drawing attention deep and to the sidelines and opening up the middle of the field. "In a passing game that's struggling the 'X' and 'Y' [outside receivers] numbers need to be bigger, too," Brunell said, "and when those are then the H-back will get more balls."
Cooley is not satisfied with his output, but if the Redskins continue to run the ball as powerfully as they did in their win in Chicago two weeks ago, compiling more than 200 yards on the ground, then Cooley's statistics should improve.
"It's good to say I'm playing as a rookie, but I also think things get looked past because I am a rookie, and I know I need to get better," Cooley said.
Walker said one problem this season is that the Redskins have faced too many third-and-long situations and failed to sustain long drives in which they can diversify their offense.
"Their role is minimized a lot of times if it's third and long," Walker said. "They just need to hold on to the ball overall as an offense and get more plays and the role of the [tight ends and H-backs] expands. They've got to get back to where they're running 70 offensive plays and 55 defensive plays, so the defense doesn't play the whole game and the offense does."
Washington is 29th out of 32 NFL teams with just 94 first downs this season. The Redskins are tied for 24th in third-down efficiency, converting 30 times in 93 chances (32.3 percent).
"The biggest thing is we have to improve on third downs and we'll get more snaps," Bugel said. "We've got to win on third down. If we're one, two, three punt; one, two, three punt, then your production goes down because you don't have enough plays to get everybody involved in the offense."
In an attempt to improve the blocking among tight ends, the Redskins re-signed Fred Baxter -- who was cut at the end of training camp because of a knee injury. However, Baxter (6-3, 268 pounds) was deemed unfit to play last week because of a hamstring ailment and lingering concern about his knee, and the team cut him again on Friday. Coaches hold the hope that Baxter could be back on the roster if he gets healthy because they feel he is a more powerful blocker than others on the team.
"Fred Baxter brings a different dimension to our football team," Bugel said. "He's a powerful, big-handed guy. He can block and really move you. It's going to be fun to see that. He's very athletic."
The team's search for the perfect tight end and H-back will go on, particularly until Baxter is 100 percent. Like the rest of the offense, there is so much still to prove.
"We all keep looking, we always have," Breaux said. "We all keep looking for a 270-pounder that can do it all, but we're beginning to wonder whether such a person exists. But we like our guys there and we feel good about the group we have."