Tuesday, December 16, 2003

You can go pretty far in the NFL just by stopping the other guy. The Cowboys have been proving that all season long (and did again Sunday at FedEx Field). So have the Panthers — and, in the other conference, the Patriots. Defense may not get as much “SportsCenter” time as offense, may not lend itself as well to the CD-ROM industry, but it still wins football games. Always has, always will.

I point this out because the Redskins had a defense not too long ago. Just last year, in fact. It might not have been a Super Bowl defense, but it was something they could build on. It finished fifth in the league in yards allowed and had difference-makers in the line (Daryl Gardener), at linebacker (LaVar Arrington) and in the secondary (Champ Bailey). Plenty of clubs were worse off defensively than the Redskins.

But in the offseason the organization changed course. It decided to take money it was spending on the defense — salary cap dollars, that is — and reinvest it in the offense. Exit Gardener and Big Daddy Wilkinson; enter Laveranues Coles and Randy Thomas.

There were reasons — not all of them bad — for doing things this way. The main one was that the coach of the team, Steve Spurrier, was an offensive coach, and he needed more talent to get his Fun ‘n’ Gun functioning properly. And really, the argument went, what sense did it make to pay him $5million a year if you weren’t going to give him the necessary tools to work with?

Well, the Ball Coach got his tools — and the Redskins have proceeded to go 5-9, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The defense, stripped of its starting tackles (or any facsimile thereof), has dropped from fifth to 21st in yards allowed, and the offense is on pace to score fewer points than it did last year.

What’s the moral of all this? What should the Redskins, from Dan Snyder on down, take away from this horrific experience? Simply that, in the NFL, it’s a gamble to dismantle part of your club — especially a part that’s performing well — in hopes of making another part better. Because you may not make that other part better, but you most assuredly will make the first part worse.

Perhaps the biggest problem the Redskins have right now — on the field, at least — is that there’s nothing they can hang their helmets on. They’re not very good on offense, they’re not very good on defense, they’re totally lacking in definition.

Quincy Carter talked in the Dallas locker room about how the Cowboys “feed off” their “D.” The Redskins don’t have anything to feed off of. They have some nice pieces, but for the most part they’re just a collection of players who happen to wear the same uniform.

It could have been different — oh so easily. All the front office had to do was leave well enough alone. In the NFL, after all, things tend to get fixed one at a time. In the Redskins’ case, the defense was ahead of the offense, the defense was closer to being fixed. So why not continue on that road and get that side of the ball squared away, without totally neglecting the other side? Why not add to what the defense had last season instead of subtracting from it?

There are already so many things in pro football, things beyond anyone’s control, that can undo a defense. Free agency can siphon off a starter or two. Somebody can get hurt. Somebody can get old — or complacent. Why would a team want to undo its own defense? Why would the Redskins let Gardener and Wilkinson go without replacing them with tackles of comparable ability?

Unless, of course, they don’t know what they’re doing.

It’s easy to blame George Edwards for the defense’s downturn, and George certainly shares some of the responsibility. He’s no Marvin Lewis, that’s for sure (not that many coaches are). But he hasn’t had the players Marvin had, either. And if you don’t think that makes a difference, then you must not have seen the Cowboys’ Troy Hambrick frolicking for 189 yards the other day — on an afternoon when everybody knew Dallas was going to run because the weather made it nigh impossible to pass.

What’s disappointing about the Redskins as they play out the string these last two weeks is that they’re farther from being a contender now than they were a year ago. A year ago they had one flat tire. This morning they have two flat tires. Dealing with a crisis of that magnitude would be a challenge for the best of organizations. And the Redskins, as we’ve been reminded time and again, are hardly the best of organizations.

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