It's leap year for Redskins Expectations: A February investment in two huge players -- Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson -- sets playoff talk in motion.

August 01, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG -- In the span of four days in February, the Washington Redskins changed everything. They changed the look of their defensive line, the expectation level of their team and the pecking order of the NFC East.

On Feb. 23, the Redskins signed unrestricted free-agent defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield to a six-year, $36 million contract.

On Feb. 26, they traded first- and third-round draft picks for defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, the Cincinnati Bengals' disgruntled franchise player, and immediately signed him to a five-year, $21.4 million contract.

It was the most remarkable week of Charley Casserly's nine-year run as general manager, a watershed week for a team that missed the playoffs by one game each of the past two seasons.

Committing $57 million to two players -- with a payoff of $13 million in signing bonuses -- the Redskins not only fixed their feckless run defense, but stamped themselves as the team to beat in the NFC East. In one fell swoop, they may have passed the defending division champion Giants.

Clearly, anything less than the playoffs would be a major disappointment.

"I don't see anything less," Stubblefield said when the Redskins opened training camp at Frostburg State this week. "My goal is [to go] beyond the playoffs."

Stubblefield, 27, knows his way around the NFL's postseason. In five years with the San Francisco 49ers, he went to one Super Bowl (which the 49ers won), three Pro Bowls and the playoffs every January. In 1997, when he racked up 15 sacks, he earned the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.

Wilkinson, 25, is less familiar with the territory. As the first pick in the 1994 draft, he averaged just 32 tackles and 6.25 sacks in four non-playoff seasons with the Bengals. When the 6-foot-5, 313-pound Wilkinson arrived in Frostburg, he said he wanted to put his checkered Cincinnati past behind him. That past included a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence for striking his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach in September 1995.

"It's a fresh start for me," he said. "Our attitude as a team is, we expect to get to the playoffs and do well. That wasn't the case previously [in Cincinnati]."

That the paths of Stubblefield and Wilkinson would converge in Washington is one of the NFL's biggest training camp stories. The Redskins' failure to stop the run has been a critical flaw the past two years. Last season, they gave up 138.8 rushing yards a game, third-worst in the league. Seven teams ran for more than 150 yards, three went over 200, and another, the Ravens, rang up 199.

In Norv Turner's four years as coach, the Redskins have ranked in the bottom five of rush defenses each year. Even the arrival of tackle Sean Gilbert in 1996 didn't keep the Redskins from giving up a league-high 142 rush yards a game.

That all changes with Stubblefield and Wilkinson.

Casserly, who also swapped Gilbert for two first-round picks this off-season, said the Redskins should have an "excellent defense, one of the top defenses in the league."

Pro Bowl linebacker Ken Harvey is almost giddy in talking about the addition of Stubblefield and Wilkinson.

"They're two high-caliber players that can help the team," Harvey said. "If we had [only] one of them, we'd be better. But we got both. It'll be a big lift."

Getting both was the coup that could earn Casserly some Executive of the Year votes.

"It starts with [owner] John Kent Cooke being willing to do it," Casserly said. "One of the things we began to realize in January when we were lining up defensive tackles was, a lot of people were going to use franchise and transition tags to keep them. We said we can't let that take us out of the market. If we have to make a trade or put in an offer sheet, do it."

The cost was exorbitant, but the blend of Stubblefield and Wilkinson should work to everyone's advantage. Wilkinson is no longer the focus of the defense as he was in Cincinnati. And there are indications he has outgrown some of his Bengals habits.

"There was so much speculation about him being lazy," Stubblefield said. "[But] he's working just as hard as I am. I haven't seen any laziness out of him."

Climbing past the Giants in the NFC East ultimately could come down to two keys on offense for the Redskins. They are taking a huge leap of faith that second-year man Brad Badger will be able to protect quarterback Gus Frerotte's blind side at left tackle. They also need Frerotte to play considerably above his 1997 form, when he head-butted a wall, broke his hip and completed just 50.7 percent of his passes.

For now, optimism reigns in Frostburg.

"There's a lot of potential for this team to do something great," Stubblefield said.

No defense against the run

The Redskins haven't ranked better than 27th defending the run in the past five years. Not coincidentally, they have finished out of the playoffs each year.

........ .... ..... ... ....... .Rush yds. .. NFL

Year Defensive tackles ........ .per game ....rank

1993 Tim Johnson, Bobby Wilson ..131.9 .......28th

1994 Bobby Wilson, Lamar Mills ..123.4 .......27th

1995 Marc Boutte, William Gaines 133.3 .... ..29th

1996 Marc Boutte, Sean Gilbert ..142.2 .......30th

1997 Chris Mims, Marc Boutte ....138.8 .......28th

Pub Date: 8/01/98

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