By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; E01
Optimism is everywhere. All 32 teams see themselves as contenders now, what with training camp having started all over the NFL. They're optimistic in Oakland because Art Shell has brought back old-school, silver-and-black power football. They're optimistic in Chicago because there is finally a quarterback or two to go with all that defense.
They're optimistic in Philly because T.O. is gone; they're optimistic in Dallas because T.O. is there. They're optimistic in forsaken football places like New Orleans and Arizona because there's shiny new talent suiting up for the first time.
But optimism doesn't begin to describe what's happening here, in Washington, where the Redskins appear to be positively loaded. The players sense it. Close observers sense it. Mark Brunell, probably never given to a word of overstatement in his life, said yesterday that anything short of a championship run this season would be a disappointment. "The expectations are high outside this building, but they're probably higher inside the building," he told reporters. "We expect big things. Anything short of going all the way would be a disappointment."
Preseason NFL forecasts have the Redskins up toward the top of the NFC, right there with Seattle and Carolina, maybe Chicago. Preseason football hype is based way too often on the appearance of exciting skill-position players, and this Redskins team is no exception.
There's a proven playoff quarterback in Brunell, who if healthy (and we'll come back to that later) can certainly do for a team what Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson have done recently, namely lead it to a championship. Santana Moss is coming off a nearly 1,500-yard season.
There's a legit No. 2 receiving threat now in Brandon Lloyd, a young tight end of consequence in Chris Cooley and an all-purpose threat in Antwaan Randle El. The pass catchers, plus running backs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, will be playing for an offensive leader -- Al Saunders -- who is as savvy as any coach in football. Saunders coached Marshall Faulk in St. Louis, then Priest Holmes in Kansas City, then Larry Johnson when Holmes went down. Randle El, who can catch, run and throw, is absolutely made for Saunders's creative mind.
As good as the offense ought to be, it's Gregg Williams and the defense that are proven. And now the defense has Andre Carter and Phillip Daniels rushing the passer with Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a pushing up the middle and Reynaldo Wynn rotating in. It looks like a great front line, backed up by linebackers Marcus Washington and Lemar Marshall, backed up impressively by Carlos Rogers and Shawn Springs on the corners and Adam Archuleta and Sean Taylor at safety.
It just sounds nasty, and it sounds complete.
But . . . here comes the "however." There's always a however.
Every starting offensive lineman except Derrick Dockery is coming off surgery, and that includes Jon Jansen, Chris Samuels, Randy Thomas and Casey Rabach. All they have to do is protect the team's most valuable asset: Brunell.
Brunell's ability to stay healthy isn't just the biggest story of the Redskins season; it's one of the biggest stories in the NFL. Name a team in the NFL that can thrive without its starting quarterback. Okay, the Bears went 11-5 without theirs, but the Redskins actually ask their quarterback to do something.
The Bengals need Carson Palmer functioning at a high level to do anything. Same with Daunte Culpepper in Miami. Same with Donovan McNabb in Philly. With Michael Vick healthy in 2004, the Falcons played for a spot in the Super Bowl. With Vick in and out of the lineup in 2005, the Falcons missed the playoffs.
With Brunell upright and functional, the Redskins have the trigger man to deploy all those backs and receivers. Without him? Todd Collins has played in only 12 games since 1998. He's completed only 18 passes in those eight seasons and hasn't started a game since '97. Jason Campbell is a kid, a rookie when it comes to actual experience. So the Redskins have no idea what in the world will happen if Brunell goes down. We're not talking about going to Brian Griese, or even a Kyle Boller (who'll presumably back up Steve McNair). Other than Big Ben Roethlisberger, who had started for two years, those kid quarterbacks (Rex Grossman, Eli Manning, Chris Simms) didn't do too well in the playoffs, did they?
The whole thing becomes about No. 8, Brunell, doesn't it?
A team with this kind of talent should want its quarterback brimming with confidence going into the season. There's no need for the Redskins to shrink from expectations now, and Brunell isn't. "To come off a year where we had quite a bit of success, again, to repeat that type of effort, go 10-6 and only get as far as we got last year, I think for all these guys would be a disappointment," he said. "It's not [bragging] or making predictions. That's just what we think."
Of course, this isn't the first time in recent years camp started with such electricity. Dan Snyder has gone out and procured talent before, most notably the 2000 season, when Deion and Bruce Smith and Mark Carrier, et al, arrived . . . and the whole thing came crashing down around Norv Turner.
Thing is, Snyder paid for this team, but he didn't put it together.
Joe Gibbs put it together.
And meaning no disrespect to anybody, let me simply say that Norv Turner ain't Joe Gibbs. Marty Schottenheimer ain't Joe Gibbs. And Steve Spurrier ain't Joe Gibbs. Check the record when Gibbs has the players and coaches he wants. Yes, there are things beyond a coach's control, even a Hall of Fame coach like Gibbs. Teams have already suffered season-ending injuries to important players and there's nothing to say the Redskins will avoid such calamities.
Even so, as training camp begins in earnest you can't help but look at teams around the league, then look at what the Redskins have assembled and understand completely why even the dog days of August might crackle with something besides heat.