Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Redskins Face a Crossroads Early in the Journey

Redskins Coach Jim Zorn could get three wins out of his team's first four games, based on the strength of the schedule, but they're 0-1 now.
Redskins Coach Jim Zorn could get three wins out of his team's first four games, based on the strength of the schedule, but they're 0-1 now. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Tracee Hamilton
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When the Redskins' 2009 schedule was announced, you probably didn't pencil in a "W" next to the season opener against the New York Giants. Be honest. You might have wanted to, but the Giants are just starting their second season since winning a Super Bowl and could contend for it again this season. At the least, they are among a handful of early favorites for the NFC title.

On the other hand, you almost certainly assumed wins in at least two of the Redskins' next three games, right? And possibly all three? St. Louis at home, the Lions in Detroit, back home against Tampa Bay -- that looks like 2-1 or 3-0, right?

That's the problem with Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Giants: It was hardly unexpected, but in the absence of an upset Sunday, it's already must-win time. In Week 2. We've barely packed up the white shoes, and it's go time.

Coach Jim Zorn likes to divide the NFL season into four quarters, like a football game. (Or a dollar, for that matter.) If we follow suit -- if we examine just those first four games -- the only acceptable outcome is 3-1.

Anything less, and it really may be go time -- as in, "away."

Antwaan Randle El remembers last year's season-opening loss at New York -- and he remembers the Redskins responding by winning their next four games and six of their next seven.

"Moving forward with this next game, after we look at the film, get the Giants out of our mind and focus on St. Louis, yeah, we're going to go on a run and we're going to try to win. Period," said Randle El, one of the few bright spots on offense Sunday, with seven receptions for 98 yards. "Our next goal is to beat St. Louis and not focus on anybody or anything else. That was the approach we took last year; our goal was to beat the Giants. Came up short and then you got to move on to the next team. Now whether you go on a run or not -- and we want to go on a run -- is yet to be seen. But we know we could do it."

Of course, last year the team that derailed the Redskins' run was St. Louis. The Rams had just two victories in 2008, and one was a 19-17 victory at FedEx Field in Week 6. Coming on the heels of road wins over Dallas and Philadelphia, it wouldn't be hyperbole to call that a shocking loss.

At first glance, St. Louis seems the perfect antidote for the 0-1 Redskins. The Rams were shut out Sunday by Seattle, 28-0. They had 247 net yards, and their third-down efficiency was 16 percent. But cornerback DeAngelo Hall laughed at the notion that any upcoming game was "easy."

"I don't know if it's an easy opponent or time to rest," said Hall, standing in the Redskins Park locker room Monday in a Virginia Tech maroon hoodie and white basketball shorts. "Every team in this league, you know, the parity's there, so every team is going to come out and give you everything you got.

"This is a team they lost to last year. I wasn't here then, but this is a team they lost to last year that they felt like they could have beat. It's going to feel the same way this week. We got to bring it back to .500."

To do that, the Redskins will have to improve on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense. Some of the disquieting signs of the preseason proved to be indications of real problems, not just the result of the erratic schedule and the rotating cast of characters.

By his admission, and his coach's, Jason Campbell is a quarterback who needs to make early completions to find a rhythm. So why have Randle El make the first pass of the game on a reverse? I love the notion of that play, and the risk-taking, and I get the element of surprise, but Campbell needs to find what he calls his groove each game. Of course, hindsight's wonderful: Zorn couldn't know, on the second play of the Redskins' first series, that his quarterback wouldn't really have a chance to look for his rhythm -- much less find it -- until the last series of the first half. But that's what happened.

Clinton Portis doesn't appear to have found his groove, either. Take out his 34-yard run on the Redskins' first play, and he had 15 carries for 28 yards. Maybe a change-of-pace back isn't such a bad idea, because that's not much of a pace. Granted, Portis was banging into an excellent defensive line, but his performance looked more like Week 3 of the preseason and less like Week 1 of the regular season. Portis made a brief appearance during the Redskins' open locker room Monday, but he talks only on Wednesdays, so when he saw the media horde approaching, he grinned and said, "You all migrating the wrong way" before heading out the door again.

And if Portis and the running game can't get unstuck, and Campbell can't get comfortable, it's not going to matter who won the No. 2 wide receiver battle or how much improvement Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas have made. Campbell has to have more options than the oft-double-teamed Santana Moss, and he needs deeper targets than Randle El in the slot.

Moss found a bright spot in Sunday's loss: "After all that we had done -- which was nothing, offensively -- we still was right there in that game." He then tried to explain how that was possible.

"I've seen us play sound football, I've seen us play with rhythm," Moss started to say Monday, then interrupted himself. "That's one thing [against the Giants], rhythm with offense. It's hard to get into a rhythm with having miscues, not doing things the right way. We know that, so we have to correct that."

One thing is certain: If the Redskins don't find their groove in Sunday's must-win game against St. Louis, the rhythm may not be the only thing that's gonna get 'em.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company