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Season's Forecast Remains Uncertain

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 26, 2007

If you want Redskins symbolism, look no further than last night's preseason game against the Ravens, which was cut almost in half by monstrous thunderstorms that delayed the game for 72 minutes, then stopped play for good when the severe weather returned with Washington ahead 13-7 early in the third quarter. So, are the Redskins a team that is buffeted, up in the air, tinged with the bizarre and perhaps even playing under a dark cloud? Take your pick. But predict at your peril.

Even though the schedule says that the Redskins play one final preseason game Thursday in Jacksonville, the team's preseason is virtually over, even though it just lost nearly a half-game in which to evaluate key substitutes and rookies. Nobody plays its starters for more than a series or two in the last warmup game. So you've basically seen what you're going to glimpse of the Redskins before their opener at home against Miami on Sept. 9. Confused? Join the group, including the team.

"I think it was a great decision. . . . There was lightning all over the place. You don't want anybody to get hurt," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "You just have to make the best [personnel] decisions you can."

If you think you have little idea what to make of the Redskins, who appear greatly improved on defense, but remain a complete mystery on offense, imagine how they must feel. After the misery of 5-11, everyone, especially Gibbs, who claims he has the right personnel in hand to build a fine team, wants clarity and rapid improvement. Instead, everything is murky.

Looking on the bright side of a gloomy night, both teams played their starters the first half and, though Baltimore led 7-6, the Redskins competed evenly in a hard-hitting game with a tough team. "I have to applaud both teams for that first half. That's the number one defense in the league," said Gibbs, who was satisfied with the cautious but mistake-free work of reserve quarterback Todd Collins, who completed 8 of 15 passes for 88 yards and generated drives that led to field goals.

Nonetheless, the first-team defense still hasn't had a takeaway in preseason and the first-team offense hasn't scored a point with Jason Campbell at quarterback. Campbell, recovering from a bruised bone in his left knee, didn't play last night and, if he plays against Jacksonville, will probably follow the NFL norm and work only a couple of series. "We plan to use Jason, then Mark [Brunell], then [rookie] Jordan Palmer in Jacksonville," Gibbs said.

Campbell was unable to practice at all last week after bruising his knee against the Steelers last Saturday. As the Jaguars game approaches, the cautious Gibbs may have second thoughts about exposing Campbell to more preseason danger if he has any of the discomfort that lingered during the last week. If Campbell simply dresses in street clothes and plays catch on the sideline, as he did during the Ravens game, it would probably be the wisest decision. There is no Hall of Fame for preseason heroes.

The preseason, with all its disastrous possibilities for injury, is supposed to answer questions and give crucial experience to key players. Instead, the Redskins have partial answers at best. After playing close but inconclusive games against the Titans, Steelers and Ravens, the team knows its defense is healthier and clearly better than at any point last season with free agent linebacker London Fletcher, second-year linebacker Rocky McIntosh and rookie safety LaRon Landry elevating the whole unit's level of violence and quickness. Yet the first-team defense has not turned that lust for mayhem into the most valuable commodity in the NFL: takeaways. That's unsettling after Washington set the ugly record last year for fewest takeaways (12) in a 16-game season.

Even more annoying has been the second straight wasted preseason for the offense of Al Saunders. Last August the team kept its 700-page playbook under wraps and didn't score a preseason point with its first-team offense. That was bad judgment. That they have not scored with Campbell at quarterback is just rotten luck. After a poor first-half performance against Tennessee -- scoreless in seven possessions -- Campbell only remained upright for two series against Pittsburgh before being hurt on a low hit by Brett Keisel. That's it. That's all he's played.

"Football wasn't meant to be played like that," Gibbs said of the interrupted, then discontinued deluge last night. But those words could just as well apply to Campbell. A young quarterback isn't supposed to be limited to less than half of a normal number of snaps in the entire preseason.

Few preseason games are memorable. This one was, but for all the wrong reasons. Spectacularly ferocious weather contrasted with the penalty-filled football by the Ravens and the cautious offense by the Redskins. Washington trailed at intermission, 7-6, because of one sustained 70-yard scoring drive led by Ravens quarterback Steve McNair. Early in the third quarter, with second-stringers and rookies at almost every position for both teams, the Redskins took the lead, 13-7, on a three-yard interception return by reserve linebacker Dallas Sartz.

The gods had apparently seen enough. The storms returned and ended everybody's misery. In the midst of a Ravens offensive play, perhaps a third of the lights atop the stadium went dark. Then more thunder, lightning and rain arrived. Most ominously, the lights throughout FedEx occasionally flickered and sparked as if a power failure were imminent. Each time, as the promise of darkness arrived, the remaining fans gasped at the show.

Any fans who wanted to stay to see the rest of the game had to be out of their minds. On the other hand, anybody who preferred to head to the parking lots in such a storm was just as nutty. So everybody sat. And wondered: in a perfect world, wouldn't the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pay the NFL to cancel its entire preseason? What could eliminate more misery?

Even by the high standards of Washington area August thunder-bumpers, the storms on this evening were magnificent brutes. The first arrived from the West before dusk like one dark end-of-the-world cloud that blacked out a quarter of the horizon while the rest of the sky remained in twilight. As fans gawked, the storm carried an interior glow of various vague hues, interspersed with multiple lightning bolts striking simultaneously. By the time the rain hit, thousands of fans were still rushing into the entrances from the distant parking lots, many of them soaked to the skin.

The next time the Redskins return to their home, the storms will presumably have passed. But the clouds over this team, because of an indeterminate and unsatisfying preseason, will remain until the regular season brings real answers at last.

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