The Washington Redskins will report today to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., ready for a training camp where the biggest story lines should reflect the disassembling of last season’s famously disappointing squad.
A greater than usual number of battles for starting and key backup positions will command attention when practices begin tomorrow, as will the efforts of a greater than usual number of young players seeking to win roster spots.
At stake are six starting jobs both guards, one wide receiver, middle linebacker, free safety and one cornerback as well as roles for a punt returner and several reserves. And among the latter are myriad twentysomethings who could see frequent playing time this fall.
Add in a new coaching staff led by Marty Schottenheimer, a new venue (not Redskin Park) and a new cost for admission (nothing), and you’ve got a strikingly different scene from 2000, when all hands forked over $10 admission and all eyes scanned the list of high-profile acquisitions to see which would key the Super Bowl run.
That journey, as we know, fell far short, with the Redskins fading down the stretch and finishing 8-8. Schottenheimer since has refitted the roster with a blue collar, partly to fit his image and partly to avoid a salary cap time bomb. Thus anticipated is a camp that stresses hard work without last year’s premature congratulations.
“This year we don’t have the hype, so we’ve got to go out and work hard,” linebacker Kevin Mitchell said yesterday. “I think last year a lot of guys started believing the hype. We had a lot of talented, talented players, some of the best players to play the game, Hall of Famers. I think the team started believing, because of all the players we had, that a lot of teams would back off. I think that just made other teams hungrier.”
Mitchell, a backup to Derek Smith last season, faces Robert Jones in one of the key position battles, at middle linebacker. Schottenheimer, who has said Mitchell-Jones “may be the most hotly contested competition of camp,” named Mitchell first-string for now because of his hard offseason work.
“Anybody who works as hard as he works is going to get a chance a big chance,” Schottenheimer said.
Schottenheimer also said veterans Ben Coleman and Matt Campbell would begin as first-string guards, with Mookie Moore and Derrick Fletcher competing. At receiver, Kevin Lockett is ahead of unsigned first-round draft pick Rod Gardner. On defense, David Terrell, 26, leads two other youngsters at free safety, and Darrell Green, 41, is ahead of second-rounder Fred Smoot and Donovan Greer at cornerback. At corner, Schottenheimer said, the competitors likely will share first-string snaps.
Competing to return punts are receivers Winston October and Lockett, running back Stanley Stephens and (we’ll believe it when we see it) Green. Green’s 57 career regular-season and playoff returns include a touchdown in 1988, when October was 7. Schottenheimer also said cornerback Champ Bailey “possibly” could return punts.
Among backups, the key contest occurs at defensive tackle, where Delbert Cowsette, Jerry DeLoach and sixth-rounder Mario Monds will fight for playing time.
That battle is fairly typical on this team of high-profile starters and unknown reserves, especially in that the inexperienced players are competing both against one another and against any veteran free agents Schottenheimer might sign.
That’s the situation at quarterback, where second-year passer Todd Husak wants to make sure Trent Dilfer isn’t acquired to back up Jeff George, and at free safety, where Terrell and Co. realize that former St. Louis Ram Keith Lyle is waiting by the phone. However, nothing is imminent in either case.
“I want to make it very clear: We’re not going to do anything early on at safety,” Schottenheimer said. “I want the young players to have a chance to see how they can develop. We gain nothing without affording them that opportunity. And the same thing goes at quarterback.”
Schottenheimer also stressed that there will be no spending spree now that Deion Sanders has retired and given the club $3.625 million of salary cap space (actually, about $3.4 million when accounting for Sanders’ replacement among the top 51 players on the cap).
“We’ve got some players that we’re going to bring in to work out, which is our custom during training camp,” Schottenheimer said. “But I don’t know that we’ll sign any of them.”
Arriving in the first group of free agents tonight will be former Cincinnati Bengals rusher Ki-Jana Carter, former Bengals defensive end Michael Bankston, veteran cornerback/returner Darrien Gordon and former New York Jets defensive end Dorian Boose.
To help the first-year players trying to prove reinforcements aren’t necessary, Schottenheimer spoke to them as a group after practice.
“Basically what I told them was this: Don’t sit around and try to decide whether you’re good enough,” Schottenheimer said. “Leave that to the coaches. Because what you think we’re feeling about you could be totally different than what we’re thinking.”
Husak wasn’t among the group, holding a year of NFL experience, but he acknowledged that he and his young teammates will face a great deal of pressure over the next 3? weeks.
“But I think pressure is only a factor if you let it be one,” he added. “If I go out with the same attitude that I’ve had for the past three or four months, I’ll be fine. It’s exciting it’s always exciting when you’re closer to playing, when you have a chance to play. Hopefully, I can go in and show them that I’m ready.”