Slowly and menacingly, Norv Turner's Redskins have been sneaking
up on the rest of the NFL. If you believe in mathematical
progression, the Skins are due for a 12-4 year. Turner won three
games in his first season in Washington, six in his second, nine
But this is a team that won't be rushed. For instance, it took
Turner two years to figure out whether Gus Frerotte or Heath
Shuler should be the quarterback. (Note, however, that last
season Frerotte made the Pro Bowl and Shuler was shipped off to
In both the free-agent market and the draft, Turner and general
manager Charley Casserly have chosen wisely. The Skins gambled
in 1995 when they signed ex-Viking Terry Allen, who had a
surgically repaired knee, but last year he broke John Riggins's
team rushing record with 1,353 yards. Defensive end Rich Owens,
an undersized 245-pounder out of Lehigh, was written off as a
wasted draft pick two years ago, but he had 11 sacks in
1996--more than any Redskins lineman since Charles Mann had 11
1/2 in 1991. Jamie Asher, a fifth-round choice in '95, caught 42
balls last season, the most by a Washington tight end in 22 years.
The Skins came within a whisker of the playoffs in '96, losing
three games on the final play. They had come out of the box
roaring and by the end of October were 7-1. But even then there
were ominous signs. Wide receiver Michael Westbrook's
chronically injured left knee was acting up, and the defense was
July 15, 1997
Then the dam broke. Buffalo ran the Redskins out of Rich Stadium
with 266 yards on the ground. The next week the Cardinals'
Boomer Esiason threw for 522 yards against them. Washington lost
four of its next six, the playoffs became a mirage, and the
Redskins' defense finished third to last in the league.
"Poor tackling, injuries, sometimes just bad luck," Turner
offers as explanation. But he must have thought the causes went
deeper than that. Not one week after the season ended, he shook
up his defensive staff, replacing coordinator Ron Lynn with Mike
Nolan from the Giants. Turner's sense of urgency was apparent in
the draft, in which the Skins chose not to go for any of that
best-available-athlete stuff and instead sought to fill specific
Washington used six of its first eight picks for defenders,
including the first three--Kenard Lang, a 277-pound run-stopping
end; Greg Jones, a model strongside linebacker; and Derek Smith,
a swift weakside linebacker. The Skins looked for defense among
free agents, too. They signed ex-Houston cornerback Cris
Dishman, a former All-Pro, to replace Tom Carter, who signed
with the Bears, and end Chris Mims, who was the Chargers' 1992
No. 1 draft choice.
So where does the defense stand? There are two leaders:
three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ken Harvey, who is 32, and future
Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, who is 37 and hasn't lost
a step. The remaining question for the defense is, When will
tackle Sean Gilbert be back?
The 316-pound Gilbert is a powerful force in the middle. He
wants $4 million. He ain't gonna get it. Gilbert bashers remind
you that he had zero sacks after the first three games of '96.
Gilbert boosters, including Turner, remind you that he was
consistently double-teamed, which enabled his linemates to get
the sacks. Even his detractors won't deny Gilbert's importance
to the defense.
On offense, the line is strictly big league (it allowed only 22
sacks last year); there is real punch in the running game;
Frerotte is among the NFL's up-and-coming stars; and free-agent
signee Jeff Hostetler is a more than capable backup quarterback.
There is one vision, however, that haunts Turner. He can still
picture Frerotte searching for a receiver in Dallas last
Thanksgiving, when the Skins were struggling to stay in the
playoff picture. It's no wonder Frerotte couldn't find any
receivers; Washington didn't have any. So in June, Turner picked
Alvin Harper off Tampa Bay's discard pile.
In the early '90s, when Turner was Jimmy Johnson's offensive
coordinator in Dallas, Harper was terrific for the Cowboys. He
would draw the coverage downfield, and Michael Irvin would catch
the stuff underneath. But Harper and the Bucs never hit it off.
"They didn't have me running those action posts and
stutter-and-go's, the stuff I did best in Dallas," Harper says.
"It almost seems like those two years down there didn't happen.
Now? It's like a reunion."
So keep your fingers crossed in Washington, folks. Get Gilbert
signed. Get Harper deep. Get the defense together. Three more
wins could happen.
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 9-7 (third in NFC East)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 119.4 (7) 207.4 (15) 326.8 (9)
DEFENSE 142.2 (30) 215.5 (20) 357.7 (28)
Making 'Em Count
Henry Ellard knows how to move the chains. Last season 49 of his
52 receptions resulted in first downs, including every one of
his 15 third-down catches.
Highest Percentage of Receptions Resulting in First Downs In
1996 (wide receivers only)*
Rec. First downs Pct.
Henry Ellard, Redskins 52 49 94.2
Bobby Engram, Bears 33 28 84.8
Antonio Freeman, Packers 56 46 82.1
Chris Penn, Chiefs 49 40 81.6
Derrick Alexander, Ravens 62 50 80.6
Highest Percentage of Third-Down Receptions Resulting in First
Downs In 1996 (wide receivers only)**
Rec. First downs Pct.
Henry Ellard, Redskins 15 15 100.0
Jake Reed, Vikings 25 23 92.0
Mark Carrier, Panthers 23 21 91.3
Willie Green, Panthers 20 18 90.0
Isaac Bruce, Rams 19 17 89.5
*Minimum 25 first downs **Minimum 15 first downs
PLAYER TO WATCH
In April the Redskins drafted linebacker Derek Smith from
Arizona State in the third round. About a month later, after
clocking him at 4.65 in the 40 and watching him cover receivers,
the coaches decided to give Smith a shot at Marvcus Patton's
weakside linebacker spot, with Patton moving to the middle. Says
general manager Charley Casserly of the hunting and fishing
aficionado from American Fork, Utah, "Great instincts and speed.
Great eagerness to learn. I must have had 10 teams tell me after
we drafted him, 'God, we wanted that guy.'"
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Norv Turner
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Gus Frerotte 68[*] 470 att. 270 comp. 57.4% 3,453 yds.
12 TDs 11 int. 79.3 rtg.
RB Terry Allen 25[*] 347 att. 1,353 yds. 3.9 avg.
32 rec. 194 yds. 6.1 avg. 21 TDs
FB Larry Bowie 382[*] 0 att. 0 yds. Avg. N.A.
3 rec. 17 yds. 5.7 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Henry Ellard 93[*] 52 rec. 1,014 yds. 2 TDs
WR Michael Westbrook 104[*] 34 rec. 505 yds. 1 TD
WR Alvin Harper[A] 308[*] 19 rec. 289 yds. 1 TD
TE Jamie Asher 53[*] 42 rec. 481 yds. 4 TDs
PK Scott Blanton 196[*] 40/40 XPs 26/32 FGs 118 pts.
KR Brian Mitchell 102[*] 56 ret. 22.5 avg. 0 TDs
PR Brian Mitchell 102[*] 23 ret. 11.2 avg. 0 TDs
LT Joe Patton 6'5" 308 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
LG Tre Johnson 6'2" 340 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Jeff Uhlenhake 6'3" 284 lbs. 12 games 11 starts
RG Bob Dahl 6'5" 320 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT Ed Simmons 6'5" 336 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
LE Chris Mims[A] 28 tackles 6 sacks
LT Marc Boutte 15 tackles 0 sacks
RT Sean Gilbert 68 tackles 3 sacks
RE Rich Owens 46 tackles 11 sacks
OLB Ken Harvey 93 tackles 9 sacks
MLB Marvcus Patton 115 tackles 2 int.
OLB Greg Jones (R)[A] 78 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
CB Cris Dishman[A] 57 tackles 1 int.
SS Jesse Campbell[A] 88 tackles 2 int.
FS Stanley Richard 106 tackles 3 int.
CB Darrell Green 62 tackles 3 int.
P Matt Turk 75 punts 45.1 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)