Moss thrives as Redskins’ slot receiver

WASHINGTON — It really wasn’t a demotion. Coach Mike Shanahan made that clear to Santana Moss during the offseason while explaining how Moss’s role would change in the Washington Redskins’ revamped receiving corps. The Redskins still needed Moss, Shanahan assured him, just in a different way.

“When a guy has been as successful as Santana, and worked as hard as he has to help your football team, it can be difficult when you say, ‘We’re going to try something else now,’” Shanahan said. “But knowing Santana, I expected it to work out fine. I think you could say it has.”

That’s for sure.

Formerly Washington’s longtime No. 1 receiver, Moss thrived (how else would you describe leading a playoff-bound team in touchdown receptions?) in his first season as a key reserve. Moss’s efficiency as primarily a third-down specialist — he also finished tied for second in first-down catches — is a big reason the Redskins’ offense is among the NFL’s best. In his 12th season in the league, Moss, 33, was still good enough to help Washington win just its second NFC East title in the past 21 years. On Sunday, the team will host Seattle in its first playoff game at FedEx Field since the 1999 season.

There are many reasons for the Redskins’ resurgence. But no list would be complete without including Moss’s efforts. And the selflessness Moss displayed in accepting his change in status was no less important than his consistent production in games. The team’s most important player definitely appreciates Moss’s decision to put the Redskins first.

“With what he’s done over his career … it’s just awesome as a quarterback to have that guy in the huddle with you,” said Robert Griffin III, the rookie quarterback chiefly responsible for Washington’s worst-to-first turnaround in the division. “He’s taken his role and perfected it.”

Moss’s body indicated the time for a change had come.

Because of overuse, Moss wore down physically in 2011. In the second half of Washington’s 5-11 season, Moss rarely broke free from coverage. And the guy responsible for running Moss into the ground knew what he was doing was wrong.

“I needed to protect him,” Shanahan said. “I wanted to rest him so he’d have his legs. But I couldn’t.”

That’s because Moss was, by far, the best receiver in an otherwise mediocre bunch. Moss was a deep threat who also could turn short- and mid-range receptions into big plays — when he wasn’t exhausted, that is. The situation was clear: The Redskins needed to get better, deeper and younger at wideout.

Under Shanahan’s direction in free agency, the Redskins signed Pierre Garcon, 26, who became the team’s new top player at the position, and added Josh Morgan, 27, to potentially fill the No. 2 job. Also, Shanahan figured he could expect more from second-year players Leonard Hankerson, 23, and Aldrick Robinson, 24.

Shanahan was right about the entire group. Everyone contributed, especially during Washington’s season-closing, seven-game winning streak.

“Having the core we have this year helped me to be able to step back and stay fresh,” said Moss, who played in every game but started only once.

All the changes, however, meant Moss had to reinvent himself to find a spot on the field. And in a league in which 30 is usually considered over the hill, players are rarely given an opportunity to age gracefully. Fortunately for Moss, he had two Shanahans in his corner.

Just like his father, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan believed Moss could still run precise routes and possessed the speed to get behind defensive backs. But the Shanahans had to reduce Moss’s workload and put him in favorable matchups. That led Moss to the slot.

The transition went well. Defensive coordinators usually assign their third-best cornerbacks to cover slot receivers. Even with all the mileage on Moss’s legs — he’s fourth on the Redskins’ career list with 7,299 receiving yards — he’s still better than most backup cornerbacks.

“The guy has made play after play after play for us,” said tight end Chris Cooley, Moss’s teammate since the 2005 season. “He’s at a point where, okay, maybe he isn’t the No. 1 receiver. And maybe he isn’t the two. But that doesn’t mean he still can’t be Santana Moss. It doesn’t mean he still can’t be a baller.”

That was pretty much Moss’s thinking entering the season. Moss accepted that the Shanahans brought in Garcon to fill the role Moss took pride in having for seven years. Moss knew he’d have to compete with Morgan, Hankerson and Robinson for catches.

So Moss made sure he was prepared. He dropped 15 pounds, brushed up on the playbook and worked as much as he could with the Redskins’ new quarterback. There’s nothing like a sound plan for building success. “At the end of the day, the role changed but the player hasn’t,” Moss said.

Moss’s days at the top of Washington’s depth chart are over, but that’s okay. He fit it just fine with the Redskins’ new crew, and proved he’s still a playmaker for the hottest team in the NFC. Not bad for an old-timer.

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