- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Uncertainty looms over the present and future of the Washington Redskins' defense, a solid but inconsistent unit suddenly wracked by injuries and eternally wondering what changes the offseason will bring.

As if playing 2002's final four weeks without middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and, in all likelihood, defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson wasn't bad enough, the defense already is bracing for a fourth straight offseason overhaul.

Players desperately want a chance to build on this year's work, which has been good enough to rank No. 11 in the NFL despite the essential elimination of Washington (5-7) from the playoff race.

"That's the only thing I hate about what's been going on around here: We haven't had stability," Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said yesterday. "It kills me. Every year it's something different; every year it's been the same thing as far as our record. We need to keep it the same, and hopefully we can improve from that."

The defense has played well at times, especially since overcoming early poor performances against Philadelphia (Sept. 16) and San Francisco (Sept. 22). And its work often has come under duress Washington ranks 25th in total offense and scoring, and only four teams have committed more turnovers.

But opponents have come up with too many big plays. In many instances the Redskins have held on first and second down only to give up a crucial third-down conversion or played solid for most of a game only to surrender a key score.

"I think we've been way too up and down," Wilkinson said. "I think we've played good ball at times, but at times we've stunk up the house. We've just been inconsistent."

The stretch run comes under even more trying conditions. The playoffs are impossible in all but a mathematical sense, and last week's loss at Dallas brought injuries to Trotter (torn ACL and LCL), Wilkinson (torn calf) and linebacker Jessie Armstead (knee) and didn't help a nagging one to left end Renaldo Wynn (groin).

The good news is that Washington has its 2001 starter, Kevin Mitchell, to play for Trotter and a reserve whom coaches love, Carl Powell, in place of Wilkinson. And Wynn and Armstead both expect to play Sunday against the New York Giants.

"Every NFL team goes through this," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "You only have so many players. We've been very fortunate most of the year. We'll be fine."

But players wonder whether further progress will become moot during the offseason. In each of the past three offseasons, the club has undergone tremendous change on defense, including switching coordinators.

Before 2000, the Redskins brought in coordinator Ray Rhodes and players Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Mark Carrier and LaVar Arrington. Before 2001, they hired Kurt Schottenheimer, parted with Sanders, Carrier and Dana Stubblefield and drafted Fred Smoot. And before this season, they acquired Lewis, Trotter, Wynn, Armstead and Daryl Gardener.

Lewis, for one, knows that year-to-year continuity is crucial.

"It's important that guys become comfortable with each other," the coordinator said. "This is a family, and as much atmosphere as you can keep the same [the better]. Obviously some change is going to be needed, but you want to limit that as much as you can, so the guys can get started [more quickly] next spring."

That said, Lewis already appears to be on the short list to coach Michigan State, and more interest is sure to come as the college and NFL seasons finish. Some players already talk as if he is gone, and they hope the club can avoid other major changes.

"If you look at the teams that have been good over the years, they find a way to keep their team together," Wilkinson said. "That's one thing the Washington Redskins are going to have to find a creative way to do."

They haven't so far. Bailey, Wilkinson and Arrington are the only starters intact from the Redskins' 2000 defense. Division rival Philadelphia, in contrast, has seven starters from 2000 intact (and would have eight if defensive tackle Hollis Thomas wasn't injured), not to mention the same coordinator, Jim Johnson.

Wilkinson said it's no coincidence that the Eagles can lose quarterback Donovan McNabb, then backup Koy Detmer, and keep winning on the strength of the NFL's No.3 defense.

"Philadelphia has done an excellent job of keeping their team together over the years," he said. "And it really shows now because you have Donovan McNabb, who everyone thinks is the heartbeat of their offense, and he certainly is. But then you put in the second- and third-string quarterback, and they're still just as effective."

The Redskins probably won't be making many major personnel changes on defense this offseason; all the key figures are under contract except Gardener, and owner Dan Snyder recently called Gardener's agent to open talks to keep him. Otherwise, Wilkinson is a potential salary-cap casualty, Smith is aging and safety David Terrell could be vulnerable.

Still, players cringe at the prospect of yet another coordinator, especially because it took time to adjust to the past two. In 2001, Washington gave up 112 points while opening 0-3; this year, the unit gave up 80 points in a 1-2 start.

"You have so many talented guys on this defense," Wynn said. "What would happen if they didn't have to learn a whole new defensive scheme? You could just worry about being the best player you can be, the best defense you can be. You don't know, because the guys who have been here, they don't know what it feels like to have that happen."


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