- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

The marathon will end Tuesday afternoon when the Washington Redskins begin a five-day break - 116 days after they reported for Jim Zorn’s first training camp.

The Redskins enter Week 9 tied for the NFC lead with six wins. They sit a half-game behind the New York Giants in the NFC East.

Halfway through the season, are the Redskins a legitimate contender or will they fade down the stretch? Can Jason Campbell continue his efficient play the second time through the division? Will Clinton Portis have anything left come late December? How will the defense continue to overcome so many injuries?

For some answers, we asked for four opinions last week. Our panel: ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, former NFL executive Mike Lombardi (who writes for nationalfootballpost.com) and NFL Network/Fox commentators Brian Baldinger and Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach.

Jim Zorn

Zorn is wearing three hats - quarterbacks coach, play caller and head coach - and two of them for the first time. The offense is seventh in the NFL in yards per game and Zorn has drawn raves for his fearless play-calling.

Billick: “I’ve known Jim for years and years and I was concerned that he was taking on too much because he was going to be doing everything, but he had a plan. He recognized that he had to utilize his expertise because his first job was getting Jason Campbell up to speed with the structure of the offense.”

Baldinger: “It’s to his credit that he’s delegated to Greg Blache and Danny Smith and trusted Joe Bugel and the rest of the staff, which lets him focus on the quarterback’s development. He easily could be up for coach of the year at this point.”

Jaworski: “He’s done a terrific job. The one thing that stands out to me is the versatility of the offense - formation variation, motion, personal packages. Very diversified.”

Lombardi: “I thought it was going to be a tough transition to change the dynamics. And then never having called plays and [having] never managed a game, I thought it would be difficult. He’s been brilliant. The thing that has helped Jim - not to minimize what he’s done - is the staff has been there, so Jim’s made the adjustment as much as everybody has made the adjustment to him.”

Jason Campbell

The only starting quarterback in the NFL without an interception this season, Campbell entered Week 9 tied for fifth in the NFL with a 100.5 passer rating.

Lombardi: “Go back to when Donovan McNabb first started with [Eagles coach] Andy Reid, and Andy tried to run the West Coast offense. It wasn’t what it was supposed to be, so Andy developed his own West Coast for Donovan and that’s what Jim has done with Jason.”

Billick: “His improvement is across the board. I can’t tell you how impressed I am by his development - and it’s both Jim and Jason. Jason has turned himself over to Jim and the things initially focused on - quickening his pace, quickening his agility in the pocket - you can clearly see. When I saw he had no interceptions, I expected to watch the film and see a guy that was not taking chances with the ball, taking more sacks, throwing for a low completion percentage and not making a lot of big plays. But that’s not the case at all. He’s been the complete package.”

Baldinger: “The more important area of improvement is how decisive he is with the ball. He knows exactly where he wants to go. He’s been incredibly consistent and accurate since the second half against New Orleans. He’s been throwing pinpoint passes; it’s not that teams are falling down. And because of the receivers they have, he has to be more accurate because he’s throwing to [5-foot-10 receivers] Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El. It’s not like he’s throwing to [6-5] Plaxico Burress, who gives you great margin for error because he has height and you can throw it to a local area and he can go get it.”

Jaworski: “The most improved quarterback in the league. There usually is a long learning curve. He’s arrived as an NFL quarterback. I liked him last year and I liked the things I saw in his game. But he’s really elevated his game - decision-making, throwing the football, the mechanics.”

Clinton Portis

Portis is arguably the NFL’s MVP through eight weeks. His 944 rushing yards lead the league, but will Portis have anything left for the stretch run?

Billick: “We talked to Jim about that last week in Detroit because, yes, you do [have to manage his carries]. The player just wants the ball and every running back says they’re getting stronger at 25 to 30 carries. If you’re getting to that 350-carry mark, you’re going to wear down. Particularly with the quality of the division and the weather and other factors, you want to be at your best in January. It’s a delicate balance, but I think Jim and Clinton are on the same page. There’s a pitch count you have to be aware of and, if the game is tight, you ride your best horse. But, if you have the latitude in the latter part of the game to give other guys carries, you do that.”

Baldinger: “Clinton had a hard time getting 4 yards [per carry] last year and the only reason he got 4 yards was because he put his head into some part of a wall and knew how to power his way through. This year, there are consistent creases and definable holes to run through. … I do think with Shaun Alexander and Ladell Betts, they have to pace him a little bit. You want him running this well in the postseason. Whether he gets 1,500, 1,800 or 2,000 yards doesn’t matter if you get to the postseason and he’s fried. They have to monitor that.”

Jaworski: “What I like about Portis is his efficiency - 50 percent of his runs are for 4 yards or more and that really keeps your offense on schedule. … I always worry about running backs that are touching the football as much as he is. When you see the shots these guys take week after week, plus picking up the blitz or having to block a defensive tackle, they take a beating.”

Takeaways and sacks

Greg Blache’s defense is sixth in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed, but it has only eight takeaways and 10 sacks through eight games. Can the Redskins produce a better pass rush in the second half?

Lombardi: “The untold story is they do a tremendous job of rushing the passer with power. They don’t sack the quarterback, but they push the pocket. The quarterback is never comfortable. Somebody is always getting pushed back. And they’ve done as good a job of playing man-to-man defense with their corners.”

Baldinger: “It’s always a concern. Their scheme is very sound and they do get pressure, but not a lot of sacks. I think it’s going to hurt them going forward if they don’t get Jason Taylor back against the Cowboys and Giants. … In Gregg Williams’ scheme, any of the 11 defenders could be a potential pass rusher and they did create pressure and were fun to watch. But they gave up a lot of big plays. You don’t see this defense giving up a play like Brian Westbrook’s touchdown last year or giving up 52 points to New England. You don’t see them getting beat over the top.”

Jaworski: “What eventually may be their Achilles’ heel is the lack of a consistent pass rush. They do a good job on the ‘mush rush’ - getting push, collapsing the pocket - but not the quick pressure you see from premier defensive teams. Greg Blache has done a great job with this system and they mix it up - blitz, zero coverage. Some of those blitzes against Cleveland were eye-opening, and it shows that Greg has a lot of confidence in his defense.”

The NFC East

All four teams are above .500. The Giants, Dallas and Washington made the playoffs last season. The Redskins have the schedule advantage: All three rivals come to FedEx Field in the second half.

Baldinger: “If they get [Shawn] Springs and [Jason] Taylor back healthy, with the quarterback play they’ve gotten, I don’t see why they can’t win the NFC East.”

Billick: “They’re a team that has a very legitimate chance to make a run.”

Jaworski: “I wish we could get the NFC East every Monday night. It’s a wide-open division; they’ll have three teams make the playoffs.”

Lombardi: “I think the Giants are probably the most talented team. They can run it, they can throw it and they’re finding ways to sack the quarterback without having Osi Umenyiora. It’s just going to be a constant battle.”

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