By Thomas Boswell
Friday, August 31, 2007
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Take your stand now. Don't wait a month until the Redskins are on their bye week and say, "I knew they'd beat the Dolphins, Eagles and Giants and be 3-0."
Or, of course, that could be 0-3, since teams that finish 5-11 one season seldom tear up the league the next year. Go ahead, take the measure of the team you've glimpsed this August and extrapolate its results. But make no mistake, there is one question and one question only underneath your analysis: Do you still believe in Joe Gibbs?
The team that lost to the Jaguars, 31-14, on Thursday night in sweltering Jacksonville Municipal Stadium has Gibbs's complete public stamp of approval. This week at their annual Welcome Home Luncheon, Gibbs reiterated once again that he and his staff -- the most expensive teachers in NFL history -- have been given everything they need to win. The coach who won three Super Bowls claims that he has exactly the men he needs, the precise players with the talents and temperaments he wants. He praised their heart in the final seven games last year, after he took the team back to its smash-mouth roots.
"It's all on me," Gibbs says.
Does he say it because, in the fourth year of his return, he has no realistic choice? Or does he see something -- perhaps many things -- that others simply don't? Who judges talent and people better than Gibbs?
On nights like this, we're reminded that wise fans might want to give Gibbs the benefit of the doubt one more time. Not out of gratitude for past Super Bowl victories, though that is merited, but because coaches as special as Gibbs are so rare. Just a glimpse of the rich promise that Gibbs thinks he sees is all that the Redskins showed against the Jags. But it was an eyeful. With one sweet, eight-play, 70-yard touchdown drive on their first possession, the Redskins planted the seed of hope. It doesn't take much, does it?
Showing no hint of a limp from his bruised knee, Jason Campbell threw five passes and completed them all for 54 yards and a 23-yard touchdown to Antwaan Randle El. He was merely perfect. Rock Cartwright blasted for 21 yards on three carries. Then, as quickly as they'd appeared for one brief first-quarter drive and that 7-0 lead, every first-string Redskin was finished for the night. Rookies, scrubs and backup quarterbacks fought for jobs the rest of the evening. Yet, with that one immaculately executed drive, the Redskins made you wonder: Could Gibbs be right?
The Jaguars will tell you that Campbell's soft touch pass up the left sideline to Randle El was completed against their third-string cornerback, Dee Webb, a fellow who's more likely to be driving a FedEx truck than playing at FedEx Field. They'll say that another of their humble third-stringers -- defensive tackle Walter Curry -- knocked Campbell head-over-bruised-knee on a sack that sent the hearts of Redskins followers into their throats.
The Redskins don't want to hear it. Their whole preseason has been one continual offensive frustration. After a poor performance in Tennessee with no points in six possessions, Campbell was injured early in the Steelers game, then missed what would have been a useful test against the mighty Ravens defense in the first half last week in a game cut in half by lightning. So he and Gibbs were willing to take the risk of giving him just one series last night to change the tone of his exhibition season.
"It was a confidence boost. It gave us momentum for the Miami game," said Campbell, referring to the season opener in Landover on Sept. 9. "I was kind of nervous about taking the first hit to my knee."
Yet he survived exactly the kind of big hit that the Redskins hoped to avoid as he checked down for a 12-yard gain to Mike Sellers. Actually, Campbell took "two licks but it was good to get 'em out of the way."
If we step back and view this exhibition season as a whole, the Redskins' preseason may actually have revealed more than many thought. By playing on even terms against four teams that all finished at .500 or better last season, the Redskins established that they are probably a solid, competitive team that is already considerably better than last season's dismal mess.
The Titans, Steelers, Ravens and Jags may not get to the Super Bowl this season. But they are tough, physical teams with strong defenses. Playing them to a standstill in August, especially with minimal time from Campbell, is not insignificant. Even more important, the Redskins' biggest weakness -- the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL -- showed enormous improvement. In the first halves of the first three games, the Redskins allowed only 19 points. None of Jacksonville's points came against starters.
"The first half of all those [first] three games we played up to our standards," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "That's a big difference from last year. We've come a long way." This year, there was no confidence-shredding debacle like last August's 41-0 loss to New England.
"We've got to start off fast in the regular season, not like last year," added Wynn. "I don't care who you are, going 0-4 in preseason, then losing the first two games leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
Getting off to that fast start may be more feasible this season -- although the opener against Miami bears a resemblance to last season's opener against the Vikings, when the Redskins were favored but lost by three points. A large part of any NFL team's success is the luck of its scheduling draw. There, the Redskins could hardly ask for more.
Almost every foe they play at home, where they were 3-5 last year, has a new head coach, a new untested quarterback or a losing record. The Dolphins (6-10) will arrive with rookie coach Cam Cameron, a former Redskins quarterback coach. The digestible Lions (3-13) and Cardinals (5-11) also arrive at FedEx in the first six weeks of the season. Those three wins alone should avoid a panic like last year's 2-5 start.
In the second half, the Redskins host the Bills (7-9) and visit the Vikings (6-10) and Bucs (4-12). Also, if the Redskins can't win two of three from their division rivals at FedEx, they aren't a serious postseason contender anyway. Even last year, in what may have been the nadir for a franchise with enormous resources, the Redskins were only outscored by five points in three home games against the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys.
"This game is a mystery," said Gibbs late last night. "That's why it's such an attraction. The fans don't know what's going to happen and we don't either. But now it's going to be played out. It's a long haul. We'll see."
When the Cowboys come to FedEx on Dec. 30 for the final game of the season, the Redskins -- if they bear any resemblance at all to the team Gibbs thinks he has -- will probably have a winning record, perhaps 8-7. If that's the case, a playoff spot may well be at stake as the year ends.
If that's how this season works out, with all the attendant Joe's-back hoopla, don't say Gibbs didn't tell you.