- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

Coming off their first playoff season in six years, the Washington Redskins today open training camp full of optimism about the coming season.

Those positive vibes grew last night when the Redskins signed their top draft choice, linebacker Rocky McIntosh, to a four-year contract. McIntosh is expected to be in uniform for the team’s first practice at 4 p.m. at Redskin Park. McIntosh, the Redskins’ only pick above the fifth round, will compete with holdover Warrick Holdman to start at weak side linebacker.

The return of Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs in 2004 to coach the Redskins brought ecstasy to fans grown accustomed to their team’s failures.

The mood, however, at last summer’s camp was decidedly downbeat: The Redskins had posted a 6-10 record in Gibbs’ first season, Mark Brunell was battling Patrick Ramsey for the starting quarterback job, star linebacker LaVar Arrington was ailing and feuding with his defensive coaches and standout safety Sean Taylor was facing a criminal trial in September.

This camp should be much happier and with good reason. The Redskins won their final five games of the regular season, beating each of their NFC East rivals, to finish 10-6. The team then upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road in a wild-card game before losing in the next round to the eventual NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.

Further fueling the optimism is this: The Redskins spent heavily this winter to fix their biggest weakness, adding Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El to compete for the starting receiver job opposite Pro Bowl selection Santana Moss.

It isn’t enough, however, to shake Gibbs out of his typical caution.

“Starting camp, we’re more settled,” Gibbs said. “The problem is that anything can turn the tables on you. Last year doesn’t buy us anything other than confidence in knowing we’re capable of winning 10 games. We didn’t win the [NFC East]. We know what the Giants are capable of. We have tremendous respect for Dallas. Philly’s going to come roaring back. …

“In professional sports, the time you think you’ve got it made is when you’ve got a problem.”

But problems appear to be few for the Redskins as they enter camp.

Brunell, running back Clinton Portis, tight end Chris Cooley, offensive tackle Chris Samuels and Moss, playing his first season for the Redskins, all stepped up as the offense rose in league rankings from 30th in 2004 to 11th last season.

The defense, a top-10 unit in both seasons under assistant head coach Gregg Williams, returns nine starters.

Arrington is gone, but he did not play at his former Pro Bowl level once he reclaimed his job at midseason last year. Strong safety Ryan Clark has been replaced by bigger and faster free agent signee Adam Archuleta. Defensive end Andre Carter was signed from San Francisco to enhance the pass rush.

All 89 players, with the possible exception of McIntosh, will practice today. Injured players like Brunell (finger), offensive tackle Jon Jansen (thumb), guard Randy Thomas (leg), center Casey Rabach (leg), offensive lineman Tyson Walter (leg) and defensive ends Renaldo Wynn (arm) and Nic Clemons (knee) were given limited work in June’s minicamp but are ready for full workouts today.

Gibbs said he was especially pleased by the benefits his team has gained from the three-month offseason program that ended six weeks ago.

“We’ve got real leadership on this team,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got a very prideful group. We worked extremely hard in the offseason. That we had 98 percent [attendance] at our voluntary workouts says a lot about our team.”

As a reward for that exemplary offseason, Gibbs waited until the last possible day — 11 days after the Eagles — to introduce his players to the rigors of camp, which will begin in the area’s hottest weather of the year. The Redskins will hold two practices on just three days, and one of those second sessions will begin at a relatively cool 7 p.m.

“We typically start in extreme heat,” Gibbs said. “That’s one of my biggest concerns because you have big guys in the heat, trying to be competitive. It’s really something you have to watch. You just do the best job you can.”

McIntosh, who missed June’s minicamp following arthroscopic knee surgery, was the NFL’s last unsigned second-rounder.

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