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The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Redskins Football

Want to understand what really goes on during a game? Why Jason Campbell sometimes looks confused? Why our linebackers don’t often blitz? Why Clinton Portis sometimes pouts?

What exactly is the West Coast offense of the Redskins? Does the Skins’ base defense use a 3–4 zone blitz like the Super Bowl–winning Pittsburgh Steelers or a Tampa Two like the bad-boys Chicago Bears or a 46 front like the feared Baltimore Ravens? And when Clinton Portis claims that he doesn’t understand the “chip read” that Redskins coach Jim Zorn wants him to use, Portis isn’t alone. Pretty much nobody understands it.

Welcome to an insider’s guide to the Redskins. The goal here is to help you understand the details usually known only to football purists.

The 2009 season is one of the few since “Chainsaw Dan” bought the Redskins a decade ago for which it’s even possible to offer a tactics guide—because this year the Redskins’ head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator will be the same as in the previous season. That means that tactics and strategy are likely to be the same, unlike in most other Snyder years when new coaches arrived with new playbooks on a seemingly weekly basis.

Teams that win consistently—think Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts—don’t install all-new tactics every year. They stick with their existing systems and tweak. A Snyder-run Redskins team is finally trying this formula, which bodes well for 2009, though the season may end with Chainsaw Dan once again firing all the coaches.

On the assumption that 2009 Redskins tactics will be reasonably similar to those of 2008, I studied film of four Skins outings from last season: the win over the Eagles in Philadelphia (the Skins’ best game of 2008), the loss to the Rams at home the following Sunday (the Skins’ worst game of 2008), the home loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh (a decent performance against the league’s best team), and the December loss on the road to the lowly Bengals (the game that effectively ended the 2008 Redskins season). With those games as examples, here’s a guide to how the Washington Redskins play football.

Throw It Fast but Not Far

“The key to the West Coast offense is timing routes.” I gag on my microbrew whenever a television announcer says this. All passing attacks employ timing! NFL teams have been timing their pass routes—pacing out how many strides a receiver takes in what part of the pattern—since Sonny Jurgensen’s day. The key to the West Coast offense is not timing. It’s pass routes that aren’t intended to produce touchdowns.

Here’s a compressed history. Roughly through the 1970s, most NFL and college offenses ran when ten yards or less was needed. Passing plays were drawn up to produce big gains or touchdowns. Old-school NFL coaches would have thought it was crazy to draw up pass plays designed to gain five yards. That’s what runs are for!

Then along came Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. He thought passing could be used for “ball control”—lots of short passes intended to pick up first downs, allowing an offense to drive defenses crazy by keeping possession of the ball and nickel-and-diming down the field. Walsh’s West Coast offense entailed quick release by the quarterback, who would drop back three or five steps before throwing, rather than the standard seven steps, and quick-throw to anyone open for any gain, no matter how short. Walsh reasoned that if the defense knows lots of passes are coming, it will tee off on the passer so the quarterback must release quickly, before the pass rush arrives. He reasoned that lots of short gains were just as good as one occasional long bomb.

The 1989 Super Bowl was the big coming-out party of the West Coast offense. Joe Montana led an 11-play, 92-yard short-passing drive that scored the winning touchdown with 34 seconds remaining, with Montana throwing for 357 yards—at the time the Super Bowl record.

After that game, pass-first offenses became the rage in the NFL—the “run and shoot” (four wide receivers and no tight end, the offense used in the 1990s by Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, and many other teams and faced by the Redskins in the 1991 NFC Championship against the Detroit Lions), the no-huddle K-Gun (which took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls), and now the spread offense, used by the Cardinals, Colts, Patriots, Saints (last year’s number-one NFL offense), West Virginia University, the University of Florida, and many of the nation’s high schools.

Today the West Coast offense is run by the Buccaneers, Eagles, Packers, Seahawks, and Redskins. Jim Zorn learned the system in Seattle, where he worked as an assistant to Mike Holmgren, a leading proponent of the West Coast approach. The NFL has shifted so far in the direction of pass-wacky—in 2008, only the Falcons, Giants, Panthers, Ravens, Titans, Raiders, and Vikings ran more than they passed—and there’s been so much convergence that Washington’s pass-first West Coast philosophy isn’t hugely different from the approach used by teams that don’t call themselves West Coast. A “West Coast offense” now can mean anything from one modeled on Walsh’s 1988 49ers to any offense based around quick-release short passes.

What About the Shotgun?

In the Redskins’ case, the West Coast has meant lots of short passes from a fairly conventional alignment—usually two wide receivers, one tight end, a tailback, and a fullback, with the quarterback under center. Most NFL teams now use three receivers on most downs, removing the fullback.

The Redskins are rare in usually having a fullback on the field, and they do this to compensate for the fact that tight end Chris Cooley is one of the league’s best pass-catching tight ends but not much of a blocker. Most of the time Cooley is split wide as if he were a wide receiver—when this happens, he’s called the “H back.” (On a Redskins play diagram, one wide receiver would be labeled “X,” the other “Z”; usually Cooley is labeled “H.”) Because Cooley usually lines up wide, you could say that in effect the Redskins start three wide receivers—one of them a big guy built like a tight end.

Zorn’s West Coast is also conventional in that the base look is an I-backfield—the most common formation in high-school football—with a fullback in front of the tailback. All NFL teams go into the “I” occasionally; the Redskins use this look more often than any other team. In Zorn’s West Coast, there are few pre-snap shifts and little man-in-motion. In many current NFL offenses, the skill players are moving around like crazy, trying to confuse the defense, until the quarterback yells “set.” Zorn feels that such movement is a waste of energy.

Are defenses confused by pre-snap motion? In the first half of the Super Bowl, Arizona’s cornerbacks several times lost track of Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward when he went in motion, especially “spin motion,” a back-and-forth trot. In the second half, Arizona coaches compensated by telling their safeties to shadow Ward—with the result that on the Steelers’ touchdown pass with 35 seconds to play, three Cardinals went with Ward while no one initially covered Santonio Holmes, who scored the winning touchdown.

Washington’s 2008 trick-play touchdown against Philadelphia began with a spin-motion by Antwaan Randle El, confusing the “contain” man on the Eagles’ defensive left. Don’t be surprised to see more shifts and man-in-motion added to the Skins’ attack this fall.

Another conventional aspect of the Redskins West Coast is that quarterback Jason Campbell is usually under center. For generations, football coaches viewed the shotgun as a desperation tactic, in part because they feared bad snaps, in part because they thought having the quarterback start the play seven yards deep ruled out runs. When the 1991 Buffalo Bills—the team that met the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI—went through the entire season with Jim Kelly in the shotgun without a fumbled snap, and also led the league in rushing, those assumptions were shattered.

Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick, the Yoda of the NFL, put Tom Brady in the shotgun in 2007. The result was the highest-scoring season in NFL history—and a club that pulled up one minute shy of perfection. Being in the shotgun allows a quarterback to concentrate on scanning the field, not wasting energy dropping back, then to release the ball before rushers arrive; it seems in sync with West Coast thinking. So why don’t the Redskins usually have Campbell in the shotgun? Your guess is as good as mine.

They Were Born to Run

Here’s where we come to the dilemma at the heart of the team’s offensive struggles last season. The Skins have long been a running-personality team—think Joe Gibbs and the Hogs—yet Zorn wanted a pass-wacky approach. This just never clicked. In 2008, the Skins scored a mere 16.6 points a game—one of the worst outputs in the league, below that of the winless Lions. Stats analysis from the independent Web site Football Outsiders shows that New Orleans, last season’s top-scoring team, averaged 2.5 points per possession. The Redskins wheezed in at 1.5 points per drive.

In the Redskins-at-Eagles game of October 5, Washington’s best performance of last season, the Redskins quickly fell behind 14–0—but didn’t panic and stayed with the run. Redskins coaches called 30 passes and 44 rushes that day. The Redskins achieved a spectacular edge in time-of-possession—34:45 holding the ball to 25:15 for Philadelphia—and gradually recovered for a 23–17 victory. Some football analysts deride time-of-possession as an objective; Gibbs thought it was essential.

That day, the Redskins often ran Portis to the left, behind big-money offensive linemen Chris Samuels and Pete Kendall. On the key offensive snap for Washington, a third-and-one, Portis ran left for 29 yards, setting up a touchdown. The Redskins’ 203 rushing yards, on the road against an Eagles defense that would finish the season ranked third in the NFL, was the 2008 high point for traditional Redskins football. In a battle of two West Coast offenses, the team that kept the ball on the ground prevailed.

If only the rest of the season had gone that way.

Going Toward the Action

When the Redskins ran well last year, usually it was to the left, behind Samuels and Kendall. Most NFL offenses are “right-handed,” tending to run right, and so defenses tend to stack that way—thus running left can be effective. On most rushing plays, the Redskins used “zone blocking,” another NFL fad, which began with the Super Bowl–winning Denver Broncos teams of the mid-1990s. On a zone-blocking play, all offensive linemen slide in the direction of the action (if the run is off-tackle left, all slide left) and push whatever’s in front of them—which often means hitting an opponent in the back. Because the Broncos’ offensive line had a reputation for dirty play, it’s become common for announcers to suggest that zone blocking is an unfair tactic. It’s not—most fans and many sportswriters just don’t understand the “free blocking zone.”

Blocking in the back is legal in the first two seconds of a play inside the imaginary box defined by the two offensive tackles; in all other circumstances, blocking in the back is a penalty. Thus zone blocking is a fair tactic—and effective, because slamming into a defensive lineman’s back may cause him to lose his balance. The Broncos’ line of the 1990s did play dirty, but the sin was diving at opponents’ knees.

Offensive linemen like zone blocking, which is less exhausting than “drive blocking”—pushing the defender straight backward. The Redskins’ offensive line had trouble pass-blocking in 2008 but zone-blocked well for runs until line injuries began to accumulate.

Did the Redskins Win When They Ran Effectively?

The week after winning at Philadelphia, the Redskins lost at home to the inept Rams, who would finish the season 2–14. The Redskins ran well against the Rams, compiling 181 rushing yards and an edge of 22 first downs to 8 first downs. Those sorts of numbers generally spell victory. Unless you shoot yourself in the cleats by committing …

The Worst Play of the Season

Leading 7–3, Washington had first-and-ten on the St. Louis 16 with 26 seconds remaining in the first half. The Rams came out in “press” coverage with their cornerbacks right up on the line of scrimmage, making the situation ideal for a draw play. Instead, Jason Campbell dropped back; highly paid guard Randy Thomas failed to block his man, who barreled toward Campbell; Campbell made a they-teach-quarterbacks-in-high-school-never-to-do-this error of trying to throw while being tackled; his bad pass was deflected into the hands of Kendall, an offensive lineman; Kendall made a they-teach-offensive-linemen-in-high-school-never-to-do-this error of trying to run with the ball. He fumbled, and O.J. Atogwe of St. Louis returned the rock for a touchdown, as half the Skins offense barely reacted to the unpleasant news that the ball was going the wrong way.

Rather than leading 10–3 at intermission, the Skins trailed 10–7 in a game ultimately decided by two points. Coaches should have called a draw, or Campbell should have audibled to one. Once the pass blocking broke down, he simply should have taken the sack, allowing the Redskins to call time-out to set up a field goal. For his part, Kendall should have slammed the deflected pass to the ground, making it an incompletion, stopping the clock, and giving Washington second-and-ten with time to run another play. Offensive linemen are coached to slam deflected passes to the ground; if they end up with the ball and try to run, fumbles are common. But blame the Redskins’ speed guys, too, including Santana Moss: None of them made much of an effort to catch Atogwe. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.

It Takes Effort to Lose to a Team Like the Rams

There will always be botched plays—Washington lost two other fumbles in the game. More distressing than unintended mistakes are deliberate decisions. Three times against St. Louis, the Skins’ offensive line allowed sacks on third down, forcing the Skins to punt. Washington coaches called passes on third-and-one and third-and-three; both times the result was a sack and a punt. Why, with a strong rushing game, was Washington passing on third and short?

A West Coast Team That Can’t Throw Is Like a Debutante Who Hates Parties

Even a run-first team has to throw to keep defenses honest; the Ravens, the NFL’s most run-oriented club in 2008, sometimes tossed the ball on third-and-short. The larger issue was that Washington’s passing attack just didn’t work. The Redskins finished 23rd in passing, an anemic 26th in third-down conversion. Maintaining possession with chain-moving completions is the strong suit of the West Coast offense.

The offensive line allowed 38 sacks, which is not pretty. There were some badly blown “line calls” that resulted in no one even attempting to block the man who hammered Campbell.

Other than Cooley, the Redskins’ receiving corps was unimpressive in 2008. Moss had trouble getting open and at times acted like a prima donna, once drawing a celebration penalty for a stupid end-zone stunt he performed when the Redskins were behind. Randle El never stepped up as the “B receiver,” the guy who takes the pressure off the go-to target.

Knowing that the receiving corps was weak, Zorn invested two number-two choices in his first NFL draft in wide receivers Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, both of whom swaggered into training camp as if they were already stars. Combined, they caught 18 passes. Thomas and Kelly had serious immaturity issues in 2008. That better change this year.

Let’s Blame Jason Campbell

What about Campbell? He threw only six interceptions, which is really good, but he threw only 13 touchdown passes, which is modest. Drew Brees, last year’s top NFL quarterback statistically, threw 17 interceptions—and 34 touchdowns.

One knock on Campbell is that he’s stiff-looking and mechanical; Super Bowl–winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws his body around with crazed abandon. Another knock is that Campbell doesn’t make the quick decisions the West Coast offense requires—he seems to hold the ball hoping for someone to get open deep rather than checking down for a short gain.

During the off-season, Campbell found out how little Redskins management thought of him as the team pursued Jay Cutler, privately lavishing the Broncos’ quarterback with praise and dissing Campbell, though Campbell and Cutler have nearly identical 17–20 records as starters. Campbell also found out how little the rest of the league thinks of him, as Cutler was traded for two number-one draft picks plus additional booty, while no team offered the number-two pick the Redskins were asking for Campbell.

Campbell was playing last season under a different offensive coordinator or scheme for the eighth consecutive year, stretching back to his college days at Auburn. It was Campbell’s ill fortune to go from an unstable college program to an unstable pro franchise.

Contrast Campbell with Peyton Manning, who played for just one offensive coordinator in college and, until this year, just one offensive coordinator in the pros. You don’t need to be Dr. Freud to speculate that constantly having new coaches has made Jason Campbell super-cautious, more worried about avoiding mistakes than eager to take command of his team. If coach-a-rama has been Campbell’s curse, 2009 may be his year—for one of the few times since high school, Campbell is playing for the same offensive coordinator in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons.

Check Campbell’s stats and you’ll see that despite the Redskins’ management turmoil, he has improved every year in the NFL. Quarterbacks who are fated to bust tend to regress statistically; quarterbacks who gradually improve tend to become famous. So if the West Coast offense finally clicks in Campbell’s mind, Skins fans may be in for a treat. Yours truly liked Campbell when he was in college and likes him now—including how, when the media knives came out last season, Campbell stayed cool.

This is Campbell’s make-or-break year—he becomes a free agent after the season. By March 2010, he could be anything from a happy multimillionaire to a guy wondering which teams need a backup. Players tend to perform well in their “contract year,” and there’s never been any question about Campbell’s ability to throw, so a big year may be in store.

Possible disaster scenario for 2009: Campbell has a bad early outing, and Zorn yanks him for sophomore quarterback Colt Brennan, whom Zorn was keen on drafting. Brennan has the gunslinger mentality that the taciturn Campbell lacks. But if Campbell gets benched, the Redskins may be pulling him just as he’s finally about to emerge. Then Washington fans will be fated to a couple more losing seasons as yet another quarterback of the future struggles to develop.

No Touchdown Against the Super Bowl Winner

The Skins’ difficulties advancing the ball through the air were on display in their loss to the Steelers. Overall, the Redskins acquitted themselves fairly well against Pittsburgh, losing by 17 points to the team that would be the NFL’s best of 2008.

Washington was leading 6–3 late in the first half when the Steelers blocked a punt and scored for a 10–6 halftime lead. The Redskins were still in the game when they faced fourth-and-goal on the Steelers’ 1 midway through the fourth quarter. Run the ball! Run the ball! Football Outsiders Almanac—the invaluable NFL guide that takes the stats-mania approach to the sport—shows that on fourth-and-goal from the 1, a rush is more likely to succeed than a pass. So, as you’ve guessed, it was an incomplete pass.

The Pittsburgh loss was the Armageddon of Zorn’s pass-first mindset, at least for last season’s edition. Campbell threw 43 times; Portis rushed but 13 times. Redskins coaches called 50 passes and 15 runs. Because Washington was playing the number-one defense, any game plan might have been frustrated. But pass-wacky wasn’t something the 2008 Redskins could pull off.

The Pittsburgh loss also showcased Washington’s struggles along the offensive line. Campbell was sacked seven times and threw two interceptions, one when he released as he was being hit. (He should have taken the sack, making it eight sacks but one less turnover.) While announcers call the Steelers “Blitzburgh,” in reality the Steelers blitz on about one snap in six—somewhat less than the league average of one blitz per five snaps.

Pittsburgh’s “zone blitz” scheme actually should be called the “zone rush,” because the team often positions seven or eight defenders as if they will all rush, then brings only the standard four. But you never know which four. Figuring out which offensive linemen should block which defender is the “line call”—a separate call from the play call, usually made by the center at the line of scrimmage—and Washington didn’t do this well last year.

With Pittsburgh leading 23–6 as the game wound down, Washington faced fourth-and-eight and went for it. The Steelers lined up with just one defensive lineman, five linebackers, and five defensive backs. The six men on the front danced around as if they would all rush, but at the snap only four Steelers did. Washington had five offensive linemen available to block four pass rushers, yet All-Pro tackle Samuels blocked no one at all as linebacker Lawrence Timmons came through untouched—a sack, a Pittsburgh possession.

Later, with 26 seconds remaining, the Steelers showed another unorthodox front of two defensive linemen and four linebackers. The six danced again, but again only four came, and again the Skins had five offensive linemen available to block four pass rushers. Yet right tackle Jon Jansen blocked no one as linebacker LaMarr Woodley came through untouched and hammered Campbell as he released the ball—interception.

Washington offensive linemen also bungled “handing off” rushers: communicating with each other about who’ll block whom. A team can overcome sacks—last year, Pittsburgh allowed more sacks than Washington, yet it won the Super Bowl. What a team can’t overcome is pass rushers reaching the quarterback untouched, and that happened to the Redskins a lot. Small wonder Campbell seemed nervous in the pocket.

Don’t Mention This Game

Last year, the Redskins opened 6–2, raising hopes. During that period, there was a lot of traditional Skins-style power running. In the second half of the season, Washington went 2–6, as Skins coaches called steadily more passes. Maybe it’s because Clinton Portis was wearing down, as he had in the second half of 2007, or maybe Zorn felt his charges were ready to roll out more West Coast strategy. Whatever the reason, the change didn’t work. Still in the thick of the playoff chase when they faced the wretched Bengals in Cincinnati on December 14, the Redskins gained just 280 offensive yards against one of the league’s lesser defenses, losing 20–13.

Washington was beaten that day by Cedric Benson, a waiver-wire tailback, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, a reserve quarterback who learned his football at Harvard. Reaching first-and-goal on the Cincinnati 1 in the third quarter, Washington went incompletion, run no gain, fumble lost. Ye gods! Had Washington beaten Cincinnati that day, the Skins would have gone into their season finale at San Francisco with a 9–6 record and the inside track to a playoff berth.

Quietly a Terrific Defense

Fans and sports-talk obsessed nonstop about the Redskins’ low-voltage offense—while the defense finished fourth overall in the NFL against yards gained, sixth against points scored. The strong defensive finish was doubly impressive because third-down sputtering by the offense meant the defense too often jogged onto the field. (When you play defense for a hot-offense club such as Arizona, New England, or the Giants, you spend lots of time relaxing on the sideline.) Washington’s 2008 defensive performance was among the best in the club’s storied history, yet the defense got little recognition because all eyes were on the bumbling offense.

Nor did the defense get any national props: No one from the Skins’ defense was voted to the Pro Bowl. Skins middle linebacker London Fletcher may be the best-ever NFL player who has never attended a Pro Bowl. If Fletcher plays as well in 2009 as he did in 2008 and doesn’t get a Pro Bowl invitation, there’s proof that Pro Bowl balloting is as fixed as an Iranian election.

As pro football has gotten ever flashier, there’s been a trend toward flashy defenses. Pittsburgh’s 3–4 zone rush is a delight to watch: More than once last season, a Steelers defensive back rushed the passer while a defensive lineman dropped into coverage. The Tampa Two—devised by the Bucs and now used by Chicago, Indianapolis, and other teams—emphasizes speed and creates scores off turnovers. The Ravens, last season’s second-ranked defense after Pittsburgh, used unorthodox fronts such as the “46,” in which all the defensive linemen line up on one side of the center, all the linebackers on the other.

Washington’s 2008 defense was, by contrast, almost pure vanilla. Maybe French-vanilla gelato—vanilla done really well. The Skins usually lined up in a conventional front with four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs—exactly the defense Otto Graham saw when he looked across the line of scrimmage in the 1940s.

Last year, when LaRon Landry was the sole safety back, he lined up 15 to 20 yards deep—so deep he seemed to expect to receive a punt; this is a conservative alignment intended to prevent big plays. When Washington put both safeties back, they lined up more than 12 yards from the ball, also a conservative scheme.

Washington didn’t blitz much, a change from recent years. Under previous defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who favors hyper-aggressive defense, the Skins often rushed six or seven. Sports announcers tend to urge teams to blitz more, saying it puts pressure on the passer—though last year’s number-one sack team, Dallas, didn’t blitz much. The real reason announcers extol the blitz is either (1) they have no idea what they’re watching on the field or (2) the blitz sometimes produces spectacular results that announcers can get excited about. The problem is that the spectacular results may be good (sacks, turnovers) but are just as likely to be bad (long gainers, touchdowns).

In 2006, the Redskins blitzed as much as any team in the NFL—and finished 31st in defense. In 2007, Williams ordered fewer blitzes and the Skins leapt to eighth in defense. Last season, under defensive coordinator Greg Blache, the Skins mainly did what makes sports announcers yawn—dropped back into coverage and tried to force incompletions. Incompletions may cause drowsiness in the broadcast booth, but they’re music to a defensive coordinator’s ears. 

Only Looks Like a Blitz

Often in 2008, the Skins “showed blitz,” with more defenders creeping up toward the line, eyeing the quarterback, and pumping their heels as if they couldn’t wait to dash into the backfield. Then at the snap, they dropped back into coverage—often headed toward the “slant lanes,” the areas where quarterbacks throw a quick slant to beat a blitz.

The point of showing blitz is to make the quarterback react by audibling to a standard anti-blitz play, especially the quick slant—then when the quarterback looks up, he sees that everyone is tightly covered. Ideally, showing blitz will trick the quarterback into throwing a slant, and—surprise!—a defender is there.

This is what happened on the most important NFL play of last season, linebacker James Harrison’s interception and 100-yard touchdown return with a few seconds remaining in the first half of the Super Bowl. Trailing 10–7, the Cardinals had the ball on the Pittsburgh 5 with 25 seconds remaining till intermission. The Steelers showed a mega-blitz, with all three linebackers creeping up to the line and glaring at Cards quarterback Kurt Warner, who audibled to a quick slant. At the snap, the four regular defensive linemen rushed and all three linebackers dropped into pass coverage. Harrison’s assignment was the slant lane on Warner’s left. Expecting no coverage in the area because he thought the linebackers would be blitzing, Warner threw the ball directly to Harrison. Instead of Arizona’s going into halftime with a 10–10 tie or even the lead, as Bruce Springsteen’s stage was rolled out, the Steelers led 17–7—in a game decided by four points.

This is the sort of result Greg Blache was hoping for with the Skins when he installed a fairly conventional defense that also often mixes in the “cover two” featured by many NFL teams, including the Bears, his previous employer. Announcers speak of the “cover two” in hushed tones, as if it were a deep mystery—but it’s really just a new name for zone defense. In a cover two, the cornerbacks cover short pass routes and the safeties cover deep routes, each taking whoever comes into the area rather than trailing a specific receiver. Though Blache’s defense never produced anything as impressive as a Super Bowl touchdown, the overall result was pleasing.

Does Signing Haynesworth Mean There’s Finally a Plan?

Redskins fans should feel good about defensive prospects for 2009, considering the unit’s solid 2008 outing and the addition of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the most sought-after defensive player on last winter’s free-agent market, and first-round draft choice Brian Orakpo, an “elephant”—a cross between a linebacker and a defensive end. Bear in mind, though, that the oft-injured Haynesworth has never started all 16 games of a season.

If the defense holds true to form and the Washington offense merely improves to average, 2009 might be the team’s first really good season in way too long. Despite having a strong defense and a weak offense in 2008, the Redskins spent most of their free-agency money and draft choices improving the defense, which might indicate that head coach Zorn believes the offense is about to bust out. Or it could mean there’s no plan, which has been the case in several seasons under Dan Snyder.

If the West Coast Offense Doesn’t Click, Then What?

Clinton Portis was treated as a celebrity by former Skins head coach Joe Gibbs, who didn’t suffer fools gladly but who tended to make exceptions for the horses he loved so much—a “horse” is a running back capable of 25 carries a game. John Riggins, George Rogers, Portis—Gibbs would let them get away with things he wouldn’t abide in others. All three were allowed to take themselves out of games and put themselves back in—delegating to players a decision-making role few head coaches ever surrender. Gibbs also let his star backs ask for the plays they wanted to run; anyone else asking for the ball would be met with an icy glare.

Zorn expected Portis to shut up and follow instructions. This seemingly reasonable requirement—for millions of dollars, most of us would gladly shut up and do what the coach said—rubbed Portis the wrong way. The result: When the Redskins’ season started crumpling, Portis started sniping at Zorn, calling Zorn’s decisions “BS” and sarcastically calling him a “genius.” Small wonder the Redskins are expected to give backup tailback Ladell Betts more playing time.

After being yanked from the Redskins-Ravens game in favor of Betts, Portis grouched on John Thompson’s radio show about receiving inconsistent coaching in practice:

“One day it’s ‘Chip on your way out,’ then if you don’t chip and you get out and the quarterback gets sacked, it’s like, ‘Oh, you need to help this man out.’ ”

What was this about? On passing downs, it’s common for the tailback to have a chip-block assignment. After the snap, he’ll scan the offensive line to see if anyone’s having trouble with his man; if so, the tailback will “chip” that man, slamming him with his shoulder and then running a swing-pass route into the flat to be the quarterback’s safety-valve target. If the defensive front appears properly checked, the tailback doesn’t block and runs a more challenging route, such as a dig or a wheel. Portis’s complaint was that Zorn wouldn’t tell him whether to run a pass route or stay in and block.

When a top-notch offense such as that of the Eagles performs, these arguments don’t come up. On a passing down, watch tailback Brian Westbrook. At the snap, he’ll take one second to look around and determine if a lineman needs help. If yes, he pass-blocks; if no, he runs a pass route—no hesitation or confusion. But the Eagles have been executing the West Coast offense for years. If Washington’s West Coast offense doesn’t begin to click in 2009, expect Dan Snyder to start waving lots of dollars in front of Bill Cowher.

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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