Passing offense short on big plays

BALTIMORE -- It was just one play in a two-hour practice session with the Baltimore Ravens, but for those Washington Redskins fans prepared to hold coach Joe Gibbs to his offseason promise of remaking an outdated passing game, the first fling of the Saturday scrimmage was about as unfavorable an omen as could be imagined.

In the opening seven-on-seven segment, a drill that includes no pass-rushers, quarterback Patrick Ramsey stood in the make-believe pocket, scanned the field for receivers, looked to his left and his right … then completed a check-down pass to tailback Clinton Portis for a modest gain.

"I guess it's what was [available]," Portis said after the scrimmage.

Maybe so. But lots of coaches use such scrimmages, or even the initial preseason contest, to send a message. You know, go deep on the first snap, air it out just to demonstrate that you can. Challenge a secondary merely for the heck of it and, frankly, because it basically means nothing in such exhibitions. Put people on notice, both the ones on your own team and all the opponents who might have scouts sitting in the stands, that there is a long-ball dimension to your playbook.

The message sent, unwittingly or not, by Gibbs and his offense in the scrimmage was this: The vow to go vertical in 2005 might be going nowhere.

Coming off a disastrous 2004 campaign in the passing game, one in which the Redskins finished last in the NFL in "explosive" pass plays of 20 yards or more and in completions of 40 yards or more, it wasn't a promising start. Even in the noncontact segments of the practice, all of the skeleton passing drills, Washington quarterbacks rarely looked deep. In the "live" portion of the scrimmage, three Redskins quarterbacks combined for 14 completions in 26 attempts, but for an average gain of only 8.3 yards. The team's new starting wideouts, Santana Moss and David Patten, had three catches for 27 yards. And in one 12-play stretch, Ramsey was sacked four times.

"I wouldn't make too much of it," said Moss, the lightning-quick receiver acquired from the New York Jets in a trade that sent Laveranues Coles packing. "It was a scrimmage, a practice, basically. We know what this offense is capable of doing, because we've been doing it in camp. We weren't trying to do too much [in the scrimmage]."

But if the Redskins are to rebound from a dismal 6-10 season, and Gibbs is to discount the notion that even the genius of a Hall of Fame coach might carry an expiration date, the Washington passing game has to do much, much more. The offense in general, in fact, has to be more productive than the one that managed just 24 touchdowns in 2004.

Only one team, the Chicago Bears, tallied fewer offensive touchdowns. The Redskins scored two or fewer touchdowns in 14 games, one or fewer nine of those times. In the passing game, Ramsey completed a career-best 62.1 percent of his passes but his average per attempt was only 6.12 yards (a hair below the NFL standard) and the Redskins' average completion, 9.98 yards, was second-lowest in the league. Portis rushed for 1,315 yards but looked uncomfortable with the blocking scheme, and Gibbs' signature run play often was neutralized by opposition run-blitzes.

On the sideline, the coaching staff included too many chefs offering input, and the result was chaos. The coaches struggled to get plays to the huddle and the Redskins too often were rushed at the line of scrimmage.

It was the seemingly ill-conceived passing design, though, that came under the heaviest fire, including some criticism from within. In an age of passing game sophistication, the Redskins typically used "max" protection schemes and ran just two-receiver patterns. Gibbs acknowledged to friends that the biggest adjustment in returning to the league after an 11-season hiatus was assimilating how differently teams now defend the pass. The learning curve, even for a guy with three Super Bowl rings, was a difficult one.

"There were times I think [the offense] couldn't handle some of the blitzes that defenses use a lot now," guard Randy Thomas said. Another veteran Washington player noted that the offense "felt overmatched" at times and that Gibbs and the staff were slow to come to grips with the reality that the game had evolved and that the design of an offense from a generation ago was insufficient to cope with the changes.

Gibbs said, "We couldn't make a big play in the passing game. Getting that fixed, I think, has been our No. 1 [offseason] priority."

So to his cast of codger assistants, Gibbs added Bill Musgrave, a two-time coordinator in the NFL, as quarterbacks coach. The offense was streamlined a bit, with less motion and, hopefully, less confusion. There should be more speed with Moss and Patten, both of whom averaged more than 18 yards per catch in 2004. More three-wide receiver sets were added, and Gibbs allowed the installation of some shotgun formation plays, which he never used before. It was all, in a sense, a concession that the Washington passing design of a year ago was a dinosaur.

Whether the Redskins can speed the evolutionary process in 2005 remains to be seen. Certainly there is considerable pressure on Gibbs, whose return to the franchise was seen by Redskins fans as messianic. There also is pressure on Ramsey, who has two seasons remaining on his contract and clearly doesn't enjoy unanimous support in the organization, as evidenced by the fact the Redskins traded three draft picks this year to get in position to grab Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell in the first round.

Ramsey has a strong arm, but he sometimes holds the ball too long and is only now starting to develop the kind of touch necessary to succeed at the game's toughest position. He has worked hard in the offseason to improve his recognition and anticipatory skills, but also understands the clock is ticking on his Washington shelf life.

"I like the changes we made," Ramsey said. "I'm getting more comfortable every day with what we want to accomplish."

So maybe the Saturday scrimmage was just a detour from that comfort zone, a one-day aberration in which the new passing-game vehicle developed a glitch on its first "live" test-drive. At least that's what the Redskins are hoping.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.