- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Football is a game of adjustments. When the offense does something that works, the defense adjusts and tries to take it away. Then it’s up to the offense to adjust to the defense’s adjustment. And back and forth it goes.

Earlier this season, the Redskins were throwing and completing bombs like they were playing two-hand touch (and drawing a bunch of lengthy interference penalties, too). In the first Dallas game (Cowboys, 41-35), the first Giants game (Redskins, 50-21), the Carolina game (Redskins, 38-36), the Chicago game (Redskins, 48-22) and the first Philadelphia game (Eagles, 35-28), Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell got open deep time and time again.

But opponents have adjusted, and the Redskins haven’t adjusted to those adjustments. Defenses have taken away the long ball, and the Redskins haven’t retaliated by nickel-and-diming them to death with underneath routes. In fact, it’s looking more and more like they don’t have the kind of receivers you need to play Small Ball. Westbrook certainly isn’t a lunch-pail type, a guy who will run short, precise patterns often over the middle and get clobbered by safeties and linebackers for his trouble. His abilities are more down the field.

The same could be said of Connell. So who are the Redskins supposed to turn to when they need a nice, safe, drive-sustaining gain of less than 10 yards, especially now that Stephen Alexander has disappeared from the offense? They can’t just keep dumping the ball off to Larry Centers or Brian Mitchell. They have to keep the defense guessing a little more than that.

Look at the 33-17 loss to Detroit. The Redskins completed exactly two short passes to wideouts a 5-yarder to Connell and a 2-yarder to James Thrash. (On consecutive plays, no less.) That was it. The Lions, on the other hand, completed seven three to Johnnie Morton, two to Herman Moore (who also had a 10-yarder) and two to Germane Crowell (ditto). You don’t think that complicated things for the Washington secondary?

Heck, Detroit’s two biggest pass plays Sunday, a 23-yard touchdown to Moore and a 66-yard gain by Crowell, came about precisely because the Lions run quick slants and comebacks so well. In both instances, the Redskins cornerback tried to jump on what he thought was an underneath route encouraged by a Gus Frerotte pump fake and got burned, badly when the receiver turned upfield.

It was a classic example of short stuff setting up long stuff. Check out the lengths of Crowell’s receptions Sunday: 7 yards, 9, 30, 10, 66. Two short ones, then a long one. Another short one, then another long one. It makes it very tough on a cornerback when you make him cover you all over the field. And Detroit has three wideouts who can do this much as the Redskins did when they had Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders. The current Redskins don’t have any.

That, if you ask me, is why their passing attack is struggling right now and why they’re in danger of blowing another playoff berth. Yes, Brad Johnson has been missing some throws, but all quarterbacks go through stretches in which they’re a little off. The more pressing problem is that the Redskins have two speed receivers but no complete receivers, no guys who can ham-and-egg it if the defense is playing off them. And opposing coaches have figured this out. They’re giving Westbrook and Connell wide berth and forcing them to gain their yardage in smaller chunks and they just aren’t up to it. (Albert may eventually develop that kind of ability this is just his first season as a starter, remember but I don’t know that Michael ever will. After five years in the league, you are what you are.)

Norv Turner more or less acknowledges this when he says, “When a team like the Lions makes up its mind it’s not going to let you [run] by them, you like to think you can throw underneath on ‘em, but we weren’t able to do that… . [By and large, though,] an offense usually sticks with what it does best and [stays away from] what people defend [best]. Detroit is in a division where people throw a lot of slants Green Bay throws a lot of slants, Minnesota throws a lot of slants and they hunker down and play the inside stuff hard. They make it very difficult to throw those quick inside routes. We’ve had success in a couple of games throwing ‘em, but it’s not our strength.”

And until the Redskins get better at it, they’re going to find it hard to throw downfield like they did in the first nine games. It’s interesting how much less effective Westbrook and Connell have been the second time they’ve played teams this season. In the first go-round against the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles, Michael caught 13 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns. In the rematches, he caught eight balls for 80 yards and no TDs (though, admittedly, he was playing hurt in two of those games). Connell shows a similar dropoff (14 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns the first time he faced them, nine catches for 137 yards and one TD the second time).

It goes back to what I said at the outset: Defenses have adjusted, and the Redskins haven’t adjusted to their adjustment.

But something else is going on here as well: Connell, super-productive in the first nine games, has been in a funk the past three (just 10 receptions for 120 yards and no scores). And with Albert a nonfactor Sunday, Alexander out injured and Irving Fryar in no position at 37 to carry this or any other offense, Johnson really only had one receiver to go to downfield Westbrook (five catches, 108 yards, one touchdown). That makes the Redskins easier to defend, too. It was almost like they were back in ‘93 or ‘94, when it was Henry Ellard and pray for rain.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the Redskins’ Incredible Shrinking Passing Game. They’ve got two receivers, it seems, who are one-trick ponies. That’s at least one too many.

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