- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Think the opposite. That’s what every Washington Redskins fan should do as the regular-season opener against Miami approaches this weekend. During the first three years of Gibbs 2.0, each time expectations have been high, the performance has stunk. 2004: high hopes = 6-10 record. 2005: minimal aspirations = 10-6 record. 2006: sky-high dreams = 5-11 record.

So as the Monday Morning Quarterback finalizes his fantasy team, tries to find a hotel room in Green Bay for less than $300 a night and looks forward to the Week 4 bye, he’s taking a down-the-middle approach.

We’re not predicting playoffs, but we’re not predicting another top-five draft pick, either (more on that later).

Question: First things first: Is this Redskins team better now in Week 1 than it was in Week 1 last season?

Answer: Yes, and at several different positions, too.

As we see it, the Redskins upgraded on offense at quarterback (Jason Campbell for Mark Brunell), No. 2 receiver (Antwaan Randle El for Brandon Lloyd) and left guard (Pete Kendall for Derrick Dockery).

On defense, they also improved at tackle (Kedric Golston for Joe Salave’a), middle linebacker (London Fletcher for Lemar Marshall), weak-side linebacker (Rocky McIntosh for Warrick Holdman), No. 3 corner (Fred Smoot for Kenny Wright) and safety (LaRon Landry for Adam Archuleta).

Q: That’s eight of 22 starting positions. Were the Redskins really that bad last season?

A: Yes, they were. Looking back, it’s comical that everybody (including us) thought this team would be among the class of the NFC. Note the guys who were replaced. They weren’t merely benched, they were banished. Dockery left as a free agent, but Salave’a, Marshall, Holdman, Wright and Archuleta all were either released or traded.

Q: Obviously, Campbell starting is the biggest change from last year’s opener. What should be my expectations for the third-year quarterback?

A: Realistic. Campbell admits there will be some lows. Remember, he has started only seven regular-season games. He’ll be facing new opponents that play different defensive schemes and will throw a lot at him.

Progress could be defined by starting every game, raising his completion percentage from 53.1 into the 60.0 range, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions and having a passer rating in the 80s.

Q: Elsewhere on offense, Clinton Portis didn’t play at all in the preseason. I know he’s not on my fantasy radar, but is he still a viable No. 1 back?

A: Because of his injuries last year and injury this training camp, Portis is a question mark for the first time in his NFL career. He has to show everybody — teammates, coaches, fans, media — he can still carry the load.

But he may not get that chance. I get the feeling some at Redskin Park are fed up with his act and want to see Ladell Betts grab the job and not let go. Al Saunders wants a back who plays every down; Joe Gibbs is a Portis guy. That could turn into an interesting tug of war.

Q: We know Santana Moss and Chris Cooley will have big years, but a larger question is whether Brandon Lloyd will catch a touchdown pass.

A: I’m going on record here: Yes, Brandon Lloyd will catch at least three touchdown passes this season. He had zero last year, but as the No. 3 receiver, he may be going up against cornerbacks even he can beat.

Q: Moving on to the defense. All of the additions during the offseason came at linebacker and the secondary. What gives?

A: Defensive boss Gregg Williams said the back two lines of the defense were addressed because he believes in his front four. Truth is, it wasn’t a great DE/DT free agent class and the Redskins felt Landry was too good to pass up in favor of a tackle in the first round.

The defensive line is a major question until they show otherwise. A healthy Cornelius Griffin at tackle will shore up the run and keep guards and centers from mauling Fletcher.

But the pass rush is a concern. Currently, the best way for the Redskins to create pressure is by blitzing. That’s a dangerous game because it leaves the corners alone and vulnerable.

Q: Will the defense get more than 10 sacks and 12 takeaways?

A: Yes. The return of Shawn Springs will allow Williams to blitz his safeties more often (more sacks), and Smoot/Landry have better noses for the football than Wright and Archuleta (more interceptions).

Q: You haven’t mentioned Sean Taylor yet. Does that mean he’s not a concern?

A: Hardly. I think he’s a big worry because he showed in three preseason games that tackling is a foreign concept. He’s a huge hitter — he’ll blow guys up a lot. But he’s become like Rod Gardner — Mr. 50-50. Taylor wants a new contract and he has to play better to earn it.

Three months ago, I identified two key figures: Williams and Taylor. Williams because he needed to adapt his system to fit his personnel (which he has). Taylor because he has to be a ball-hawking safety. That’s to be determined.

Q: Prediction time. What’s the best-case scenario for the Redskins this season?

A: They go 7-1 at home (losing only to Chicago), win the two road games in which they’ll be favored (at Tampa Bay, at Minnesota) and then steal another road game (Philadelphia, Green Bay, New England, the Jets, Dallas or the Giants). That leaves them with a 10-6 record and a likely wild-card berth.

Q: OK, if 10-6 is the best case, what is the worst-case scenario?

A: They lose Sunday to Miami and go into the bye week 1-2. Any playoff hopes are kaput if the Redskins don’t start 4-2, because the schedule gets much tougher the rest of the way. But since you asked, an absolute train wreck of a season would a 3-13 record that includes home wins over Detroit, Arizona and Buffalo.

Q: Now that you’ve explored the two extremes, what’s your official prediction and does Joe Gibbs come back next season?

A: Here goes: beat Miami, lose to Philadelphia, beat the Giants, beat Detroit, lose to Green Bay, beat Arizona, lose to New England, lose to the Jets, lose to Philadelphia, lose to Dallas, beat Tampa Bay, beat Buffalo, lose to Chicago, beat the Giants, beat Minnesota, lose to Dallas. That adds up to 8-8.

If that’s the record, Gibbs will return for the final year of his contract.

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