- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

In hiding for nearly the entire offseason, even as the Washington Redskins were discarding a highly paid safety and a veteran assistant coach, trying to acquire a Pro Bowl outside linebacker and forgoing several chances to address a leaky defensive line, Gregg Williams answered questions yesterday for only the second time since Dec. 30.

Well, he answered most of them.

Want to talk about Fred Smoot as the team comedian? Sure.

Want to ask about LaRon Landry’s painful paintball incident? Absolutely.

Want to get glowing recommendations about, well, the entire defensive roster as well as quarterback Jason Campbell and tight end Chris Cooley? No problem.

But don’t ask Williams about Shawn Springs‘ state of mind following his refusal to take a $2 million pay cut in this fourth year of his contract. Only silence will follow.

Same goes for questions about whether Springs — a defensive disaster in 2006 — humbled Williams. He’ll mutter about how he can’t comment and walk away.

“That’s all history to him,” linebacker Marcus Washington said. “I’m glad last season is history, too. We’re starting over with a clean slate and hopefully do some good things.”

Things can’t get any worse for the Redskins defense.

A group that was instrumental in a 2005 playoff berth and responsible for Williams being given a contract that pays him more than $2 million a year regressed greatly last year. The Redskins went 5-11 and were 31st in yards allowed, last in yards per play, 27th against the run, 23rd against the pass, last in sacks, 26th on third down and, perhaps most notably, had only 12 takeaways the entire season.

Just as 2007 is an important season for several defensive players who want to prove they can be stars, remain standouts or rebound from woeful 2006 performances, this also is a big year for Williams if he wants to be a head coach again. Last year at this time, it was a forgone conclusion — he even said it — that head coaching gig No. 2 would be on the horizon, whether it be as Joe Gibbs’ replacement or with another team.

The perceived problems of last year — Adam Archuleta (for clashing with his position coach and not playing well) and Dale Lindsey (for the supposedly slow development of Rocky McIntosh) — were shown the door.

The team added middle linebacker London Fletcher, Smoot at cornerback, Landry at safety and a laundry list of role players.

But does that make the Redskins markedly better on defense? Will they be able to control a game when Campbell is having a young quarterback-type game? Can high draft picks like Carlos Rogers and Sean Taylor break through? Can Williams tweak his system to fit the personnel instead of the personnel trying to change their games to suit Williams? The answers likely will come fairly quickly this season.

The defensive line didn’t do much of anything very well last year (and that group of very accountable players is the first to fess up), unable to consistently pressure the quarterback or stop the run. But the Redskins are taking a big-time gamble that Phillip Daniels (age 34), Renaldo Wynn (32) and Cornelius Griffin (30) can stay healthy and produce at the same time.

Williams cut off the question about players being a little older by saying: “A little more savvy, a little more intelligent, a little better, don’t need as much coaching and hopefully can get to the quarterback. What else do you want to say?”

How about that Griffin, Daniels, Wynn and Joe Salave’a all have injury histories, the jury remains out on Andre Carter, and Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery are in just their second seasons.

“We believe in our guys,” Williams countered. “It’s shown on the production side and how fast they’ve bounced back and how healthy they are now.”

Fair enough.

No new defensive linemen means the Redskins will bank on the linebackers and secondary to create plays. That means Fletcher plugging the middle against the run, McIntosh adapting to his starting role and a fully healthy Washington flying all over the place. The linebacker group shapes up to be better.

The big question mark is the secondary. Teams that can’t cover and can’t create takeaways generally stink.

Smoot is an upgrade over Kenny Wright. The Redskins think Landry and veterans Omar Stoutmire and Pierson Prioleau will fare better than Archuleta. A healthy Springs will be an effective Springs. That leaves Rogers and Taylor.

Of Rogers, Williams said: “I thought Carlos had a solid year in terms of his positioning.”

Translation: The Redskins coaches put Rogers in the right spots, he just didn’t perform.

Of Taylor, Williams said: “His body has changed to the point where he’s made a couple breaks on the ball that I’m not sure anybody else in the NFL except him can make and cover that much ground.”

Every time a conversation about the Redskins defense comes up, it usually comes around to Taylor.

If Williams‘ chances of being a head coach again bank on one player, it’s Taylor. He’s the Redskins‘ best athlete. He has unlimited potential. He’s durable. But he needs to create more turnovers and score touchdowns, like the league’s other elite safeties.

If Taylor doesn’t become a franchise player, the trickle down effect will be dramatic and the same problems will crop up. And there will be even more topics Williams will deem off-limits.

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