- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

There are only a few sure things in the NFL these days. The Patriots, the Eagles … uh, that’s about it. The Redskins, like most clubs, are somewhere in the middle, looking for a break or two to push them into the playoffs — unusual good health, an extra home game because of a hurricane in New Orleans. Sometimes it doesn’t take much.

The challenge for Joe Gibbs, in the second year of his NASCAR sabbatical, is to find a way to get the Redskins from 6-10 to 9-7, from 6-10 to the Fringe of Relevance. It’s been so long, so painfully long, since the team actually mattered, since the Redskins were the kind of opponent teams circled on their schedules.

Of course, going from 6-10 to 9-7 means winning three more games, half again as many as they did last season. A significant improvement, indeed, whether or not it results in a postseason berth. Granted, a handful of clubs pop out of the pack like that every year, but will the Redskins be one of them?

I use 9-7 as a benchmark because, to me, that’s the outer limit of what this team is capable. It simply isn’t a 10-win club. (And if your preseason prediction is more optimistic than mine, well, you’re just letting your burgundy show.)

The defense, third in the league last season, still looks to be dependable, despite the loss of Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot to free agency. And LaVar Arrington’s return to full strength — if, indeed, he’s at that point — will give Gregg Williams one more toy to play with. But I wouldn’t count on the unit to give up 16.6 points a game again, not when it has to face the Seahawks, Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers and Rams (as well as upgraded Cowboys and Giants offenses). That’s a lot of firepower to have to contend with.

No, if the Redskins are to join the ranks of the relevant, their offense is going to have to make a huge turnaround, somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 degrees. And it’s hard to imagine them doing that with Patrick Ramsey continuing to be so iffy and his wideouts having no special talents. You have to be able to throw the ball in this league — consistently — and Ramsey and Co. aren’t nearly at that level.

I’m not sure how much more time Gibbs is going to give them. He’s always preferred Mark Brunell, anyway, and if Ramsey persists in throwing interceptions … Even now, in his fourth season, Patrick doesn’t seem all that settled back there, all that certain. In fact, he often looks as if he’s playing on ice skates. The Monday night game at Dallas in Week 2 could well be the fork in the road for him; a subpar performance there — with the bye week following — could reopen the door for No. 8, who has some zip on his throws he didn’t have a year ago.

Whoever quarterbacks the Redskins this season should benefit from better protection and a more effective running game. The preseason can be misleading, but the offensive line, with Jon Jansen back at right tackle and Casey Rabach moving in at center, seems more like a Gibbs/Bugel operation now — knocking people off the ball, picking up blitzers to buy the QB time. And the Redskins went up against some pretty fair defenses in their exhibition games (Panthers, Steelers, Ravens).

I’d be surprised if Clinton Portis didn’t get his 1,500 yards this year. I’d also be surprised if the offense went 12 games before it put up 20 points (as it did last season, hard as it still is to believe). But I don’t know that much else about the “O” would surprise me. I mean, it’s not exactly formidable.

The Redskins figure to be a better team this year, if only because Coach Joe has gotten his bearings now. He didn’t make into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot by being a slow study. But that might not necessarily translate into a better record. Their schedule strikes me as tougher, and it’s possible that, while they’ve made strides, they’re nonetheless the least-improved club in the NFC East.

The Eagles show no signs of peaking. (And they’re still fairly young.) The Cowboys brought in a new quarterback (Drew Bledsoe), will have rising star Julius Jones from the get-go and made major additions to their defense. In New York, Eli Manning should begin to resemble a franchise QB, and the return of Michael Strahan, coupled with the signing of Pierce, will put some of the bite back in the defense.

That’s why it’s hard to see the Redskins making that jump to 9-7. Not this season, at least. Best-case scenario: 8-8. Progress, but no playoffs.

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