The play that ruined the Washington Redskins’ season was in turns brilliant, innocuous and disastrous, all in 10 seconds. Derrius Guice took the handoff. Derrius Guice hopped to his left. Derrius Guice burst through a hole (partially created by a hold, yes). Derrius Guice spun away from one tackler. Derrius Guice stiff-armed another before two men finally brought him down.
And Derrius Guice’s next snap will come in 2019.
The top headline across the NFL on Friday was this: Guice, Washington’s promising rookie running back, is out for the year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during that 34-yard, 10-second run in Thursday night’s exhibition opener in Foxborough, Mass. — a run that doesn’t exist in the stat book because it was called back for that hold.
Oh, if only it didn’t exist in real life. Go through the list of calamities that could have transpired for Washington against the New England Patriots, and ask yourself the following question: What could have been worse?
The argument here is: Nothing. Nothing at all.
Alex Smith, the new quarterback, didn’t take a snap Thursday, precisely for the reason we’re now discussing. Josh Norman, Josh Doctson, Jordan Reed — none of them saw the field, and all will be eligible to help Washington in practice this week, then next Thursday against the New York Jets, and most importantly in the regular season. The Redskins entered training camp with questions on offense that coincide with Smith’s arrival, but the idea was they had enough bits and pieces around the new quarterback to make this work.
The chances of that have now severely diminished, because Guice was more than a bit or a piece. Part of the way Coach Jay Gruden’s offense works is by offering the mere threat of a run. Guice, before he even arrived in the league, was that threat. He looked the part. He acted the part. He yearned for the part.
“He actually told me before the game,” Gruden said late Thursday night, “he says: ‘I don’t want it three times. If you’re going to give to me three times, don’t even put me in.’ ”
As it turns out, three carries would have been fortunate. Three carries would have yielded three yards, no gain and then a jaunty little six-yard burst. But Gruden wanted to “get a little lather going” for the second-round pick from LSU. The coach was excited. For a game that was about sifting through the bottom portion of the roster, Guice’s involvement was the reason to flip on the television. Gruden, intrigued, went to him four more times.
That the injury happened on the seventh carry makes this harder to digest, because all the ingredients necessary to spice up an offense were in that one run. Think about everything that has to go right for Washington to have a high-scoring, dynamic unit. Smith might not be a straight-up game manager, but he’s no gunslinger, either. The key difference between the new quarterback and the man he’s replacing, new Minnesota Viking Kirk Cousins, is that Smith is careful with his decision-making — and given that Cousins too frequently gave the ball to the opposition, that’s a compliment. Of the 54 quarterbacks who started at least 20 games between 2011 and 2017, only Tom Brady matched Smith’s interception rate of 1.39 percent, according to Pro Football Reference.
What does that tell you? It tells you that if Smith himself isn’t going to initiate the kind of high-risk, high-reward plays that make an offense feel truly threatening, there must be an ominous element lurking elsewhere.
That’s what Guice represented, and that seventh carry showed it. If a back has the ability Guice showed on that run — on which he took advantage of a hold on a linebacker by fullback Elijah Wellman — then so much else is possible. Running backs are replaceable only in that they all should get whatever the blocking gives them. On this play from the New England 49, with the help of the hold, that was a bare minimum of four yards — a fine gain.
But then Guice made at least two attention-getting, difference-making moves. As he took stride, he burst past New England linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who was shedding a blocker. Maybe most backs could have and would have done that. What came next, though, was the real potential for this player and this offense.
A dozen yards into the run, Guice set up Patriots defensive back Jordan Richards, who was set to make the tackle — until Guice spun away from him, a full 360 that left Richards looking foolish. Guice kept going. Just inside the New England 30 — now 19 yards downfield — he encountered defensive back J.C. Jackson. Guice held the ball in his left hand and fought off Jackson with his right. Jackson eventually made the tackle. You know how many more yards Guice got? About 14.
That’s a 34-yard carry that showed all of Guice’s skills. It’s a 34-yard carry that none of Washington’s other backs can pull off with regularity. And it’s the 34-yard carry that left Guice limping to the sideline, with an MRI exam scheduled the next morning — and then disaster.
This is a shame.
But this is also what we’ll hear in the coming days, from Gruden and the men he coaches: This is the NFL. These things happen. Someone else has to — pick your cliche — step up.
Just be aware of what you’re asking. Washington’s stable of backs includes Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley and maybe even Byron Marshall, who caught a touchdown pass Thursday night. If Guice’s injury is to have little impact on the offense, then one or more of those players will have to become someone about whom defensive coordinators say, “We have to be aware of this guy at all times.” I’m sorry, but I just don’t see that.
Washington’s offense, without Guice and Smith but with Cousins, ranked a very vanilla 16th in the NFL a year ago, averaging 324.9 yards per game. What would it take to match that number, let alone improve? Without Guice, all the little bets Gruden and his staff are hoping will work out have to pay off.
Guice’s injury puts more pressure on Reed, the brilliant but brittle tight end, to stay healthy. Only once in five seasons has he played more than 12 games; he missed 10 in 2017. Guice’s injury means Doctson, a first-round pick just two years ago, can’t be the bust he’s so close to becoming. Guice’s injury means Paul Richardson Jr., the deep threat Washington brought in as a free agent from Seattle, must stretch the defense in a way that opens up space underneath for Thompson, Reed and veteran tight end Vernon Davis. That’s a great deal to ask of a player who only once has caught as many as 30 passes.
Whatever the best version of this Washington offense was, it involved Guice, and it involved him heavily. There is a loss here in X’s and O’s, for sure. More than that, though, Washington’s season also lost something visceral. It’s no exaggeration to say that Derrius Guice was the most intriguing element to this year’s team. The season is still nearly a month away, but the sizzle has already ceased.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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