- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Making the playoffs — even as the last NFC club to qualify — sure beats the alternative. But where do the Redskins go from here? Do they take that last step (or two) and become a truly elite team, or do they continue to be first-round fodder for the Seahawks of the world?

That’s the question facing Joe Gibbs and his helpers as the franchise heads into another offseason. It’s the same question, come to think of it, that Gibbs and Co. faced two years ago, the last time the Redskins made the playoffs. And frankly, it isn’t any easier to answer now than it was then.

The Snydermen, after all, aren’t just trying to claw their way up the ladder, they’re trying to do it in the toughest division in the NFC. How do they overtake the Cowboys, with their 11 Pro Bowl selections, or the Giants, who have won eight straight road games? For that matter, how do they stay ahead of the Eagles, whose strong finish would seem to bode well for the future?

Granted, Jason Campbell is only 26 and should continue to improve. But Tony Romo and Eli Manning, let’s not forget, are only a year older, and both have accomplished more in their careers than Campbell has. And while the old man of the division, Donovan McNabb, may be 31, his play in the final month (six touchdown passes, one interception, 95.5 rating) suggests he still has some good football in him.

It’s the same thing at the running back position. Clinton Portis, too, is just 26, but he has significant tread on his tires. How significant? Well, he has 1,905 touches (1,710 rushes, 205 receptions) since he entered the league in 2002. That’s almost as many as Brian Westbrook, Marion Barber and Brandon Jacobs — the other three starters in the NFC East have gotten combined (2,293).

So we return to our question: How do the Redskins become a Super Bowl team again? It’s not like they’re younger at key spots than other clubs and likely to gain ground as those players mature. Sure, it’s great that Chris Cooley, who just had his first Pro Bowl season, is only 25, but it’s a lot less great when Jason Witten is also 25 and Jeremy Shockey is 27. Sure, it’s nice that Andre Carter, Gregg Williams’ top pass rusher, is just 28, but it’s a lot less great when DeMarcus Ware is 25 and Osi Umenyiora is 26.

There’s a gap the Redskins must close, and it’s uncertain exactly how they’re going to do it. They’re a playoff team, alas, in a division of playoff teams. And before they can daydream about hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, they have to figure out a way to win the NFC East.

Better coaching? Everybody in the division has first-rate coaching.

Better drafting? Everybody has gotten more out of the draft than they have.

How? How? How?

At his wrap-up press conference yesterday, Joe Gibbs envisioned his club being more formidable next season just by “getting healthy” — by getting back the right side of the offensive line, Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas, along with Carlos Rogers and Rocky McIntosh. But health in the NFL is often a zero-sum game. You gain an offensive tackle, you lose a defensive tackle; you gain a cornerback, you lose a running back. “Getting healthy” isn’t a plan, it’s a hope.

Then there’s the quarterback spot, specifically the stunning emergence of 36-year-old journeyman Todd Collins after Campbell went down. Judging from the last month of the season, which is all we have to go by, Collins is the Redskins’ best QB. In the four years since Gibbs returned to the sideline, nobody has run the offense more effectively.

Do you doubt it? If so, then digest these numbers:

• In the last four games of the regular season, Collins had a passer rating of 106.4. In Mark Brunell’s most productive four-game stretch as a starter here (2005, Weeks 4 through 7), his passer rating was 101.8. (And Todd hadn’t seen much action in, what, a decade?)

• Collins didn’t throw an interception in any of those games. Brunell, on the other hand, never went more than three weeks without an interception (2005 Weeks 5 through 7), and Campbell has never gone more than two.

Which is why Gibbs gushed yesterday that “one of the huge deals that came out of this year was Todd and his play. He played about as good in five games [counting the playoff loss at Seattle] as you can play. What that tells you is we’re solid at quarterback — and if there’s a position you want to be solid at … We’re all excited about that.”

Basically, Collins gave Campbell a month-long tutorial in How To Play Quarterback In Al Saunders’ System. He completed a higher percentage of his passes than Jason did, was better at getting the ball to his wideouts and avoided mistakes. And he managed this, I’ll just point out, without Campbell’s strong arm or mobile legs — and in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The Redskins had to win each of their last four to be sure of making the playoffs.

Re-signing Collins, whose contract is up, should be the team’s first order of business in the days ahead. He’d be nuts, though, to come back without ironclad assurances that he can compete for the starting job, that the coaches are open-minded about it. He doesn’t want to be the Ladell Betts of 2008.

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