It's too early in his tenure to place the genius label on Washington Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer, especially since the team hasn't played a regular-season game and has looked occasionally sloppy on defense and special teams and downright inept on offense.
But, heading into tonight's third preseason game with the Cleveland Browns, it may be fair to at least call Schottenheimer lucky, at least in the context of finding available veterans to come in and plug some of the holes that opened up in the preseason.
Schottenheimer's biggest piece of luck was reaching a retirement agreement with cornerback Deion Sanders just before camp, which gave the Redskins about $3 million in salary-cap relief, allowing the coach to bring in players, most of whom were signed for the veterans' minimum of $477,000.
There are, of course, no guarantees that the veterans that were brought in, namely quarterback Tony Banks, defensive lineman Michael Bankston, guard Dave Szott, running back Ki-Jana Carter and free safety Keith Lyle, will pay long-term dividends. Lyle, who was signed Tuesday after six years with the St. Louis Rams, is not expected to play tonight.
Nonetheless, the collection of players represent, for the Redskins, the football equivalent of finding loose change under a sofa-seat cushion.
The most visible coinage to date is Banks, the former Raven who arrived in camp last week after being cut by the Dallas Cowboys to give Washington a veteran insurance policy should Jeff George's shoulder tendinitis become a chronic problem, given the shaky practice and game play of backups Todd Husak and Sage Rosenfels.
George returned to practice this week after sitting out most of the first three weeks of camp.
Banks, who has started 61 games in his five-year career, is expected to play at least a quarter tonight, after arriving too late last week to familiarize himself with the offense. Schottenheimer said Banks still doesn't have command of the full Redskins' offense and will call plays from a pared-down playbook.
"He's coming along in his knowledge," said Schottenheimer. "He just needs to take the language that we use and translate it into something that's familiar to him."
Meanwhile, Bankston, a nine-year NFL veteran, has already proven valuable as a reserve on the defensive line, where he can play either end or tackle. He's been pressed into service because of the shoulder injury to Bruce Smith in the second week of camp, which kept Smith out of both preseason exhibition games to date and likely will keep him out of the final two.
Szott, who played for Schottenheimer in Kansas City, is the most likely of the recent newcomers to start in the season opener against San Diego, at either left or right guard. Szott, who missed all but one game last season with a right-arm injury, will play tonight, and could supplant Ben Coleman, who has been plagued by a sore knee, and rookie Mookie Moore, who has been inconsistent.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the additions is Carter, the former No. 1 overall draft pick, who, in his short career, has torn the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees and broken his left wrist. The Bengals, who originally drafted Carter, gave up on him after the 1999 season, and he sat out all of last year.
But he caught on with the Redskins, who were in need of a runner to back up starter Stephen Davis, who will miss tonight's game for personal reasons. Carter is the only Washington player to score in the preseason, with a 38-yard touchdown run last Friday.
"I'm so glad to get this chance," said Carter, who signed a contract that reportedly provides Washington with protection if he gets hurt. "I want to thank Marty Schottenheimer for letting me try to play one more time. I really wanted one more chance to prove to myself that I can still run."
Said Schottenheimer: "It's an interesting thing about our business. It [Carter's success] proves once again that nobody has all the answers, because I was saying, `Well, with all the injuries, what do we want to get involved with that for?' The personnel people kept saying, `Look, Coach, why not?' Finally, I said, `Let's do it.' It would certainly appear that they were right and I was wrong."