playcalling still a work in progress

(photo by Brian Murphy)

On the first offensive play of the Washington Redskins’ 2009 season, running back Clinton Portis rushed for 34 yards. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there.

While standing on the sidelines of Giants Stadium, we couldn’t help but dwell on what we thought was lackluster playcalling by head coach Jim Zorn – especially on first downs.

With that in mind, we went back and logged every play the Redskins ran on first down. Here’s the breakdown:

1. Portis rushes left for 34 yards.
2. Wide out Antwaan Randle El sacked for 11-yard loss.
3. Portis runs off left tackle for no gain.
4. Quarterback Jason Campbell to tight end Chris Cooley for 17-yard gain.
5. Campbell to Randle El for 13-yard gain.
6. Portis rushes left for 2 yards.
7. Portis rushes left for 2 yards.

8. Campbell passes to Cooley for 11-yard gain.
9. Campbell passes to running back Ladell Betts for 23-yard gain.
10. Campbell passes to Randle El for 8 yards.
11. Portis rushes left for 2 yards.
12. Portis rushes left for 2 yards.

13. Campbell pass intended for Cooley is incomplete.
14. Betts runs right for 1 yard.
15. Portis runs left for 1 yard.
16. Portis runs left for 3 yards.
17. Portis runs right for 6-yard loss.
18. Wide out Devin Thomas gains no yards on end around.

19. Campbell pass intended for Betts is incomplete.
20. Campbell to Cooley for 4-yard gain.
21. Campbell to Randle El for 16-yard gain.
22. Campbell to Cooley for 17-yard touchdown.

To recap, that’s a total of 22 first downs for the Redskins on the day. The playcalling splits evenly between 11 running plays and 11 passing plays. But, as you’ll see, the production wasn’t nearly the same between the running and passing game.

After picking up 34 yards on the first run of the day, Portis was shut down the rest of the game – especially on first down. Nine times on first down the team handed Portis the ball and he picked up a total of 40 yards (which translates to a healthy 4.4 yards per carry). But don’t be fooled. Take away the big first carry and you’re looking at eight carries for just six yards. We repeat – eight carries for six yards. That’s not going to get it done, folks.

The ‘Skins were so predictable on first-down running plays that Portis ran to the left – behind tackle Chris Samuels and guard Derrick Dockery – eight out of nine times. Of course, the one time he tried to run behind right tackle Stephon Heyer, Portis was stuffed for a six-yard loss. So it’s not difficult to see why the team kept trying to run left, even when it wasn’t successful.

As for the passing game on first downs, Campbell completed eight out of 10 attempts for 109 yards and a touchdown. That’s 10.9 yards per completion, and translates to a robust 145.4 quarterback rating. So basically, when Campbell was allowed to throw the ball on first downs, he picked apart the Giants defense – especially down the middle of the field (as evident by the abundance of passes to Cooley and Randle El).

So where are we going with all of this? We realize that last season the bread and butter of the Washington offense was a potent rushing attack, led by Pro Bowler Clinton Portis. However, the Giants have a suffocating defense, which starts up front with their stout defensive line, that rarely gives up much in the way of rushing yards.

A smart coach would have noticed fairly early on that running to the left on first down was good for a two-yard gain tops. And unless they really, really liked facing second down and eight over and over, that smart coach would have made a mid-game adjustment and tried a different approach.

Clearly, Campbell fared well on first downs when he had time to throw the ball. Sticking with more of the short and intermediate passes would have forced the Giants defense to back off and helped open things up a little for Portis on the ground.

Instead, the ‘Skins seemed content to run Portis into a wall, take the two yards per attempt and run their offense three plays at a time. Unless you’re an avid fan of punter Hunter Smith, that’s not the kind of football you want to see your favorite team run.

But all is not lost. The Giants, just two years removed from a Super Bowl victory, remain among the league’s elite. And at times this past weekend, the Redskins were able to make plays and move the ball against New York’s aggressive defense.

Between now and Sunday, Zorn needs to take a critical look at his offense and, more importantly, his playcalling. Figure out what worked, and continue to develop ways to stick with what works. For the rest, see what adjustments need to be made, and if you can’t fix it, then scrap it.

A season cannot be won or lost in week one, but there are definitely lessons to be learned from this game. Here’s hoping Zorn and friends are willing to make an honest assessment of the situation and are willing to do what is needed to help get this offense to where it needs to be. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long year.


  1. WildBill1952
    September 16, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    After last year’s 2-6 finish, an assessment was done and it pointed to inadequate line play. Dockery is an improvement over the oft-injured guard I can’t remember, and Stephon Heyer is barely an improvement over Jansen. But it’s clear that our unimproved OLine is not cut out to beat any good DLine. Their pass protections looks better than last year, but, like last year, the OLine cannot move a good DLine off of the line of scrimmage.

    Portis is unable to run between the tackles. He couldn’t last year and he can’t this year. The problem is not with Portis. Some of it is play-calling, where the other team seems to know when we’re going to run. But the problem with the run game lies with the OLine. I’m hopeful that against the Rams and the Lions it will look like we have a run game. But against the teams we will meet if we get to the playoffs, our OLine is woefully inadequate to open up lanes for Portis between the tackles. Sure, Portis may get around the end on a stretch play, but when we need a score from inside the 5, JUST LIKE LAST YEAR, we can’t depend on a running attack to do it. And it will remain that way until we upgrade the interior of the OL.

  2. Alan Watson
    September 16, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    That is the best critique of the play-calling and how it impacted our game. Thank you for being impartial and not just blaming one player for this loss.

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