- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

Last December, in the cramped visitors locker room at Sun Devil Stadium, after an ugly but necessary win over the Arizona Cardinals, now former Washington Redskins safety Ryan Clark described why contending for a playoff spot is better than playing out the string.

“It’s tough to practice in 20-degree weather when there’s nothing to play for,” he said.

An out-of-nowhere, five-game winning streak made December 2005 important for the Redskins, who reached the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

But for this year’s Redskins (4-8), three multi-game losing streaks have eliminated a return to the playoffs, making the final four games more about looking ahead to next year.

“You learn a lot about guys in situations like this,” right tackle Jon Jansen said. “Everybody will be tested and at some point, we’ll see what we have.”

But before the coaches conduct final evaluations and ascertain who goes, who stays and who needs to arrive, there is the task of playing Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis and the Giants.

“I don’t even think about next year — we’ll have plenty of time for that at the end of the season,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. “The most important thing we have to do with our team is, how do we win our fifth game? We have to focus in on that, playing each game one at a time and Coach [Joe] Gibbs has been very good about pounding that home.”

What Gibbs has also pounded home since the debacle in Tampa Bay three weeks ago are principals he believes in: Running the ball, stopping the run, tackling with consistency, avoiding explosive plays by the opponent and limiting penalties.

Gibbs said he gave the team seven reasons — he would not reveal them, of course — why they need to continue competing in December. Certainly at the top of the list is the reality that jobs are on the line.

“We know what Philadelphia’s mind-set is because they’re in it [playoff contention],” Gibbs said. “I know they’re going to play hard. The question is, what will we do? That’s the challenge for us.”

But for those who haven’t given up on watching the Redskins this season (or don’t have NFL Sunday Ticket), here are four key things to monitor between today and Dec. 30.

1. Campbell’s development

Best case: Quarterback Jason Campbell, who is making his fourth start today, continues to move forward each week with only minor hiccups and leaves no doubt that he is the starter entering the offseason.

Worst case: The offense struggles. Owner Dan Snyder panics and orders changes to the offensive coaching staff.

Overview: When Gibbs announced the switch to Campbell on Nov. 14, he looked depressed that he had to finally pull the plug on Mark Brunell. Three games later, Gibbs talks about Campbell’s play, future and intangibles with glee, having already compared him to Doug Williams.

The last four games will provide Campbell with invaluable experience. Instead of watching Brunell on video during offseason meetings with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, it will be No. 17 on the screen. Instead of wondering what regular-season NFL game speed is like, he can refer to his own experiences.

“There’s nothing like playing to get you prepared to play more,” Lazor said. “When we do get to the offseason, the kind of work we will do will be a little bit more realistic and concrete for Jason because he has gone through some things so when we talk about a certain pass, a certain blitz or a certain situation, he’ll have real experience to draw upon as opposed to watching other players on film.”

Campbell — 1-2 as the starter — has thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions since taking over for Brunell. But he has done nothing to suggest he won’t be The Guy in 2007.

Jansen admits that team-wide mojo from a late-season winning streak is tough to sustain through the dog days of OTAs and training camp. But in Campbell’s case, a 2-2 or 3-1 finish to the season will send the 24-year-old into the offseason with good vibes.

“For Jason, I think the momentum can carry over and a little positive energy and encouragement and success would definitely do a lot for his confidence and lead him to start next year with confidence,” Jansen said.

2. Secondary = first concern

Best case: Shawn Springs stays healthy, Carlos Rogers re-discovers his confidence and the Redskins don’t get bludgeoned through the air.

Worst case: Jeff Garcia makes plays today, Drew Brees goes for 400 yards next week, Marc Bulger abuses the secondary on Christmas Eve, and the Redskins finish in the bottom five of pass defense.

Overview: Only Green Bay (44) has given up more 20-plus-yard completions than the Redskins’ 43, only New Orleans (13) has allowed more 40-plus-yard passing plays than the Redskins’ 13, and no team has allowed more passing touchdowns than the Redskins’ 23.

The Redskins’ pass defense bottomed out at Philadelphia last month, when it was ranked 31st in the league. They are now 24th (221 yards a game) but their secondary has only four interceptions and opposing quarterbacks have a 98.9 passer rating.

Safety Adam Archuleta has been banished to the bench because of inability to cover, Springs has fought three injuries (forcing him to miss six games), Rogers has no interceptions despite playing every game and Sean Taylor hasn’t taken the expected leap forward in his third season.

“Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve said we have to be known as a good tackling defense that gets off the ball and minimizes explosive plays,” Williams said. “When we do that, we’ll be in every single game and give our offense a chance. … Last week, it came down to two explosive plays in the second half.”

The Redskins have to be seriously considering drafting a cornerback with their first-round pick because of Springs’ injury history, a lack of quality depth at the position and Rogers’ disappointing sophomore season. The top candidates are Michigan’s Leon Hall, Fresno State’s Marcus McCauley and Texas’ Aaron Ross.

3. Chase a pass-rusher, again?

Best case: Defensive end Andre Carter — last offseason’s $30 million free-agent acquisition — finishes the final four games with strong play. He had a career-high 11 tackles (plus a sack) last week against Atlanta.

Worst case: The Redskins continue to struggle getting to the quarterback. They enter today’s game with 15 sacks in 12 games (opposing quarterbacks have attempted 361 passes), tied with Tampa Bay and Tennessee for fewest in the NFL.

Overview: Carter was supposed to be the answer last offseason. The Redskins didn’t pursue John Abraham and, of course, didn’t draft Shawne Merriman two years ago. But Carter has three sacks — which still ties him for the team lead — and has shown flashes in the last few games.

Williams said of Carter on Thursday: “Each week, he has improved drastically but last week he played very well.”

But Carter may need help. Although hard workers, ends Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn aren’t prolific pass rushers. And the Redskins’ linebackers have a combined four sacks.

The Redskins could be in the market for an elite pass rusher like Atlanta’s Patrick Kerney or St. Louis’ Leonard Little. Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney isn’t expected to hit the open market.

Another direction they could go is acquiring an outside linebacker whose strength is rushing the passer. Chicago could let Lance Briggs entertain offers and Baltimore’s Adalius Thomas has impressed opponents with his versatility.

Because the Redskins have struggled in the secondary, they need to make getting to the quarterback a priority so some pressure can be taken off the back line.

4. Catching on

Best case: Brandon Lloyd — he of 20 catches and no touchdowns despite starting every game — takes Gibbs’ meetings with him to heart and plays better. Antwaan Randle El shows he can be a reliable No. 2A or 3 receiver.

Worst case: Lloyd finishes the season the way he started it by doing nothing. Randle El becomes more of a return man and gadget play performer than an every-down receiver.

Overview: In 2004, Laveranues Coles grew tired of the Redskins and was traded to the Jets, and the Redskins grew tired of Rod Gardner and he was dealt. Enter Moss in the Coles deal and David Patten via free agency from New England.

In 2005, Moss became a Redskins hero with two late touchdown catches at Dallas in Week 2 and made the Pro Bowl. But Patten was ineffective and missed the final half of the season with a knee injury. Enter Lloyd via trade (for two draft picks) and Randle El (free agent).

If it sounds like the Redskins are going around in circles, it’s because they are. Thing is, Lloyd and Randle El’s contracts give them little wiggle room. Both players are set to return in 2007.

The Redskins are 24th in passing yards (183.7) and has basically been impotent since Gibbs came back in 2004. How do they get it right? They’ve already made one right step, giving Campbell seven games to work with the receivers.

“Every snap is important,” Saunders said. “Everybody has an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going about doing it. It’s been a long process and we’re awfully close in a lot of areas, but we’re obviously not clicking enough.”

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