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Looking at the Big Picture, There Are More Than Little Questions

By Jason La Canfora
Friday, August 29, 2008

It's difficult to recall the entire scope of this preseason, with the past five days coloring everything else for the Washington Redskins. They opened camp before any other team, and for a three-week stretch seemed to be adjusting smoothly to their latest new coach, Jim Zorn, but images from those days feel like scenes from a different movie, scenes lost on the cutting room floor.

As the level of competition ramped up, and the Redskins no longer had more preparation time than their opponents (they played an extra preseason game), a veneer of progress gave way to the battery of the probing questions this franchise typically faces this time of year. Zorn tried to make last night's preseason finale against Jacksonville matter -- playing his starting offense the entire first quarter in an effort to take a positive mojo into the season opener at New York on Thursday -- but was left looking sour on the sideline through much of this 24-3 loss.

He debated leaving his starters out there until something went right, then thought better of it, fearing injuries. "That would not have been smart on my part," said Zorn, whose team has been outscored 71-6 since last Saturday.

If Zorn's lucky, this preseason will be as insignificant in the big picture Steve Spurrier's summer of 2002 turned out to be. But the stats last night were about as ugly as those from Saturday at Carolina. Jacksonville held the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the first quarter. The Redskins ran seven plays for 14 net yards, and quarterback Jason Campbell completed 1 of 4 passes. They could not get a first down.

"We can't go into a panic mode," Campbell said. "We've got to keep going."

No doubt Zorn's résumé -- he's never served as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, much less as a head coach -- will be the focus of attention next month, as will the process that led to his hiring. The coach and quarterback are always in the cross hairs, but the change to a West Coast offense, losing Joe Gibbs's number-based system, had farther-ranging ramifications.

Few first-time coaches get immediate results, even if inheriting a team that squeaked into the playoffs. And Zorn's quarterback pupil in Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck, required two years immersed as Zorn's starter before he reached a level that pleased both himself and his coaches. Why would Campbell, a young passer in perpetual transition since being drafted in 2005, not require a similar timeframe?

Any quarterback, if not sufficiently brought along, can become a liability, and aside from drafting tackle-guard Chad Rinehart (who has experienced the expected hiccups after a quick start), Vinny Cerrato, the vice president of football operations, did nothing to upgrade an aging and oft-injured offensive line.

Owner Daniel Snyder and Cerrato identified wide receiver as the primary position of need before even selecting a coach, even going so far as to tell coaching candidates they were considering Chad Johnson. But the Redskins enter this season with 33-year-old James Thrash, who languished on Joe Gibbs's bench, in line to play more than ever.

Cerrato was spurned in trade offers for Johnson -- dangling a first-round pick, and then two first-round picks before the draft, league sources said -- then selected pass catchers with all three of his second-round picks (wide receivers Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly and tight end Fred Davis, a nice prospect but one stuck behind 26-year-old Pro Bowler Chris Cooley).

Thomas and Kelly dropped on many draft boards and Zorn has not minced words when questioning their conditioning, grasp of the offense and ability to contribute to this team in the first part of the season. Thomas's preseason was unproductive, and his mistakes in routes contributed to the interception and a blown third-down conversion last night.

"I feel like I've let the guys down a little bit," Thomas said, "and I have to keep working and get the trust of the quarterback."

Kelly missed the entire preseason with injuries and aggravated a knee problem in warmups last night, which could leave him inactive early in the season, with him already seriously behind. "He can't possibly help us early in the season," Zorn said. Despite all their changes, the Redskins would be more vulnerable to an injury to a starting receiver now than even a year ago, when veterans such as Keenan McCardell and Reche Caldwell provided depth.

This offseason was very much about the draft, with Snyder shunning free agents and taking 10 picks. But with cut day looming, it remains to be seen how many will crack the roster, or truly contribute.

Incumbent punter Derrick Frost was holding for field goals last night, which might not bode well for rookie Durant Brooks (sixth round). Rookie safeties Kareem Moore (sixth round), who suffered a hamstring strain last night, and Chris Horton (seventh round) have shown promise, but undersize corner Justin Tryon (fourth round) was picked on mercilessly by the Jaguars. For all the local support Colt Brennan (sixth round) has attracted, Zorn would be the first to say that he is years away from being ready.

Zorn will be the public face for all of the decisions, with the wins and losses going next to his name. But any head coach is at the mercy of the decision makers above him, and success will depend on their competency as much as Zorn's.

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