Tuesday, March 20, 2007

With a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and three Super Bowl rings, Joe Gibbs could laugh off his career-worst 5-11 record in 2006 as a fluke. But that would go against his competitive nature.

“Last year was a shock,” Gibbs told The Washington Times. “You’d like to see the program keep improving. You certainly don’t want to see the graph turned the other way. This year is probably one of the most important years I’ve ever coached because of everything that happened last year. It was a bitter disappointment. We all felt we should’ve been a lot better than what we were. We just couldn’t get going for whatever reason.”

At the same time, the 66-year-old Gibbs declined to change his roster drastically this offseason. After adding four high-priced players last March following a run to the divisional round of the playoffs in 2005, the Redskins signed just two high-profile free agents this month. And middle linebacker London Fletcher and cornerback Fred Smoot were both familiar to several of Washington’s coaches.

What’s more, when Derrick Dockery jumped to Buffalo on March 2, the Redskins didn’t give an outsider big money to fill the void. They re-signed Todd Wade, a six-year NFL starting tackle who was as a backup in Washington in 2006, with the hope of making him the left guard this fall.

“I don’t want to come across as positive,” Gibbs said. “I’m not a positive-thinking guy. I’m a realist. But as poorly as everything went last year, we all feel that we have the right kind of guys and that we should be better. We don’t have to tear everything up.”

That includes the defense, which plunged from the NFL’s third best in 2004 to ninth best in 2005 to second worst in 2006. But Gibbs and his defensive staff, led by assistant head coach Gregg Williams, didn’t feel as downbeat after they watched each game of last season and compared those performances to four games from 2005.

“The thing that encouraged me was there were select games late in the season like Philly, where [we lost because] we threw two interceptions, Carolina and the Saints [both upset victories],” Gibbs said. “Considering the way we played the first two years on defense, I felt it will be easy for us to get back to playing that kind of football if we just did a few things right. We’ve got the staff. We haven’t made wholesale changes there. We have the players, generally. We asked how we can help ourselves? It was depth at corner and middle ‘backer.

“I believe we have a very good chance of bouncing back.”

Gibbs was equally encouraged about the offense. Unlike last March, players aren’t adjusting to a new scheme. And 25-year-old Jason Campbell is expected to be the quarterback for years after inheriting the job from the aging Mark Brunell in November.

“[Right tackle] Jon Jansen and [center] Casey Rabach were in here today, and they’ve got a real excitement about what’s going on,” Gibbs said. “For as tough a year as we had, we all kind of see some of the positive things that happened the last seven weeks.”

While the Redskins still might sign some second-tier free agents and cut former starting receiver David Patten to create more salary cap room, the training camp roster basically is set. Washington has just four picks in next month’s draft, although trading down from the sixth choice overall for more selections remains a possibility.

Gibbs said he expects cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn to remain in Washington despite their inflated cap costs. Safety Adam Archuleta, a free agent bust in 2006, also isn’t going anywhere barring the unlikely event of a trade with Chicago, which wanted him before he signed with Washington. Archuleta’s $5 million guaranteed bonus for 2007 is due tomorrow.

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