- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

The offense is ready, the defense needs work and special teams are as uncertain as ever. So what else is new?

As the Washington Redskins passed the midpoint of training camp yesterday with the 23rd of 45 practices, the strengths and weaknesses from last year still largely remain. That's not necessarily bad, because the Redskins won the NFC East title and were a long field goal away from the NFC Championship game. However, last year's 10-6 team might not fare as well against this season's first-place schedule.

The bottom line is owner Dan Snyder getting his $100 million worth of payroll? Were they shrewd investments or wasted money? Has the team greatly upgraded its personnel? It's still uncertain.

The defense's report card has been mixed. Either the Redskins have great receivers or mediocre corners because the offense was winning the confrontations regularly until yesterday. Granted, 7-on-7 drills favor receivers, but the corners were beaten too often.

Defensive end Bruce Smith and safety Mark Carrier have played well during camp, but cornerback Deion Sanders was largely quiet until he excited the crowd with an interception yesterday. Then again, who expects "Prime Time" to dominate in July?

"I haven't been to a lot of training camps, but I have been to a lot of Pro Bowls," he said.

True, which is why a team can't be completely judged until the preseason's end. The defense seems to be mentally retooling itself before facing Tampa Bay on Friday in the preseason opener. It's still behind the offense. Then again, this is a pretty good offense.

Given the opposing scouts in the stands, the defense won't start getting complicated until after Aug. 17, when public practices end. However, linemen have more freedom under incoming coordinator Ray Rhodes, and that should bolster the pathetic run defense of the last six years. Maybe tackle Dana Stubblefield, with support from Smith and linebacker LaVar Arrington, will no longer face double teams regularly and can return to his 1997 NFL Defensive Player of the Year form.

Arrington has flashed signs of greatness. There's no doubt he has the talent. The question is whether the late start, because of his holdout, will lessen the first-rounder's effectiveness this season?

Aside from left tackle Chris Samuels, it's the same offense as last year. Even better, it's an offense returning with confidence. Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell have been daily standouts, while fellow receivers Irving Fryar and James Thrash clearly are ready to contribute more than last year.

Running back Stephen Davis quickly ended questions about his sprained ankle. The offensive line seems crisp. It will be hard to top last year's 443 points third most in team history but the Redskins have the potential to do it. That is, if a quarterback controversy doesn't ruin the chemistry.

Brad Johnson is the clear starter, but his 10 interceptions during camp compared with Jeff George's one are alarming. Johnson is facing the starting defense while George beats some players destined for release, but the turnovers could give George backers courage as the season opener approaches.

Mostly, it's the special teams that seem like an albatross once more. In particular, the deep snapper looks shaky, the kicker is hurt and the punter and holder could be people not even on the roster yet. At least, the coverage and return units look better.

It's only fitting that Washington begins where it ended last season and possibly this year. Tampa Bay could be the first home team to reach the Super Bowl, especially after improving its offense. The Redskins soon will discover, if only for a quarter before the starters depart, whether they're worth the nine-figure investment.

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