Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Getting Defensive

Let’s make this real clear. Defense is the heart and soul of the Washington Redskins. That has been true since Norv Turner left. Sure, the offense, especially the passing game, has agitated fans; but defense has, is and will keep the ‘Skins in games. The D will get them in the playoffs.

The Redskins play east coast football, in contrast to the west coast variety. East coast ball is smash mouth ball. This defense forces the pass, by stifling the run. Then, precise coverage, along with a blitz from anywhere approach, disrupts the play. This is the win-by-keeping-the-other-guys-from-scoring model. The Redskins would have been more successful over the past four years if the offense could have scored 13 points or more in each game. They couldn’t. Thus, fan agitation.

Gregg Williams is good at assessing talent. He and the defensive staff found these no-name players - Cornelius Griffen, Antonio Pierce - and made them stars. Marcus Washington was a salary cap casualty at Indianapolis who never made a Pro Bowl until he found his niche in the Redskins defense. "Everyone's a starter" is Williams' mantra, so everyone is interchangeable at their position.

That’s become more prominent in the NFL. Winning programs develop a system, then find players that fit that system. Players become snap-in parts and no player is larger than the system. Mike Shanahan’s rushing game at Denver is an example. The Broncos always feature high performing running backs. When the Broncos became a running team with Terrell Davis, they won the Super Bowl. When Davis went down, they found Clinton Portis. When Portis wanted to get paid, they went to Mike Anderson to Tatum Bell to Rueben Droughns and back to Anderson. Snap in parts. The system is supreme. You see the same approach with the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles and with similar results.

Teams have always had systems and philosophies, however, the dominance of the system over the player is emerging. It's the age of free agency, when players are more loyal to the NFL at large than to their teams (or the team’s fans). Teams cope by by being more loyal to their system than to their players. They invest in premier coaches who can implement a winning system. Players come and go or get injured; the system provides continuity. It’s the coaches who are the stars. Players are snap-in parts. The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years without a legitimate super star. But they had Bill Belichick and his system. Ty Law wanted a larger contract after he helped the Patriots win a title. He was replaced and the Pats kept winning. Terrell Owens wanted a new deal after he helped the Eagles get to the Super Bowl. He was sent home for a week.

In this scenario, stars emerge from the system, but they are not essential to it. The system doesn’t need super stars. It requires disciplined role players who will cover their assignment. A system like that can survive player injury or contract negotiations. Players can be replaced. Coaches get consistency in their schemes no matter who is playing. Owners get negotiating leverage over prima donna stars. "We need you, but not as much as you think we do!"

This brings us back to the Redskins' defense. Lavar Arrington is the most visible face of the team. He is an outstanding athletic talent, yet he cannot get into games. Apparently the coaches feel that he is not the snap-in part they need to work the system. The 'Skins play great defense with Arrington. They play great defense without him. He is expendable in the coaches’ view. Antonio Pierce was a real find last season. When he wanted more money, the Skins did not keep him. They turned to Lamar Marshall who is doing as well. Fred Smoot wanted more money. Bye, Fred. The Skins bring in Walt Harris who has been very effective. (Maybe Fred wishes he stayed!) This is the profile of a team that values its defensive schemes, its system, more than the players that execute it. This repudiation of the star system is the single greatest change in the Gibbs era. Mr. Snyder’s stars are slowly being weaned from this system. Good bye Champ Bailey, Laveranues Coles, Fred Smoot, Antonio Pierce, Patrick Ramsey perhaps and Lavar Arrington maybe. You were good, but the system is supreme. There are no stars but the coaches. Steve Spurrier was not a star. He did not have a good system. (and I hope Mr. Snyder fired whoever it was that advised him to hire Spurrier)

Not that the approach is infallible. Good as they are, this defense gives up big plays. Seattle drove sixty yards down field to get in position to miss the winning field goal. With Sean Taylor and Shawn Springs out with injuries, the defense couldn’t stop the Seahawks’ march. The Redskins stifled the Denver Broncos – except for two long scoring runs by Tatum Bell. The Defense was victimized by a long pass play by Priest Holmes in Kansas City. Much is made of the inability of the defense to get turnovers. It's not enough to get turnovers. The defense and special teams have to score. That's got to be fixed, because the defense is the heart and soul of the Redskins.

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