When last seen, the Washington Redskins had completed their collapse from a 6-2 start to an 8-8 finish with an ugly loss at San Francisco. The good feelings that accompanied the fast start had morphed into disillusionment.
But the offseason, as it so often does, brought new hope. With the signing of All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and the selection of pass rusher Brian Orakpo in the NFL Draft, the Redskins improved an already stout defense. Replacing Pete Kendall with Derrick Dockery wasn't exactly an eye-opener for the dormant offense, but that side of the ball promised to improve in its second year in coach Jim Zorn's scheme.
So the Redskins opened training camp on July 30 with plenty of hope for a return to the playoffs, even in the fierce NFC East.
Q: For those of us who spent August at the shore ignoring the silliness of the NFL preseason, how was camp?
A: Boring with a capital B. No major injuries or position battles. Bring back the good old days of Sterling Palmer fighting James Washington, Bobby Wilson blowing out his knee, Michael Westbrook attacking Stephen Davis, Marty Schottenheimer's Oklahoma drill, Al Saunders' massive playbook or even Dan Snyder charging admission. When Alfred Fincher being cut or Colt Brennan going on IR is big news, you know it's a snoozefest.
Q: OK, I get the point. Other than Malcolm Kelly stepping up at No. 2 receiver, no jobs were won or lost during camp and there were no lasting injuries to regulars. So what did we learn?
A: We learned Haynesworth can be a dominant force when he feels like it. Haynesworth played just 11 snaps and did not make the stat sheet against the Super Bowl champion Steelers, but he still dominated. The Redskins were already solid at defensive tackle, but Haynesworth just might be worth the millions.
Q: How about Orakpo? How will he do at strongside linebacker?
A: Orakpo is still in the midst of the transition from college defensive end, but he made no glaring errors while playing more than any starter in preseason. Of course preseason is different than having to tackle Brandon Jacobs or Marion Barber in the open field or cover Brian Westbrook, but so far, so good. And Orakpo can certainly rush the passer. When Haynesworth and Cornelius Griffin were collapsing the pocket and Orakpo and Andre Carter were pinching from the outside against Pittsburgh, it almost looked like the 1980s all over again with Butz, Grant, Manley and Mann up front for the burgundy and gold.
Q: The defense already was in good shape before adding Haynesworth and Orakpo, but what about the offense? What's your take on Jason Campbell?
A: That's the question of the year, isn't it? Campbell is such a nice person that you have to wonder whether he'll react with the necessary "I'll show them" spunk to management's attempts to replace him. Frankly, Campbell had a very inconsistent camp and looked bad in the first two preseason games. His strong performance the next week against New England in the offense's longest outing inspired some confidence, but I don't think we'll really know about Campbell until the Redskins hit the meat of their schedule starting Week 7 against Philadelphia.
Q: Give us some more good news. Who else looks good?
A: Second-year man Kelly and rookie Marko Mitchell, who are both 6-foot-4, played like the big and talented receivers the Redskins have been searching for since 1999, Westbrook's lone big season. Coincidentally, that's the last year they won the NFC East.
Q: I see where Clinton Portis is still hacked off that John Riggins isn't a fan. Why does Portis care so much about Riggo?
A: Portis has a running back's heart but a receiver's craving for attention. He needs just 1,370 yards to pass Riggins for the franchise's career rushing record and will do so in three fewer years and with a better yards-per-carry average. However, Riggins won as many Super Bowls (one) for the Redskins as Portis has won playoff games, and his antiestablishment ways appealed to plenty of people in the straight-laced nation's capital.
Q: We haven't talked about Zorn. How much pressure is he feeling after last year's 2-6 second half collapse, knowing that Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Tony Dungy and Brian Billick are on the sidelines?
A: It obviously would've been better for a rookie coach to get to 8-8 with an 0-5 start and an 8-3 finish; that's what Joe Gibbs did for the 1981 Redskins. But Zorn was actually more relaxed this summer than last. His players and assistants knew his system, and he knew what to expect from them. The man just enjoys his job and his life.
Q: Will he be enjoying them after this season is over?
A: I don't think so. The Redskins have the misfortune to play in the NFL's toughest division with the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys. They face two of the NFC South's three good teams (Carolina and Atlanta) and the AFC West's lone quality outfit (San Diego) on the road. That's six very tough road games. If they lose them all, which is very possible, the Redskins would have to win their other 10 games to ensure a playoff spot. Considering Washington lost to Cincinnati and St. Louis in 2008 and squeaked by Detroit, Seattle and Cleveland, expecting a sweep of those likely victims is unrealistic. Given that the Redskins have finished within two games of .500 in 13 of the past 14 years, we're looking at another 8-8 finish, which would all but certainly mean a new coach and quarterback in the District in 2010.