- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

In the weeks leading up to free agency's March 2 opening, Washington Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer repeatedly said his personnel efforts would focus on the players he inherited from last year's club.

Six months later, following a high-profile overhaul that witnessed the departures of Deion Sanders, Brad Johnson, Dana Stubblefield, Mark Carrier, Larry Centers and others, that statement surprisingly stands up.

Although just 25 players, less than half of the 53-man roster tweaked yesterday, predate Schottenheimer's Jan. 3 hiring, 17 of the anticipated 22 starters for Sunday's opener at San Diego were Redskins last year.

Some, like quarterback Jeff George and middle linebacker Kevin Mitchell, were reserves on the 2000 club. Just two, almost astonishingly, are veterans acquired in free agency fullback Donnell Bennett and left guard Dave Szott. It's easy to imagine that number being higher considering Schottenheimer's imprint all over the club.

The final three anticipated starters are rookies: first-round wide receiver Rod Gardner, second-round cornerback Fred Smoot and undrafted right guard David Brandt.

The youth trend continues throughout the roster, with a total of four draft picks, six undrafted rookies and 31 players with four or less seasons of NFL experience. It's quite a departure from 2000, when Washington was the NFL's oldest club.

Thus Schottenheimer's other prime directive to get younger also held true. The coach kept each of his draft picks and in a variety of cases a young player over a veteran. The latest example of the latter came Sunday, when linebacker Eddie Mason was cut to keep undrafted rookies Antonio Pierce and Donny Green.

Retaining Redskins and importing youth related in large part to the salary cap. Washington was on track for trouble after having the highest payroll in NFL history last season. But Schottenheimer doled out less than $3 million in signing bonuses to his 16 veteran free agent acquisitions less than half of what Sanders signed for in 2000.

Despite Schottenheimer's careful planning, his club's prospects aren't good following a dismal preseason. The Redskins were outscored 75-23 in their exhibitions' first halves, and they averaged just 224 yards of offense. Washingtonians are grumbling that the coach should have focused less on unknown kids and spent more liberally in free agency.

Washington is a 2*-point underdog this week to the Chargers yes, the Chargers, who finished 1-15 a year ago. Although San Diego improved by hiring general manager John Butler and offensive coordinator Norv Turner and by going on a sizable spree in free agency, the Redskins are 11 months removed from being Super Bowl hopefuls.

At this point, it seems like the Redskins' sum is far less than their parts. On paper, the club has talented starters in running back Stephen Davis, wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Gardner, tight end Stephen Alexander, tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, defensive ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman, linebackers LaVar Arrington and Shawn Barber and cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Smoot and Darrell Green.

Eleven of those 13 players are back from last year, while the other two are top draft picks. If the 2000 Redskins could start 6-2, there's every reason to believe this core has similar potential.

So far efforts have been undermined by breakdowns on the offensive line and subpar play at quarterback. The hope is now that Brandt will continue to show promise at right guard and that the line collectively will regroup with Samuels returning from a back injury.

If the line does that a big if and if quarterback Jeff George's rhythm develops, the Redskins could start strong and continue that momentum into the heart of the season. And if key players remain healthy, it's not impossible to see Schottenheimer's playoff expectations being fulfilled.

The opener is key. If the team loses at San Diego and then drops Week 2 to the Arizona Cardinals, a collapse could come. Some players, like fans and media, are skeptical about the club's direction after enduring such a bad preseason.

But they want to believe that Schottenheimer's plan will work. Throughout the preseason, the coach reiterated that his system weathered all sorts of problems in the past and that ultimately it was proven to work. Both claims are true.

So far he has stuck to his plan while assembling the roster. Now it's time for that roster to perform.

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