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There's A Hex On Washington's Safeties

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Is the Redskins' defensive backfield cursed? Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Is the Redskins' defensive backfield cursed? Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Generally speaking, I’m not a superstitious person. Black cats don’t bother me. Ghosts, spells and curses don’t send shivers down my spine. Ouija boards are pretty cool, and I can watch the worst of horror flicks and still sleep soundly through the night. I consider the paranormal more fascinating than frightening. If there are other dimensions, I figure the souls residing there are just chilling, like we are in ours, and don’t harbor any ill intent for those occupying their former world — and someday, we’ll all share a beer and stories about life on earth.

Recent events at the safety position for the Washington Redskins officially has me questioning my casual take on “the spirit world” (as the young outlaws would have been called in the classic flick Young Guns). Maybe the dark forces in the cosmos are occasionally upset by the behaviors of the living after all.

After drafting two safeties this past April to address a glaring issue in the secondary, one of Washington’s new prospects, fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas, is already out for the season having suffered a Lisfranc injury in the first preseason game. At first I attributed Thomas’ injury to his issued No. 41 — the curse of Madieu Williams, if you will. Williams wore No. 41 in 2012. I know this, and every ‘Skins fan knows this because Williams’ name and number were frequently viewed from behind while he was trailing a downfield wide receiver. It’s enough evidence to contemplate contacting Dave Matthews and suggesting that he remove his song “No. 41” from his set list … just to be safe.

But the problem at safety in Washington is deeper than a jersey number. It traces back through Brandon Meriweather’s ACL injury and Tanard Jackson’s suspension last season, LaRon Landry’s regression from the sixth overall pick in 2007 (one slot ahead of Adrian Peterson) to free agent cast-off, the failed tenure of Oshiomogho Atogwe, Sean Taylor’s death, and the horrible signings of Adam Archuleta and Mark Carrier. Its deepest roots may even go all the way back to the ‘Skins trading of Hall-of-Famer Paul Krause to the Minnesota Vikings before the 1968 NFL Draft. Ken Houston is an admitted anomaly in that complex theory, but all data sets have an anomaly.

Anyway, before I exhaust your attention span with their complicated and systemic issues at safety, back to Phillip Thomas’ season-ending injury. On the surface, Thomas is just another mid-round draft pick and unknown commodity to fall on his face during his first NFL training camp. Considering the state of the safety position in Washington, though, Thomas had a legitimate chance to start and was, at the very least, expected to play a meaningful role and add a more dynamic force to the team’s secondary in 2013. 

His absence transfers significant pressure onto Meriweather, an enigma during his brief ‘Skins career, to recover from his ACL injury and actually play a full season. Meriweather now represents the only difference-maker at strong safety or, more personally stated, the only roster layer between Reed Doughty and the field. Doughty, a seven-year veteran from Northern Colorado, has made an NFL living on the drama (or lack of availability from his competition) in the ‘Skins secondary. To be fair, he’s a solid presence that can stabilize a secondary in spot duty. The problem is, he’s been more of a regular than a spot starter, and given ample face time with the opposition, he tends to get exposed in the passing game.

Beyond Doughty, the depth chart offers little more than DiJon Gomes. Gomes has been a serviceable rover between free and strong safety, but his defining NFL moment seems destined to be tearing up Adrian Peterson’s knee; his talent offers little hope of a more significant play in his future.

A global view of the safety position paints an even bleaker outlook of life without Thomas.

The current starting free safety is rookie sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo. His incredibly cool name aside, the perils of a rookie free safety, absent a significant NFL presence at strong safety, is precarious. Could Tanard Jackson return from his one-year suspension and offer a veteran oasis? Sure, but to count on that wouldn’t be far from quitting your job ahead of actually hitting the lottery (a risky, ill-advised strategy). Still, with the current starters at safety being a rookie (Rambo) and a guy that was plagued by knee injuries in 2012 and ultimately succumbed to an ACL tear after playing less than single game (Meriweather), the ‘Skins aren’t far from that precarious state.

In considerable duty last season, Williams, Doughty and Gomes managed but one interception each — that’s a pathetic return from the safety position. London Fletcher, a late-30s inside linebacker, actually led the team with five interceptions. Do you want to gamble on Fletcher nabbing five picks again in 2013? I didn’t think so.

Thomas, while unproven, at least offered the potential of greater disruption (i.e., more turnovers) from the secondary; that hope is now dashed by a serious foot injury. What remain instills little confidence that the safeties will be any better than the patchwork group that contributed to one of the NFL’s worst passing defenses in 2012. Will Rambo help? Could a reinstated Jackson make meaningful contributions? Sure, but do you feel lucky? I’m guessing Mike Shanahan doesn’t, and the loss of Thomas has him wondering, too, if there are dark forces afflicting his last line of defense.