When the Washington Redskins initially whittled their roster to 53 players, coaches chose to keep eight wide receivers — more than any team in the league — prompting speculation that some might be excluded from the offense and others wouldn’t be long for Washington.
But just one game into the season, the Redskins already have shown how they view their receivers and how each might be involved from week to week. If Sunday’s 28-14 win over the New York Giants is any indication, opposing teams will have a difficult time focusing on just one or two of the Redskins’ pass catchers.
“We spread the ball around a lot,” wide receiver Jabar Gaffney said. “We have a lot of weapons.”
In the Redskins’ season-opening win, quarterback Rex Grossman had no problem involving most of Washington’s wide receivers and tight ends. On the team’s first touchdown drive, he completed passes to four receivers. On the second touchdown drive, he hit five pass catchers. And on the third offensive touchdown drive, Grossman again found four receivers.
“I definitely try to run the offense as it’s called,” Grossman said. “It just so happens that the ball gets spread around.”
It’s normal for a quarterback to develop an on-field relationship with a particular receiver or two. But it might not matter which receiver Grossman prefers as much as who the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, prefers.
Grossman estimated that his first target was open 70 percent of the time last Sunday, which means it’s the offensive coordinator — the man who calls the plays — who is actually most responsible for spreading the ball around.
“That’s more Kyle than me. . . . He dictates my progression for the most part,” Grossman said.
Receivers know the system hinges on each offensive player fulfilling his role. Grossman doesn’t have the flexibility of some of the league's veteran quarterbacks, and his job is simply to execute the play Shanahan calls.
“I feel like when you’re a quarterback, you’re a quarterback of whatever given system,” wide receiver Santana Moss said. “You have to be open to different opportunities. I feel like he runs it like it’s supposed to be run. He goes out there and does his job, makes sure he’s hitting the open guy. I feel that can only make us better.”
Though Moss and Gaffney start, the Redskins regularly rotated in Anthony Armstrong against the Giants and lined up tight ends Fred Davis and Chris Cooley as wide receivers at different times. Moss played 59 offensive snaps, Gaffney lined up for 45 and Armstrong saw 29.
Their receiving statistics were similarly distributed: Moss was targeted eight times and had six catches, Gaffney caught three of seven balls thrown his way, and Armstrong was targeted six times and had two receptions.
“Throughout the season, teams are going to double who they want to double, teams are going to stick who they want to stick,” Moss said. “I feel like if you do that with this offense, having Gaffney, having Armstrong, having Cooley and Fred, it’s just going to expose somebody else.”
With multiple targets — Davis and Cooley are included in this group — each receiver figures to benefit.
“The more the ball gets spread around, the more the ball will come back to you,” Gaffney said.
“It’s simple,” Moss added. “I don’t have to worry about being the only person where everyone is gonna go every game and try to game plan on. It gets old when you’re the only guy and everybody keys on you and you can’t be yourself.”
While the receivers atop the depth chart feel confident they’ll be involved in the offense each week, others are battling for touches and playing time.
Though he is listed as a wide receiver on the roster, Brandon Banks will be used exclusively as a return specialist by Coach Mike Shanahan. The Redskins kept two other wide receivers active against New York and two watched the game inactive from the sidelines.
Terrence Austin was on the field for four plays in the first half, and rookie Niles Paul was on for four in the second half. Neither was targeted by Grossman. Shanahan kept Donte Stallworth and rookie Leonard Hankerson inactive. While Paul is a big special teams contributor and Stallworth has experience, Hankerson, a third-round pick out of Miami, could be the odd receiver out for a while.
“Hankerson is a little bit further behind, but it doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a great player,” Shanahan said. “But he just has to keep on working on the things in practice to consistently show the coaches that he’ll be ready to play on game day. You see the ability, but you have to see the consistency.”
Though he barely saw the field as a receiver, Paul, a fifth-round pick from Nebraska, played an important role Sunday on both kick and punt returns.
“Obviously, we’ve got ’Tana, Jabar, Anthony and those guys in there making their plays. Me as a receiver, I’m just a role player as of now,” Paul said.
Shanahan likely will keep five receivers active each Sunday, and that fifth spot could be a week-long position battle, the coach said. Unlike a year ago, the Redskins feel that they’re deep at the position, and they have both a quarterback and a play-caller who are capable of involving all the receivers.
“We believe in all seven guys, otherwise we wouldn’t have had them on our 53,” Shanahan said.