- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

The problem with the Washington Redskins' offense is that there are so many problems. And they all contribute to one another.

It starts with mental and physical mistakes. Those create third-and-long situations. They lead to the league's worst third-down conversion rate. That means fewer offensive plays. And limited plays means limited chances to get on track and, in turn, eliminate mental and physical mistakes.

In short, the offense is a multi-faceted mess. It ranks last in the NFL more than 70 yards behind No. 30 Dallas and the team is on pace to score just 102 points, which would break the 1992 Seattle Seahawks' record 16-game low (140 points).

But the cyclical nature of the problems leads some to think that the offense can turn around if some of the issues can be resolved.

Assuming the system can work, which it did for years under coach Marty Schottenheimer with the Kansas City Chiefs, success will start with eliminating fundamental mistakes. That means fewer penalties, no drops, better reads by the quarterback and better routes by the receivers.

"We have to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds," Schottenheimer said this week. "The false starts, the dropped balls. We're operating right now with a very low margin of error. In every game you win, those things happen, but you overcome them. And we haven't been able to do that yet. We haven't learned how to win."

Rookie wide receiver Rod Gardner has been the most conspicuous in terms of drops. Known for making tough and key catches while becoming Clemson's all-time leading receiver, Gardner has dropped both short and long passes as a Redskin.

"I don't know what it is," Gardner said. "Every game I have a drop. In college, I was more comfortable. Now there's more pressure on me, and you don't want to make mistakes. I'll get into that groove where it won't affect me."

Schottenheimer is willing to wait for Gardner, saying, "I think Rod has excellent big-play capability. We're going to work our way through it."

Better reads should come as quarterback Tony Banks becomes more familiar with the offense. Banks, who signed Aug. 16 and inherited the starting job in Week 3, still does not know the offense well enough to make the best decisions consistently. His familiarity also keeps him from being creative within the offense.

"What's he been here? Six weeks?" wide receiver Michael Westbrook said. "He's still getting comfortable with the offense. In my opinion, he's done a pretty good job, with all things said and what he's had to look at."

As the fundamental mistakes are fixed, the offense must begin creating shorter third-down situations. The unit is converting a league-low 22 percent of its third downs, often because it is pinned in third-and-10s and third-and-8s.

"You start first down," left guard Dave Szott said. "You make it second-and-short so the conversions are easier. That's our goal. If you get second-and-6, second-and-5, you have a lot more options. And then even if you get three yards, it's third-and-2, and that's a lot easier to convert than third-and-long."

Once the third-down rate is raised, wide receiver Kevin Lockett said, "we'll stay out on the field longer, keep our defense off the field, get more plays, and then the time of possession changes. And that's what this whole offense is centered around keeping the ball."

Some observers think there are other problems, such as Banks fixating on his first target. That, they say, leads to predictable throws. But Banks disputed that.

"Most of this three-step, this quick-drop stuff, the decision has to be made pretty quick," Banks said. "And then on third downs, a lot of our plays are one or two options. We don't get many third options."

That might be because Schottenheimer is limiting the offense in an attempt to be successful. The coach said he is running only 30 percent of what he had available during the offense's peak in Kansas City when Joe Montana was the quarterback in 1993 and 1994.

Schottenheimer knows that a limited playbook can become predictable, but he thinks it is a risk worth taking. And anyone would agree: The Redskins have enough problems; they don't need to start finding new ones.

"My philosophy has always been that if you find yourself in a situation where there is uncertainty, you're probably not going to get much production," Schottenheimer said. "So you're served by doing less, doing it better. And then if you're not good enough, you're not good enough. But at least you didn't defeat yourself. If you play like the best player, you're going to get paid like the best player. If I start thinking about money, then I stop playing and it's a lot harder to get the money."

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