- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

If Daryl Gardener were still around — and not inflicting harm on himself in some restaurant parking lot — no one would give a darn that the Redskins let Dan Wilkinson go. Gardener was the guy who gave the defensive line its growl last year. Wilkinson, on the other hand, has never remotely resembled a franchise player, which is what the first pick in the draft is supposed to be.

Can you think of one game in his five seasons as a Redskin in which Big Daddy simply Took Over? How about a few golden moments — a crucial sack, perhaps, or a fourth-down stop on the goal line? Any of those stick out? Most of the time, you found yourself wondering: Why are they paying this man so much money? At his best, he’s above average. Much more often, he’s merely a face in the crowd.

So there’ll be no tears shed here for Dan Wilkinson. Over the years, he got considerably more than he gave. The best you could say about him is that he wasn’t as big a bust as Dana Stubblefield, the other name defensive tackle the Redskins signed with much fanfare in the ‘98 offseason. Stubby took the dough and immediately began planning his retirement; at least Big Daddy gave the team a little return on its investment.

But he wasn’t a difference-maker, wasn’t the disruptive force Gardener was. When Daryl came in, the run defense immediately improved from 20th to 12th in the league, even though Wilkinson missed half the snaps with various hurts. Big Daddy never had that kind of impact — and the Redskins finally grew tired of paying him $3.5million a year. Can’t fault ‘em for that. If he doesn’t want to reduce his salary to a level commensurate with his contributions, well, nice knowin’ ya.

The issue for the Redskins isn’t really Wilkinson. The issue is this: How can they allow themselves to be in this position again, so soon? Until last season, their run defense had been killing them for the better part of a decade. Watching their games was like watching someone slowly bleed to death. That’s how it is when you can’t stop the opposing ball carrier. But then Gardener arrived, and all that changed. Every Tom, Dick and Tshimanga no longer rushed for 100 yards against the Redskins. In the finale last December, even perennial nuisance Emmitt Smith got shut down to the tune of 13 yards in 18 carries.

But the club decided Gardener was too expensive to keep (so he took his pocket-collapsing skills to Denver). And now Wilkinson has been deemed a needless extravagance. This is fine if you have a reasonable Plan B, but the Redskins’ Plan B at the moment is free agent pickup Brandon Noble and Del Cowsette at Gardener’s spot and I Don’t Know at Wilkinson’s.

Actually, the Redskins do know who the left tackle is — for now, at least. It’s Jermaine Haley, another free agent signee and the starter of nine games in his four-year NFL career. (Unless, of course, the team moves Renaldo Wynn inside, which would create a void at left end.)

Other unproven youngsters are in the mix, but any way you slice it, the defensive line has taken a decided step back from last season. And since the schedule includes dates with Curtis Martin, Travis Henry, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Williams, Deuce McAllister, Tiki Barber and some fellow named Stephen Davis — not to mention Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb — a credible D-line would seem to be a must. (Especially with middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter coming off major knee surgery. Trotter, LaVar Arrington and Jessie Armstead are a fine group of linebackers, but they’re a lot finer if they don’t have to peel a guard off them to make a tackle.)

The Redskins, naturally, are preaching patience. VP of football ops Vinny Cerrato says, “We’ve got to see our young guys play in the preseason to find out what they can do. Right now, we’re evaluating what we’ve got, and every other team is evaluating what they’ve got.”

Translation: Maybe a decent veteran tackle will shake loose somewhere, someone capable of doing a reasonable impersonation of Wilkinson. But even if that happens, there’s no guarantee the Redskins will get him. Defensive linemen, particularly tackles, are at a premium in the NFL. Watch how quickly Big Daddy, for all his faults, gets snapped up.

And even if a tackle does fall from the heavens, how long will it take him to get comfortable with a new defense? Last time I looked, the Redskins had a game against the Jets in five weeks — followed by ones against the Falcons, Giants, Patriots, Eagles and Bucs. They might have the most difficult opening stretch of any team in the league. Obviously, the sooner they clear up this uncertainty at D-tackle, the better.

“It depends on a lot of variables,” says George Edwards, the rookie defensive coordinator. “Who [the defensive tackle] is, what kind of shape he’s in, how much experience he has. All those factors are up in the air.”

As is the fate of the Redskins defense. The early scouting report is pretty clear, though: All roads to the Washington end zone start up the middle.

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