Some lockers were emptied at Redskins Park today and someone came in to fill one of them.
Among those who bade farewell to Ashburn was Darnerien McCants, the wide receiver who was the last of the Redskins' 2001 draft class who was still on the roster. It appeared that "Darkerien" (that was the way that Steve Spurrier would constantly mangle his name) was, if not a rising star on the team, was at least secure in his spot on the team after he tied for the team lead with six touchdown catches in 2003. Even with a regime change from Spurrier to Joe Gibbs, McCants appeared to be a valued property by the Redskins. Gibbs compared McCants to Art Monk, high praise indeed. Gibbs put the Redskins' money where his mouth was by signing McCants to a three-year, $4.5 million contract that kept the receiver off of the restricted free agent market.
That pen scratching on that paper was the high point of the Gibbs-McCants relationship. Gibbs became disenchanted with McCants' practice habits and with his reluctance to participate on special teams. Those factors earned him a spot on the inactive list for 10 games last year.
The handwriting seemed to be on the wall for McCants' imminent release for most of the summer and it became a little bit more visible when the team signed receiver Kevin Dyson, another big receiver, just before minicamp. The handwriting turned bolder as he dropped pass after pass early in camp and in the Carolina preseason game and the ink turned indelible as he continued to sit out special teams plays in the preseason games.
I knew that he was gone as he spoke with a few of us after a training camp practice. When asked about playing special team, he said that he was lining up as one of the gunners on punt coverage. The only aspect of doing it he didn't like, he said, was the hitting part. "If I get to him (the returner) I'll just wrestle him to the ground or something." That's kind of like saying that you like to go swimming, but you hate getting wet. Such an attitude will not earn too many points with special teams coach Danny Smith, who is as old school as they come.
Oddly, McCants was the first to break the news of his release, doing so via his own website:
I AM NO LONGER A REDSKIN!
I thank everyone for there support and love through out the years. I want you to know this is my home and always will be, if God see fit for me to play again i'll give it my all like always. I wish my Redskin family the best and to all my brothers stay healthy and win. I love all of you because without you i dont exist, thank you i wish you peace and many blessings... (sic)
It was rather classy but rather odd farewell from a rather classy but rather odd player.
Along with McCants, the Redskins released TE Billy Baber, DB Charles Byrd, K Jeff Chandler, RB Jonathan Combs, RB Brock Forsey, WR Steven Harris, DL Charles Howard, LB Jared Newberry, DL Jerome Nichols, LB Clifton Smith, QB Bryson Spinner, and OL Josh Warner.
Baber's long odds of making it were made much longer when the team signed massive TE Robert Johns, who, unlike Baber, has been getting himself noticed. Byrd was caught in a numbers game in a very crowded defensive backfield. I really thought that Chandler would challenge Jeff Hall for the placekicking job, but the "competition", such as it was, ended in the first preseason game when Hall nailed a field goal from 40+ while Chandler was wide on an attempt from virtually the same distance. Combs fumbled away his chances in the Carolina game and Forsey and Harris never really had a chance. In the early going in camp Howard was a chic pick among the media types and others to be a dark horse for a roster spot, but he faded as camp wore on. Newberry is the first of the team's draft picks to be shown the door; he's a good bet for practice squad duty. Like Howard, Nichols found himself with too many good, experienced players at his position and, like Newberry, Smith found the same situation. Smith was on everyone's list of the final 53 on the roster, but with rookie Robert McCune showing promise in the middle and proving to be a special teams demon, Smith became expendable. Spinner's release was inevitable as the need for four QB's went away when two-a-days ended. Apparently Cory Raymer and Lennie Friedman listened to those who said that their spots one the roster were at risk as they have responded with solid play so far, a development that cost Warner a chance at stealing a spot from one of those two.
The only person at Redskins Park who was feeling as bad as those listed above was Tom Tupa. That's because one of the newly vacant lockers was quickly filled by the belongings and #15 jersey of one Chris Mohr. He's a punter with 16 years of NFL experience. After having an excellent 2004 season, Tupa developed a back problem while warming up for the Cincinnati preseason game. He missed all of that game and the next one. Tupa's once rock-solid grip on a roster spot is now quite tenuous for two reasons.
One is the signing of Mohr, the other the play of Andy Groom. The first-year punter out of Ohio State has been booming the ball both in practice and in the punts he has made in the preseason games. He has shown not only power but touch as well, putting four punts inside of the 20 last Friday against Pittsburgh. In light of Mohr's arrival, he must be wondering what a guy has to do to get a roster spot.
It would be uncharacteristic of Gibbs to go with an inexperienced punter, but such a move would not be unprecedented. During his first season as head coach, veteran Mike Connell handled the punting duties. In camp the following year Jeff Hayes who, like Groom, had never punted in a real NFL game, won the job over Connell. That move worked out OK as we all remember how Gibbs' second season ended.
There was a key difference between then and now that might make Gibbs less likely to go with a younger player. Back then, Joe Theismann was the holder for kicker Mark Moseley. The coach has decided to go with the punter in that role this time around. It is here that Gibbs might be nervous about going with inexperience. The occasional shanked punt or misplaced directional kick due to inexperience is one thing. Handling the snap on a game-tying extra point in the fourth quarter in the rain in October is quite another. If Tupa is unable to go or if his situation is iffy, that could be the deciding factor between Groom and Mohr.
For his part, Mohr is confident, perhaps to the point where it seems the Redskins have told him that the job is his as long as he performs decently in practice. "At this stage of my career I don't want to come in and compete," Mohr said. "You know what I can do."
Well, we don't really but I guess we'll find out.
Mohr, #9, has held for the Bills
and the Falcons