- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

A Washington Redskins season of high hopes and uncertainty begins this afternoon with the much anticipated opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field.

A preseason of mixed results and conservative play-calling did nothing to alter thinking that coach Joe Gibbs could finish anywhere from below .500 to being in the playoffs in his first season back. Today’s opener should yield the most concrete evidence of his team’s talent, as well as playing host to a variety of interesting subplots.

Besides Gibbs’ return, the game will feature the unveiling of his offense and Gregg Williams’ defense, the Redskins debuts of Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis, the first live action for rookies safety Sean Taylor and H-back Chris Cooley and an epic battle between Washington left tackle Chris Samuels and Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice.

In other words, it’s pretty much a must-watch.

“It’s stat time,” said Portis, the Pro Bowl running back obtained from the Denver Broncos this spring. “Everybody’s looking forward to it.”

After Gibbs’ return, perhaps today’s most intriguing issue is his offense. The scheme dominated the NFL for much of his first tenure (1981-1992) with its power runs, play-action passes and complex pre-snap motions. But he showed only a fraction of a revamped playbook this preseason in an attack best described as “bland” and “vanilla.”

So what is expected today?

“Less bland and less vanilla,” starting quarterback Brunell said with a laugh. “That’s all I can give you. We’re going to do some different things, probably some different formations. But if I say any more, I’ll probably get in trouble.”

On the other side of the ball, assistant head coach for defense Williams showed just enough of his attacking scheme to serve notice that this unit might be headed back to the top 10, where it resided in 2000 under Ray Rhodes (No.4), in 2001 under Kurt Schottenheimer (No.10) and in 2002 under Marvin Lewis (No.5).

While Gibbs’ offense ranked just 29th in the preseason, Williams’ unit finished ninth and showed glimpses of dominance — particularly in the Sept.3 finale, in which linebacker LaVar Arrington chased Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick from the game in just five plays.

Williams, however, is the first to dismiss exhibition accomplishments.

“It’s over with,” he said. “And I’ve tried to say to the players as much as possible, ‘It’s preseason. No one will remember that.’ Now it’s time to start building the foundation that Joe Gibbs wants here. And this week of practice has been a different week of practice.”

Neither Brunell nor Portis was particularly memorable in the preseason, but the club expects big things out of both blockbuster acquisitions. Portis, in particular, is expected to provide the offensive foundation after becoming just the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,500 yards in each of his first two seasons.

“Of course, I want to be the focal point,” Portis said. “But I’m not going to pout if I’m not the man every game. I’m going to go out trying to be the man every game, but teams are going to game-plan to stop me. Hopefully, it won’t happen, but once in awhile, somebody’s going to come up with the right game plan.”

Taylor, the fifth overall pick in the draft, looked like he belonged the moment he stepped on the field in the Aug.9 Hall of Fame Game. The safety intercepted two passes and went on to enjoy a memorable preseason. Starting today, he needs only to stay calm and let his natural ability shine.

Taylor wasn’t the only Redskins rookie to come on in camp. Cooley, an H-back taken in the third round, started the Falcons exhibition and demonstrated that he already is able to catch passes at this level and handle his position’s complexities. Early this week, Gibbs named Cooley to start.

“Every week right now gets better for me,” Cooley said. “I get more familiar with the quarterbacks, and I feel like I was playing faster from game to game through the preseason.”

Samuels, a starter in the 2001 Pro Bowl, slumped the past two seasons, and his low point might have been the 2003 Bucs game — a 35-13 loss in which Rice recorded four sacks. Samuels was responsible for only one of those sacks, but he absorbed blame — from the public and, to a certain extent, himself — for all four.

Now Samuels is revived and ready to take on Rice. And the way he talks about redemption for himself and the maligned Redskins offensive line — now known as the “Dirtbags,” the 2004 answer to the Hogs — he might as well be talking for the whole organization.

“We want to be respected by everybody,” Samuels said. “When they get ready to play us, we want them to say, ‘Oh, Lord, we’ve got that rough offensive line to play against.’ That’s the attitude that we’re taking this year.”

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