Back in the day, when Jim Zorn was playing and Joe Bugel was developing a reputation as one of the NFL’s top offensive line coaches, the preseason meant six games, 130-player rosters, myriad collisions and a what-me-worry attitude about over-hitting in camp.
If one guy got hurt - or even three guys got hurt - there was always somebody in reserve.
“We played our regulars because if they got hurt, we just moved on to somebody else,” Bugel said. “Now you don’t want to keep Chris Samuels with a bunch of hey-yous on the other team flying around and going for his knees. With the limited squad, preservation is the biggest thing.”
Except for Friday night. The handcuffs come off the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots for at least the first half when both teams play their third preseason game, universally recognized as the final rehearsal for the first-team players.
The starters barely break a sweat in the first game. They may play 20 snaps in the second. Next week, the inactive lists will be lengthy as coaches give their starters extra rest before the opener.
While the past two weeks have been about the youngsters, Friday is about Jason Campbell getting the Redskins into the end zone and seeing whether the revamped pass rush can harass Tom Brady.
“It’s a warmup game,” Zorn said. “The last game, you really want to have no major changes for your first team, and you get your starters a really good rest. So when you do load them up for that first regular-season game, everybody is champing on the bit.”
Zorn can relate to the young players who will have to wait a week for their last chance to make an impression. Before he was the starting quarterback in Seattle, he was in Dallas’ training camp. The roster started at 130, was cut down to 80 and then returned to 120 when the veterans showed up.
“I’m looking around for the veterans because we got all these reps,” Zorn said. “When the veterans came in, we got nothing. I don’t think I even played in the first three preseason games.”
In Seattle’s first season, 1976, the initial camp roster was 109 players, including 25 draft picks. Eventually, the players chosen in the expansion draft reported, swelling the number to 136. Zorn, though, said he didn’t play two to three quarters a game in every preseason contest, so some things from the 1970s haven’t changed.
“We would build up from a quarter to a half, and it really is much like the system we’re trying to play this year,” he said. “But if I had played poorly, I always played a lot more in the next game.”
The Redskins are expected to dress 78 players against the Patriots. After minor setbacks early in training camp, the Redskins are in remarkably good health, perhaps a product of a training camp that was without a day that included two full-pads practices.
“You have five to six running backs, and it’s very, very difficult to [hit a lot] and keep from getting people injured,” defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. “That’s when players get injured - as soon as you start tackling, you get piles and that’s when players get injured. … It creates a health issue.”
The Redskins’ health issue is fine; cornerback Carlos Rogers is the only starter out. The Redskins’ points issue is another matter - and the chief storyline entering the starters’ final performance of the preseason.
Campbell has led five drives and has yet to find the end zone (four punts, one field goal). Granted, he has been without Santana Moss and Clinton Portis for a game apiece, but the Redskins desire a productive finish.
“We do need to put points on the board,” Portis said. “We found a rhythm last week offensively; we just have to continue to improve.”
The Redskins’ first-team offense found success on last week’s opening drive against Pittsburgh… until they got to the 3-yard line. The Redskins were stuffed on consecutive runs and settled for a field goal.
For Zorn, that sequence has been pounded home the entire week as he described the effort it takes to drive down the field against an elite defense only to limp off the field with three points instead of seven.
“I want to see a sustained drive, and I want to see us push it in when we get to the 3-yard line,” Zorn said. “I want to see us not getting down when something bad happens, being able to come back out, concentrate, make the adjustments, stay together, work hard and literally fight and scrap for everything we can.”
Although Campbell’s performance has been less than stellar, the quarterback remains rightly upbeat.
“I’ve been in games where I was [throwing well], so 1-for-7 is something I’m not concerned about,” he said. “We haven’t played a whole lot, but we do want to find ourselves in the end zone.”
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