Let the Real Games Begin!

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 1, 2006

Okay, they're 0-4 now and have looked positively awful in getting there.

The Washington Redskins' first-team offense went the entire preseason without scoring, and earned only two first downs in the fourth and final game last night against the Baltimore Ravens. The starters, best we can figure it, were outscored, 52-0. Baltimore's Steve McNair didn't pick on some scrubbini for the only meaningful score of the game; he torched Redskins starting cornerback Carlos Rogers and starting safety Adam Archuleta. That made the preseason aggregate score, 104-27, with the Redskins on the short end.

The starting offensive line let the Ravens' defense come free on a nasty pass rush early in the game and it was a good thing the Baltimore linemen and linebackers were in a merciful mood because they pulled up on Mark Brunell when they didn't have to. Jason Campbell might very well be the quarterback of the future, but there was nothing about his preseason performance that would lead any savvy observer to suggest the kid should be a starter this season. Kicking field goals, John Hall is so-so, which could be a disaster for a team that early on might need field goals. Did I mention that everybody's favorite, Chris Cooley, dropped a third-and-two pass that would have kept a drive alive and might have helped the first-teamers save face at least a little?

Yep, the Redskins looked bad again last night. In fact, if it's only the bottom line of winning and losing that you're evaluating, the Redskins have looked as bad in these four preseason games as any team in the NFL. If you consider the way the first team played, if you listened to Joe Gibbs's criticism of his team after the first two games, and if you take into account the brutally tough division the Redskins are playing in, you might be tempted to forecast mostly gloom and doom for the regular season.

But that would be entirely premature and perhaps downright silly.

In the four days between preseason losses Nos. 3 and 4, I talked to a half-dozen former players who are still close to the game as broadcasters or front-office executives. Two played for Gibbs. And not a single one believes there is any correlation between what has happened in August and what will happen beginning Monday night, Sept. 11, when the Redskins' regular season begins.

What they all feel is that the Redskins have too many players in the prime of their careers who know how to play and too many coaches who are certain they know exactly how to get a team ready for the season. Nobody I've talked to who works anywhere in the NFL believes the Redskins are going to stink it up in the regular season. The defense is too good, they say. The offense has a great balance potential of run and pass.

I wonder if the team was spooked very early on, four minutes into the preseason to be exact, when Clinton Portis suffered that shoulder injury. It's human nature, after watching the most productive player on the offense go down, to go into self-protection mode. "Let's just get this thing over" isn't what patrons want to hear when they're paying full price for a ticket, but it increasingly is what NFL players think about their preseason.

Last week, I asked Gibbs if he allowed for the possibility that Portis's injury, coming at the beginning of the very first game, was having a lingering effect on the rest of the team. And after mulling it over for a bit, Gibbs said no, that Portis's injury, while a setback, wasn't devastating emotionally because the players see Portis running and working out every day. And while that sounds completely logical, it's hard to not think back to Gibbs's first preseason game two years ago when Jon Jansen was injured early in the game. Those close to Gibbs felt that neither he nor the team quite got over the preseason injury to such an important player.

Is it a reach? Perhaps, but no more so than thinking that the defense with all its starters is going to be porous or that Al Saunders's offense is going to be easy to stop once he's using more than two percent of the playbook.

Yes, the Redskins have been dreadful for four weeks of preseason.

But does that correlate in any way to what will happen in the regular season?

The first thing to remember is that the Redskins open the season on a Monday night, at home, against a Minnesota Vikings franchise that is essentially starting from scratch. There's no Randy Moss, no Daunte Culpepper, no Dennis Green or Mike Tice. Other than Brad Johnson and Fred Smoot, the Vikings are new all the way around, right down to new uniforms.

The Vikings are going to go on the road and beat the Redskins in the season opener, on Monday night, when the Redskins have heard nothing for four weeks but how bad they are? I think probably not.

Gibbs, who admitted he is relieved this whole preseason ordeal is over, said the question is, "Can we get that turned around between now and next Monday night?"

And while Gibbs has a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he readily admitted: "I have a tough time seeing [going into every season] how we're going to play. I certainly can't do it."

Gibbs didn't want to resort to anything that sounds like an excuse for losing. But he did say he took precautions with certain players. Antwaan Randle El did not play. Think they'll find a way to get him on the field Monday night? Gibbs said that while he and his staff played it as vanilla as possible, he felt certain other coaches did as well in preseason.

"This," he said, "certainly is not the way we wanted to play."

But fretting aside, his team's record is still 0-0 and a whole lot of teams in the NFL would trade rosters with Gibbs right this minute.

"Everything points toward Monday night," Gibbs said. "The next eight days we've got a lot of straightening out to do."

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