Having failed to make the playoffs for six straight years, it's difficult to give the Washington Redskins any benefit of the doubt. They haven't earned it. Since 1992 they've teased, they've underachieved, they've been sorry and no-account at times. The easiest and most understandable response to any good news that comes out of the early days of training camp is to say, "Sure, whatever you say," while resisting the urge to snicker. The Washington Redskins have given us every reason to become entrenched in our skepticism.
However, there seems to be a pulse here.
If the Redskins fall back into their old ways in September I'll deny I ever wrote this. But it seems there's a competitive team in the making here. I didn't say we're looking at the '85 Chicago Bears, but at least there's good stuff percolating. It was dumb to think that this time last year. There were people close to the team who looked at the schedule and said aloud, "Oh, it's 0-4 for sure." There's not that kind of gallows humor surrounding this team and there's definitely not that kind of pessimism.
It was perfectly sensible to believe the team would slide even farther into the abyss in the aftermath of the absurdly protracted sale of the franchise and the divorce of Norv Turner and Charley Casserly. But a pretty decent team could be emerging from the wreckage.
So what's changed?
The coach, knowing he's down to his last strike, is asserting himself as he probably hasn't before, having been told by the new owner, "It's your show." A lot of dead wood, including Gus Frerotte and Stanley Richard, has been jettisoned. Two of the most important members of the team -- Dana Stubblefield and Tre Johnson -- arrived at camp in fighting shape, which was not the case last year.
The energy level is noticeably higher, starting with new owner Dan Snyder. And the team has six new players the coaches expect to play significant roles immediately: quarterback Brad Johnson, fullback Larry Centers, cornerback Champ Bailey, tackle Jon Jansen, defensive end Marco Coleman and tackle Andy Heck. An indication of how much things have changed is Shar Pourdanesh's slide from starting right tackle to backup.
When a visitor told Turner Thursday morning, "Norv, you guys are having a really good camp," Turner said: "Everybody in the league is having a good camp at this point."
Even Turner's caution is welcome. And maybe necessary considering the team has no proven game-breaker at running back or wide receiver. How good can you be with no established weapon at either of those positions?
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. "We're only 10 days, or less than two weeks into this thing," Turner said.
So what can we evaluate fairly with some degree of accuracy right this minute? Energy level and injuries, the high and low of these first two weeks. Neither is a coincidence. And it would be very difficult for the Redskins to get better immediately without radical changes in both areas.
Over the last few years, the team's collective personality has bordered on docile. Brian Mitchell has been about the only fireball. Former owner John Cooke is mild-mannered. Turner's no Woody Hayes. And the team's best players -- Darrell Green, Ken Harvey, Terry Allen -- are quiet men. Exceptionally productive, but quiet. There was nobody -- neither the owner nor an agitated player -- whose natural instinct was to grab the team by the throat in a crisis. You're dead in pro football without that ingredient.
Enter Snyder, Coleman and Centers. Fireworks. They've all had too much sugar and too little sleep. Each goes 100 mph all the time. Snyder has already landed on the field in a helicopter. You don't need to be introduced to Coleman and Centers when they enter a room. The volume is on 10 all the time and they practice the same way. You just want to say to all of them, "Shhhhhh!" Except that's exactly what this team has needed, particularly Snyder turning up his volume and the pressure to win.
"The real test of chemistry," Turner said, "is what happens to the team after a bad series, the tough quarter, the rough week or two that every team goes through. But they are the type of people we're trying to build it with, which should give us a chance."
Staying healthy won't hurt, either. To that end, Turner has made a big change in his training camp approach. This camp, the Redskins have rarely put on pads in both the morning and afternoon sessions. "I've been accused," Turner said, "of hitting too much." Instead, noting half the players on his final roster could be 26 years old or younger, Turner has gone to a camp heavy on teaching, conditioning and repetition. "The mental part has been the best we've had," he said.
The only injury of any note so far has been defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson's sprained ankle, which may keep him out two weeks. Too often, a day at Redskins camp has included a 20-minute session listening to veteran trainer Bubba Tyer go over the laundry list of injuries and the prognosis. Not this time. Appropriately afraid of jinxing the good fortune, Tyer said on Thursday, "I really hate to talk about it, but it's really good. . . . [Norv] has done a great job alternating the hitting parts, the hard parts, the conditioning parts. There are not as many soft-tissue injuries."
Of course, all this mid-summer goodwill can be undone before the regular season. But for a team desperately trying to shed its losing ways, two weeks of good news is the best place to begin.