Every September, after the Turk has made his final rounds, Mike Shanahan stands before the media jackals and insists his latest Washington Redskins team is the deepest he's ever had here. Being a diplomatic sort, though, he always leaves out the "except" part. And on every club, even the Super Bowl champions, there's an "except" part.
There are always, that is, exceptions, players who simply can't be replaced. About all a coach can do is hope they don't get hurt. Most starters can be reasonably impersonated by their backups — for the short term, at least — but a handful, The Difference Makers, have no equivalent on the roster. That's why they're called Difference Makers.
You can debate how much the Redskins' depth has improved during the Shanahan era, but there's no denying this: They've had to deal with a lot of "excepts" — injuries (or unexpected occurrences) to guys they didn't really have a Plan B for. Last year, it was Chris Cooley, Trent Williams and Fred Davis, among others. This year, it's Brian Orakpo and, in Sunday's 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Williams again.
Turns out the damage to Williams' right knee is "only" a bone bruise, and Shanahan considers him "day to day" for the upcoming game at Tampa Bay (which sure beats Orakpo's season-ending fate). But if Trent can't play against the Bucs, it would force the Redskins to fill the left tackle void with Jordan Black, a 32-year-old veteran who was jobless when training camp began and hadn't played in the league since 2010. He'd be all that stood between Robert Griffin III and his maker.
The purpose of this isn't to disparage Black. The man, after all, has started 40 NFL games and lasted seven seasons — not a bad career. But it's reasonable to ask: If this really is Shanahan's deepest team here, why is a guy who was unemployed for the past year now playing the most important position in the line? After three seasons of roster building, how can the Redskins be protecting their most valuable asset (Griffin) with, well, one of America's Most Unwanted?
Look, injuries happen. We all know that. As Kory Lichtensteiger said Monday, "Does any team make it through a whole year [with the O-line intact]? I think every team deals with [the unforeseen]. We're fortunate that we've only had to deal with minor injuries so far."
Actually, the injury to Jammal Brown, who had been penciled in at right tackle, is a little more than "minor." He's currently on the Physically Unable to Perform List after his latest hip surgery and may not see the field until the second half of the season, if then. His fill-in? Tyler Polumbus, who, like Black, came to the Redskins as a street free agent.
But here's the larger issue: The Redskins knew they'd be thin at right tackle if Brown's hip problems persisted. They also knew Williams, coming off a four-game suspension for drug use, would be banished for a year if he had another slip-up. So why didn't they pay more attention to the tackle position in the offseason — aside from signing Black and drafting practice squadder Tom Compton in the sixth round?
Granted, quality offensive tackle help can be hard to come by, but it seems Shanahan and Bruce Allen could have done more in this area than they did. It especially seemed that way Sunday, when Griffin, despite his elusiveness, was sacked six times for 53 yards in losses.
After the game, Shanny was inclined to blame the hits his rookie QB absorbed on "the nature of the quarterback position in the National Football League when you get behind." But clearly other factors are at work. One of them is the nature of the quarterback position as RG3 is being asked to play it, with a fair number of option pitches and designed runs as well as seat-of-the-pants scrambles.
Griffin has had 32 rushing attempts in the first three games. That projects to 171 for a full season. The last passer who had that many carries was the Pittsburgh Steelers' Joe Geri in 1950, and Geri was a single-wing tailback, not a T-formation QB. (Michael Vick's highest total, by the way, is 123 in 2006, the year he gained 1,023 yards.)
RG3 also is on a 48-sack pace. (He's been dumped nine times so far.) So do the math. Forty-eight sacks plus 171 rushes plus lord-knows-how-many option plays equals what? I mean, does he even play 16 games?
On Monday, Shanahan was willing to concede that, yes, "You don't want your quarterback taking as many shots as he did [Sunday], that's for sure." How that impacts on future game plans remains to be seen. This much is obvious, though: The Redskins can't afford any more "excepts." They've had enough bad luck for a while and, besides, they're not nearly as deep as their coach likes to think they are.
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