- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Let’s pretend last year never happened, Redskins fans. Let’s pretend Saturday night’s preseason opener at Carolina is Square One in Joe Gibbs’ return as coach.

Who wants to remember the horrors of 2004 anyway — Mark Brunell’s misguided missiles, Clinton Portis’ 3.8-yard gains, LaVar Arrington’s balky knee, the come-from-ahead defeat in Dallas. No, better to keep our eyes on the road ahead … lest we wind up in another ditch.

Already, the Redskins are in much better shape than they were at this time last season. For starters, they still have the services of Jon Jansen, who went down in the first quarter of the Hall of Fame Game last August, never to return. They also have the right guy playing quarterback now, Patrick Ramsey, who paced the sideline for eight games a year ago until Coach Joe finally came to his senses.

Jansen plus Ramsey makes the offense 25 percent better than it was at the start of the ‘04 season. That’s not quite as big a deal as it seems, though, because the Redskins didn’t put up 20 points until Week12 last year and averaged a piddling 15 a game. Ray Brown, Old Man Redskin, knows the score as well as anyone. “Offensively,” he says, “we’ve got to carry our weight.”

It’s funny. We’re always talking about how utterly meaningless these preseason games are, how little they tell about a club, and yet the last two Redskins preseasons have been virtual previews of coming attractions. Did anyone expect much of the Fun ‘n’ Gunners in ‘03 after the Panthers pummeled them 20-0 in the exhibition opener? (Answer: No, and they turned out to be exactly as advertised, losing 10 of their last 12.) As for last year, the offense spun its wheels in the preseason, the defense pitched two shutouts and, lo and behold, that’s pretty much how the real games went.

So don’t tell me the pressure isn’t on Gibbs and his team, especially Ramsey and Co., to show us a little something against the Panthers — to run the ball with conviction, to complete the occasional pass beyond the first down marker, to look like they actually know one another. Anything less, and there’ll be panic in the streets of D.C.

Fortunately, this is Coach Joe’s second season back in the saddle. Charley Casserly used to say a player “improves more from his first year to his second year than he does at any other time in his career.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that also holds true for coaches returning from 12-year sabbaticals, not that many coaches have been crazy enough to try it.

Gibbs, for his part, thinks last season’s 10 losses provided innumerable lessons. “Last year,” he says, “we were starting from scratch. This year we know more about ourselves and what we did last year.”

Of course, some of that stuff he probably didn’t want to know. It had to be a jolt to the system, for instance, to find out that Brunell in his Redskins incarnation bore a striking resemblance to Fernando Valenzuela in his Orioles incarnation. It also had to be startling to discover that Laveranues Coles, his top receiver, preferred to play for somebody else, anybody else — and that Rod Gardner, his No. 2 wideout, was so marginal he brought only a sixth-round pick in a trade. (After all, when Gibbs traded his No. 2 receiver, Charlie Brown, back in the ‘80s, it brought a Pro Bowl offensive guard, R.C. Thielemann, in return.)

But, hey, the sooner you find out these things, the better. Accommodating Coles might have slowed the rebuilding process — thanks to the huge cap hit the club had to take — but it also sent an important message to the team: If you’re not going to buy totally into the program, hit the road, Jack.

Besides, it’s not as if Gibbs didn’t plan a major offensive overhaul this year. One of his first offseason moves was to bring in a new quarterbacks coach, Bill Musgrave. Soon after that, Coach Joe dropped his lifelong objection to the shotgun. It’s almost a replay of 1981, when he came to Washington thinking he was going to run a two-back set and, because of the personnel on hand, wound up with a radically different one-back attack.

Yeah, it’s only a preseason game Saturday night, but it’s also an opportunity to show the fans that this year won’t be like last year, that there’ll be more to cheer about than the defense forcing a punt. The Redskins have labored hard these past few months, so hard that the league penalized them for overzealousness. You get the impression Gibbs will have them ready to play the Panthers … and everybody else.

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