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Redskins put offense on fast track

Fred Smoot thought the play was harmless.

In practice last week, the Washington Redskins cornerback was matched up against rookie wide receiver Taylor Jacobs 30 yards from the end zone.

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After the snap, backup quarterback Rob Johnson took a seven-step drop as Jacobs and Smoot raced down the left sideline.

Johnson launched a pass that seemed - to Smoot and others - to be too far for Jacobs to catch. But at the last moment, the receiver flashed past Smoot and caught the ball in the back of the end zone, drawing a bellow of frustration from Smoot.

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"Point blank, they are fast," Smoot said of Washington's receiving corps. "They can get balls that you think they wouldn't get. We've got fast guys with good hands. That's always an advantage."

It is that factor - the element of speed - that has the Redskins eager to begin the 2003 season when the New York Jets visit FedEx Field at 9 tonight.

Whether Washington can parlay that speed into its first playoff berth since 1999 remains to be seen. The Redskins limped their way to a 1-3 preseason record, but coach Steve Spurrier is cautiously optimistic that his team is capable of maximizing its potential.

"It will take Patrick [Ramsey, quarterback] a little time and the receivers a little time and the protection a little time and hopefully the coaches calling the right play at the right time," he said. "We're getting closer, and there's hope that we can get there."

These aren't your father's Redskins. Under Joe Gibbs, the team was centered on big backs like John Riggins and Earnest Byner and a powerful offensive line. In recent years, bruising tailback Stephen Davis became the team workhorse en route to three consecutive 1,300-yard seasons.

That tenor changed when Spurrier arrived last season. Spurrier, long considered an offensive genius as the coach at the University of Florida, carried over his Fun 'N' Gun system - a complex scheme designed to throw the ball to receivers in open areas of the field, preferably deep and for touchdowns.

The system's greatest attribute is speed, a quality that Spurrier found in droves in football-rich Florida. But the offense sputtered last year as the coach rotated Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel and Ramsey at quarterback and discovered that the team lacked a deep threat to stretch opposing defenses.

So during the offseason, team owner Daniel Snyder, vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato and Spurrier mapped out a plan to implement speed. Gone were Davis, Matthews (whose tendency to throw away the ball conflicted with Spurrier's offense) and a flotilla of former Gators.

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Washington recruited speedsters Laveranues Coles and Chad Morton from the New York Jets and former Raven Patrick Johnson from the Jacksonville Jaguars and acquired running back Trung Canidate in a trade with the St. Louis Rams.

Throw in the team's decision to draft Jacobs from Florida and the return of quick wide receiver Cliff Russell from a knee injury that kept him off the field last season, and it's easy to understand Ramsey's excitement.

"A lot of teams around the league kind of showed complacency. We went out and got what we think is going to make us successful," said Ramsey, whose strong arm earned him Spurrier's stamp as the starting quarterback. "Obviously as a player, you can't ask for more than that."

Morton, who will serve as the team's return specialist and third-down running back, compared Washington to another team built on speed that won the 1999 Super Bowl.

"Look at the Rams. You couldn't stop them," he said. "Team like that - with a lot of speed - it's really hard to stop them in a game plan because they have speed everywhere. You can't just concentrate on one part of the game."

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson isn't so quick to make such a comparison, but he does acknowledge that the Redskins - like the Rams - want to score as many points as they can in 60 minutes.

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"In everything that we do, we are a speed offensive football team," Jackson said. "Our whole goal is to be explosive and to score points anyway that we can. Obviously, we have an infusion of speed at wide receiver and running back. What we would like to do is put those guys out in space and showcase their talents."

Adding those new components, however, could lengthen the learning curve for the offense, which drew mixed reviews during the preseason.

The starting offense struggled to total 48 yards in one quarter in the preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, but racked up 196 against the New England Patriots and 149 against the Ravens in the first half against both teams.

The offense scored just 24 points, 17 of which were registered against the Ravens. The passing game has had lapses, and the running plan has faltered in third-and-short situations.

But Spurrier is confident that the foundation has been set.

"We do have a lot of speed, but we haven't shown it yet," Spurrier said. "The plays are there. We just haven't hit them yet. But we'll keep trying."


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