- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Joe Gibbs’ return to the Washington Redskins after an 11-year layoff brought questions whether the Hall of Fame coach would have a hard time succeeding in the era of free agency.

Five days into this year’s league calendar, it appears Gibbs has had no trouble adjusting to the modern-day NFL.

Gibbs, in conjunction with owner Dan Snyder, vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato and his staff of assistant coaches, has overhauled the Redskins’ roster less than a week into the NFL’s free agency and trade period. Yesterday’s signing of tight end Walter Rasby represented Washington’s 11th player acquisition since Tuesday with possibly more to come.

The Redskins have addressed nearly every need from their 5-11 team of 2003, adding a new quarterback (Mark Brunell) and running back (Clinton Portis), four new starters on defense (tackle Cornelius Griffin, end Phillip Daniels, linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerback Shawn Springs) and a punter (Tom Tupa).

They also re-signed three key veterans from last year’s squad (center Lennie Friedman, backup linebacker Kevin Mitchell and long snapper Ethan Albright) and over the weekend signed restricted free agent cornerback Jerametrius Butler to an offer sheet.

“We had an overall plan,” Gibbs said. “You’ve got to try to help yourself all the way across the board and strengthen your team. I think we’ve done that. I feel good about it, I really do.”

While the acquisitions of Brunell and Portis (both via trades) have drawn the most headlines, Washington’s changes on defense may be even more dramatic. A unit that ranked 25th in the NFL last season has been revamped.

Gone are Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey (dealt to Denver along with a second-round draft pick for Portis) and veteran linebacker Jessie Armstead (released). Gone is the revolving door of defensive linemen that moved in and out of the starting lineup last year.

In their place, the Redskins have added four productive and versatile free agents. The anticipated return of nose tackle Brandon Noble from major knee surgery, plus the expected addition of a new strong safety through either free agency or the draft, would give assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams six new starters on his side of the ball entering training camp.

The Redskins’ defense will look significantly different in 2004 and not only because of the new names in the starting lineup. Williams’ preferred scheme, which relies on heavy quarterback pressure, multiple sets and versatility from his players, may bear little resemblance to the system employed by former coordinator George Edwards.

The most noticeable change could be Williams’ utilization of LaVar Arrington, who with the acquisition of Washington is expected to move from the strong side to the weak side where he will be used more as a pass rusher. Williams also may line up Arrington at end on third downs, a role that helped him record a career-high 11 sacks in 2002 (he had six in 2003).

Washington, too, will have opportunities to rush the quarterback as Williams looks to improve a defense that recorded just 27 sacks (27th in the NFL) last year.

“We’re trying to have a defense that is linebacker friendly,” Williams said. “It makes you a faster defense. The fact that Marcus and LaVar both have rush ability, it does affect the protection problems that offenses have.”

The Redskins may have no choice but to count on quarterback pressure from their linebackers, because it does not appear they will acquire the pass-rushing defensive end they lack. After balking at the hefty asking price of former Tennessee Titan Jevon Kearse, who wound up signing with Philadelphia, Washington settled on Daniels, who can play a variety of positions on the line but had just 2 sacks last year in Chicago.

Of the club’s lack of pass-rushing linemen, Williams said: “Schematically, we have enough in our arsenal to pressure you.”

With linebackers rushing the quarterback, the Redskins will put pressure on their cornerbacks to cover opposing receivers with little underneath assistance. Bailey excelled in that regard, but Washington’s coaches believe returning starter Fred Smoot and newcomer Springs can both be successful playing man coverage.

Williams also disputes the notion of labeling someone as his “No.1 corner” and said Smoot and Springs will share equal responsibility for covering the opposition’s best receiver.

“Our corners have to be real strong in order to hold up in the pressure-kind of defense that I like to play,” Williams said. “Because they’re on an island a lot. I feel good about the guys we have there now.”

Redskins coaches better feel good about the roster they have assembled to date because there won’t be much more opportunity to add to it. With salary cap space and available top-tier free agents running out, there is little left for Washington to do in coming weeks.

And if the deal for Butler goes through, the Redskins will be required to send their fifth-round draft pick to the Rams as compensation, leaving the club with only their first-round selection (fifth overall) come draft day.

Washington employed a similar strategy a year ago when it traded away five of its draft picks for veteran players, leaving itself with only three selections. Gibbs appears to have bought into the same philosophy that a proven veteran is worth more than an unproven draft pick.

It remains to be seen whether the aggressive strategy produces better results than it did last year.

“If you take a look at it, we’ve got one first-round and one fifth-round pick, so is going to be a big deal for us as far as acquiring talent,” Gibbs said. “We wanted to try and go as far as we could, solidifying the different positions on our team and getting the best talent we could.

“We’ll see, but I think we’ve really helped ourselves.”

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