- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Albert Haynesworth barely played enough in his Redskins debut Saturday night to get a decent grass stain, never mind step on somebody’s head. But it was easy to see, even in his limited action, what he can do for Greg Blache’s previously pass rush-challenged defense.

I mean, Justin Hartwig, the Steelers’ center, might have been 6-foot-4 at the start of the evening, but he was probably closer to 5-11 when he was done butting heads with Phat Albert.

As Jim Zorn put it, Haynesworth “didn’t get any sacks, but just for the quarterback to [have to] move away” because of No. 92’s intrusions was “music to my ears.”

(Yes, the pitter-patter of an opposing passer’s feet can be an exciting sound for a coach - especially if it’s followed by the screech of brakes, a loud crash and an ambulance siren.)

“You’d like to have an athletic enough defensive line to really push the pocket and create havoc,” Zorn said. “It’s almost relentless what you have to do today [to apply pressure] because these offensive linemen are so big” and nimble - and the ball is often thrown so quickly.

The Redskins, I’ve decided, don’t need much from their $100 million defensive tackle. They just need him to be Reggie White, circa 1993. They need him to be the Player Around Whom All Things Revolve, the player who can lift them out of their 5-11/9-7/8-8 doldrums and make them a force in the NFL again. Otherwise, why hand him such a historically large contract?

Maybe Haynesworth can pull it off. White certainly did. When Reggie arrived in Frozen Tundraland in 1993, the first year of full-blown free agency, the Packers were in a rut similar to the one the Redskins are in. By his fourth season, they were being fitted for Super Bowl rings - and finishing first in the league in points allowed. Even now, more than a decade later, they’re still very much in the NFC mix. If it isn’t the greatest free agent signing in pro football history, it’s at least among the finalists.

Can Haynesworth have that kind of impact on the Redskins? Well, at 28, he’s three years younger than White was when he left Philadelphia for Green Bay, so he’s got that going for him. (He also, I’ll just point out, wore No. 91 as a rookie, just like Reggie, before switching to No. 92, just like Reggie. Since they both went to the University of Tennessee, something tells me it isn’t a coincidence.)

But White was a different kind of lineman, a defensive end who had the ability (and girth) to slide inside to tackle - and thus help his team in two spots. Haynesworth is a tackle first, last and always.

Also, Reggie was nigh indestructible, hardly missing a game in his 15-year NFL career. Albert has never started more than 14 games in a season.

That’s why the Redskins are being exceedingly careful with him in this camp, why they held him out of the first exhibition game and confined him to 11 snaps, including penalties, against Pittsburgh (according to colleague Ryan O’Halloran’s calculations).

With the regular season less than three weeks away, though, Haynesworth said he’d “like to play a little more” in the final two tuneup games “to get up to game speed and see how I’m doing. We still need to work on some things… [still] need to jell. It’s preseason. It takes a little time. Plus, I’ve got a new defense [to learn] - like my rookie season.”

It’s stunning, when you consider the billions spent in free agency, how seldom a big-ticket defender has made a huge difference in the direction of a franchise. Aside from White, the only ones I’d put in that category are Deion Sanders (helped the ‘94 49ers and then the ‘95 Cowboys win the Super Bowl) and Kevin Greene (put the second-year Panthers in the ‘96 NFC title game). And for every one of them, it seems, there have been half a dozen Jevon Kearses and Dana Stubblefields.

“Free agency is so tough,” said Andre Carter, who came to Washington that way. “And when it doesn’t work out, sometimes it’s not the player, it’s the scheme. The player might have been successful playing a certain way, and his new team asks him to play another way.

“You’ve gotta find that [happy] medium - within reason. Both sides have to bend a little bit. But you can’t change the defense too much for one guy. This is my fourth year in this defense. We’ve got about 10 guys who have played in it for four years.”

So Haynesworth is trying to be flexible - no easy task when you’re 6-6, 350 pounds. And Blache is trying to accommodate him, play to his strengths, as much as the scheme will allow. After all, Albert will never be the Redskins’ Reggie White - or anything close - if the defensive coordinator slaps a pair of handcuffs on him.

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