Invariably, groans filled FedEx Field whenever the play was called late last season. The wide receiver screen -- a short pass to the sidelines with the ball barely breaking the horizontal plane -- came to epitomize the Washington Redskins' unproductive offense in 2004. It has assumed an altogether different role early this season.
The Redskins nearly produced two touchdowns by running screens for Santana Moss in Sunday's loss to Kansas City, and Moss took a third-quarter screen pass 78 yards for a score on one beautifully executed sequence. The play remains a hallmark of the offense, only now, like so much else in the game plan, the Redskins seem able to convert it for a big gain after failing to advance the ball downfield during their 6-10 season a year ago.
Months of practice, new personnel -- Moss and David Patten replacing Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner as wideouts -- and the emergence of Washington's deep passing game to complement this more conservative call have produced another weapon for the revamped offense.
"Certainly, that was a big play for us [Sunday]," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "It becomes a weapon when you can do that over and over. Last year everybody saw it a lot. We might have done it a few too many times where teams were expecting it."
The Redskins' offense ranked 30th and was among the worst in yards per attempt last season. Privately, the coaches bemoaned that Coles and Gardner could not do more with the play, as they failed to generate yards after the catch. "When a guy [Coles] has 90 catches and one touchdown, you kind of scratch your head a little bit," one coach said after the season. Moss's ability to run with the ball was a big reason why the Redskins traded Coles to the New York Jets to get him in the preseason.
With the Redskins struggling to complete passes of 30 yards or more last year, opponents anticipated the screens, sending cornerbacks and safeties at the receivers and regularly dropping the Redskins for a loss.
"Last year we had to really try to disguise it because we were limited in what we could do down the field, and there was no cushion for the receiver there," lineman Ray Brown said.
Redskins coaches practiced the screen for Moss, but did not use the play in a game until the team could demonstrate to opponents that it was able to complete long passes downfield. When Moss grabbed touchdowns of 71 and 39 yards in a 71-second span in Week 2, things began to change. "When you show you can hit long plays like that they can't come as fast at you," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "And obviously by them playing off Santana a little bit it helps, and he's got a chance to make a play before the rest of the cavalry gets there."
Patten and James Thrash caught a few screen passes in the first four games of the season, usually on third down, with solid results. But the Redskins did not call the play for Moss until last Sunday. "We've practiced it a lot but we waited to call it until we felt like it was the right time," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said.
They first called for it with the Redskins at the Kansas City 9-yard line on Washington's opening drive. Tight end Robert Royal surged off the line to contain a defensive back, while Moss took three steps in to catch the ball. Left tackle Chris Samuels kicked out as well, but was too powerful, as his pancake block toppled Moss, resulting in a two-yard gain. "It's a travesty because he was gone," Breaux said of the play. "I mean there was nobody on that side of the field."
Two plays later the Redskins fumbled, and they would play most of the 28-21 loss from behind, going back to the screen when they needed a big play in the second half.
"When we did it on the first drive I was [mad] at myself because I had an easy touchdown," Moss said. "I could have walked in. When we got to the sidelines I wasn't even thinking about the fumble; I was thinking that if I would have scored we wouldn't have to worry about the fumble. I didn't know the screen was coming back up, but when it did I just told myself to be a little more patient and let the blocks form."
The second time was the charm.
H-back Chris Cooley went in motion to the right, to draw the defense's attention that way. Royal sprinted to the sidelines and pushed safety William Bartee, who was charging Moss, clear out of bounds. Samuels, trying to not be too aggressive, blocked linebacker Kendrell Bell. "The second time I just stayed up on my guy because I knew with Santana's talent all he needs is a step and he can take it to the house," Samuels said.
Given the space, Moss was able to beat Chiefs safety Sammy Knight and race untouched for the score.
What happens once Moss accelerates is entirely up to him. "At that point it's basically a punt return," Breaux said.
The Redskins believe this elementary play now has the potential to work again and again.
"I never think of the YAC [yards after catch], but I know it's in me," Moss said. "Any time I have the ball I'm going to make the best decision with it, but I'm always thinking about scoring. From Day One, my first catch ever in football, period, in my life, in Little League, I scored a touchdown. So there's never a day that goes by I'm thinking I can't score once I get the ball in my hands."