A Need for Speed
Fred Smoot can usually be relied on to have something to say about most things. Not all of what he says makes sense and he is not known for his brevity - but a recent comment he made about Steve Spurrier and this year’s version of the Redskins offense sums things up quite succinctly. 'Coach is in love with speed'.
Last year 'Coach' tried to make his renowned Fun ‘N Gun system work in the NFL, frankly, with mixed results. The problem was that he had Marty Schottenhiemer’s roster to try and accomplish it with. A roster built to control the ball around a power running game with big wideouts who could shield defenders, but that had trouble getting separation. Oh, and no NFL caliber quarterback either.
Despite some gaudy, and ultimately misleading results in preseason, Steve Spurrier learned that it is not just the system which wins games in the NFL - it's the players.
So during the off season, the Redskins went shopping… for speed! Speed that would allow them to stretch defenses and spread the field vertically.
It all started at wide receiver. A $13M signing bonus (and some frugality by the Jets) saw the 'Skins prise star receiver Laveranues Coles away from the Meadowlands. Coles is coming off an 89 catch 1264 yard performance last season as Chad Pennington’s ‘go to’ guy. He has the speed, and as importantly, the agility and quickness to get behind defenders. He instantly became the Redskins’ #1 receiver, and is a guy that teams will have to look out for and respect on every play. In limited action in the preseason, a promising relationship looked to be developing with Coles and QP Patrick Ramsey. How does a whopping 29.5 yard average sound on 7 catches for 177 yards with a touchdown? $13M might well be a bargain yet.
Lining up alongside Coles will be holdover Rod Gardner. No slouch himself, but a much bigger receiver who will benefit from teams having to respect the Redskins deep speed opening up holes for him in the intermediate and underneath routes.
Behind the starters are second round draft choice (and Gator grad) Taylor Jacobs, Pat Johnson, Cliff Russell and Darnerien McCants. Jacobs has shown tremendous fluidity and very good speed in camp and looks to be the teams #3 receiver (though he will miss the opener with internal bruising). McCants will likely back up Gardner as the possession type receiver. Johnson and Russell both possess world class speed - Johnson setting Olympic qualifying times in both the 100 and 200 at College (and beating Carl Lewis in the process) and Russell being the fastest Redskin in training camp sprints - just. This year when we go 4 or 5 wide… watch out.
The next injection of speed came in the backfield. Out went workhorse and Redskins fan favourite Stephen Davis, (we wish him well in Carolina except when they play us) and in came Trung Candidate.
Candidate is a former 1st round draft pick of the Rams who was brought in to back up and eventually replace Marshall Faulk. However he found himself in Mike Martz's doghouse and was acquired for a fourth round pick. He has much to prove in terms of his ability to be an every down back and his ability to get the tough yards between the tackles. He has nothing to prove in terms of his speed and big play ability. How many other backs in the NFL have been timed at under 4.3 for the 40? In college he averaged over 40 yards per touchdown. 40 YARDS!!! This guy is a threat to break it every time he touches the ball.
In camp and preseason he has shown toughness and a willingness and ability to square his shoulders and take the hole that is there, rather than dance in the backfield. His toughness was never more evident than when levelled in training camp by newly acquired safety Matt Bowen in a half speed drill!
Behind Candidate will be last years second round pick Ladell Betts. Betts was hurt through most of camp and saw limited action in preseason. He is more of a traditional tailback type than Candidate and could see most of his playing time in third-and-short, or goal line situations. Undrafted free agent Sultan McCullough beat out highly regarded Kenny Watson for the final running back spot. McCullough lead the 'Skins in rushing during preseason and wowed coaches with his toughness, running ability and of course … his speed.
Unusually the Skins will be keeping a fourth running back with the fourth spot going to another off season pick up from the Jets, Chad Morton. Morton became a Redskin after arbitration ruled that the Jets had erred (again!) in not fully matching the offer that the Redskins had made to then restricted free agent Morton. Morton was signed mainly to serve as the Redskins primary kickoff and punt return man were he immediately provides a significant upgrade and gives Washinton it’s best return man since Brian Mitchell. His quickness and elusive running in traffic, coupled with his excellent hands, also mean he will see time in the backfield in (mostly) third down passing situations.
The fullback spot sees both of last years incumbents return. Bryan Johnson is the nominal starter but both players will probably see even game time. Johnson is usually a better receiver, and a better blocker but during preseason the Redskins even experimented with using a two fullback offense in short yardage situations. Bowling ball Rock Cartwright carrying behind Johnson’s huge blocking. It is not quite as automatic as Riggins behind the Hogs, but it has potential.
Tight End is not an overly used position in the Fun 'N Gun and therefore the Redskins opted to only carry two on the roster. Zeron Flemister narrowly hung on to his starting job despite still having an annoying habit of dropping catchable passes in critical situations. Look for second-year man Robert Royal to get more and more time here as the season progresses.
This all sounds really good so far… right? Great speed out of the backfield, big play wide receivers streaking all over the field with desperate defensive backs trailing in their wake. Where are they playing the Super Bowl this year anyway?
Leave it to Joe Thiesmann, another guy not short of a thing or two to say, to put it all into perspective. According to Joe our progress this year will start and end with the '5 guys up front and Patrick Ramsey'.
The starting QB is important? Who would have thought it? While this is not a stunning revelation, it is still very true. All the investments made this off season along with the unquestioned improvements we have made, will be for naught if we can not pass protect well enough to give Ramsey time to play. Ramsey must also continue the promising development he showed at the end of last season in order for the Redskins to succeed.
But a revamped offensive line will definitely give Ramsey more time. Needing to replace both guards from last year’s squad, the Redskins first looked to who else – the Jets! The Skins once again raided the J-E-T-S and picked up stud left guard Randy Thomas. Also acquired was Dave Fiore from the 49ers. Both guys will start opening day along side of tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen and center, Larry Moore. This new group could constitute one of the better lines in football - especially at pass protection. Backing up the starters is rookie Derrick Dockery, a massive presence and the primary back up at both tackle and guard. Good preseason performances also have center Lennie Friedmann pushing Larry Moore for starting spot.
Which brings us back to Pat Ramsey.
The grammar checker on the word processor (a very busy tool) wants to put a question mark after that last sentence. That's about right - Pat Ramsey is probably the single biggest question mark surrounding the 2003 Redskins. If he flourishes, the playoffs are a very realistic proposition. If he struggles - then so will the Redskins - speed or no speed.
Ramsey has a big arm and a big heart. He is intelligent and has spent countless hours working diligently to prepare himself to start this year. He has proved himself durable and he has won the confidence of Spurrier and his teammates. So much confidence in fact, that the Redskins are only keeping two QBs on the active roster, Ramsey and back up Rob Johnson. However let us not forget that Pat Ramsey has started only 5 NFL games. Last season he went 117 of 227 for 1539 yards with 9 TDs and 8 INTs. He won his last two starts against the Texans and Cowboys.
Training camp produced mixed results for P-Ram. Early in camp he was stellar, but as camp wore on he was more ‘up and down’. However in the most meaningful action - the third preseason game against Baltimore when the starters played the first half, he looked good. An 8 of 13 for 100 yards performance, along with 1TD (39 yards to Coles) was solid and the Redskins and Ramsey produced 17 points at the half. The young QB’s relationship with primary WR Coles has developed well too. ‘Ramsey to Coles’ is a phrase we can hopefully all become very familiar with over the coming weeks - hopefully followed by 'touchdown Washington Redskins!'
Ramsey has all the tools - both physically and mentally - to become a pro bowl caliber QB in the NFL. This year will again be a growing year for him - how fast and how far he grows will be the most significant factor in how far and fast the Redskins go this year on offense. One thing that will add to the prospect of his success… speed.
This article was released on 2003-09-02.
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