The biggest surprise when the Redskins offense ran its first play in training camp yesterday was that there was no surprise — no new faces, no new coordinator, no new system. Todd Wade was at the left guard spot previously occupied by Derrick Dockery, the now very wealthy Buffalo Bill, but Wade is a holdover from last season, a veteran tackle trying to jump-start his career at a different position.
Much has been made of the Redskins' offseason efforts to spackle over their defensive holes, but their inactivity on the other side of the ball is equally noteworthy. After five years of almost non-stop tinkering with the offense, the team is basically saying: We have all the pieces we need now — or enough of them, anyway, to contend for the division title. The question, of course, in this game of Football Blackjack is whether the Snydermen are standing pat with a 16, a 20 or something in between.
To refresh your memory, here are their major offensive moves in the five offseasons before this one:
c 2002 — Hired Steve Spurrier, the Isaac Newton of the college passing game, and drafted Patrick Ramsey and Ladell Betts with their top two picks.
c 2003 — Traded for Laveranues Coles and signed Randy Thomas in free agency.
c 2004 — Lured Joe Gibbs out of retirement, traded for Clinton Portis and Mark Brunell and drafted Chris Cooley in the third round.
c 2005 — Swapped Coles for Santana Moss, acquired Casey Rabach and David Patten in free agency and took Jason Campbell with the second of their two first-rounders.
c 2006 — Brought in the esteemed Al Saunders to choreograph the offense, picked up Antwaan Randle El in free agency and swung a deal for Brandon Lloyd (and another for T.J. Duckett after camp began).
This year, though, we've had only the sounds of silence — unless you're really high on the Jason Fabini pickup. As for the draft, the Redskins didn't select an offensive player until the sixth round (quarterback/project Jordan Palmer). Of all the calculated risks they take this season, this might be the riskiest. The offense, after all, wasn't exactly a dynamo a year ago; in nine of its 16 games — six straight in one stretch — it failed to score 20 points.
Also, the last time I checked, the starting quarterback was a third-year guy who has thrown exactly 207 passes as a pro. Shouldn't the club want to give Jason Campbell as much help as it can, relieve him of as much of the burden as possible? Well, right now he has a No. 2 wideout (Randle El) who caught 32 balls last season and a No. 3 wideout (Lloyd) who caught 23.
Compare this with the receiving corps Gibbs had in place when Jay Schroeder took over at QB in '86 — or when Mark Rypien ascended to the job in '89 (Art Monk, Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders). Granted, Moss' big-play ability reminds you of Clark, but who's supposed to fill the roles of Monk and Sanders?
None of this causes Saunders to so much as blink. Despite the Redskins' 5-11 record last season, he says, the offense did a lot of things well — run the ball (138.5 yards a game, 4.5 a rush), protect the passer (a mere 19 sacks), limit turnovers (which dropped from 27 in '05 to 17). And they did all this, he hastens to add, despite switching to "a [young] quarterback and paring down dramatically what we did in the last six games."
Despite the simplification of the offense, the Redskins "continued to run the ball with authority. We're excited about that. What we need to improve is our ability in the passing game."
The way Campbell sees it, the offense needs this kind of continuity if it's going to continue to develop. "You look at the most successful offenses," he says, "and those guys have been together two, three, four years. With the Colts, it's more like seven or eight years. You really have to keep teams together, the same unit together, so they can build a relationship on and off the field."
Agreed. The issue is whether this is a unit that should have remained almost completely intact — whether Lloyd deserves another chance after his virtually invisible first season here, whether Wade is, indeed, capable of making the transition to guard, whether Portis should have been dealt for Another Offensive Piece after Betts emerged.
The Redskins didn't have to spend almost all their available money — and their only draft pick of any consequence (in this case, safety LaRon Landry) — on their defense. But that's what they decided to do. We'll know soon enough if it was the right choice. Their first two opponents, the Dolphins and Eagles, are a couple of pretty fair defensive clubs.