If they can get some breaks to go their way, the Washington Redskins could win as many as 10 games this season and be in the thick of the playoff chase.
If the Redskins are as luckless as they were last year, however, they likely will miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season, which almost certainly would cost Coach Norv Turner his job.
Welcome to the modern-day NFL, home of a few truly good teams and a few truly pitiable ones. For the rest, their fortune with injuries and a handful of game-deciding, season-turning plays can spell the difference between six wins and 10.
The 1999 Redskins are a team with possibilities as they prepare to open the regular season at home on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. Any club with a talented, experienced quarterback is dangerous, and the Redskins have one in Brad Johnson. They have a tight end, Stephen Alexander, and a pair of pass-catching running backs, Larry Centers and Brian Mitchell, who will be difficult for any defense to handle. And they have a defense whose starters surrendered only six points in seven quarters during the team's 3-1 preseason.
"This is a team that can do some things," Mitchell said recently. "We have a lot of weapons. We have a team that can win some games. We don't want to just get into the playoffs. We want to do something in the playoffs."
The Redskins, like every other team on the outside of the league's elite, walk a thin line, though. They don't have a game-breaking running back or wide receiver. They must rely on a rebuilt offensive line to protect Johnson, who underwent two knee surgeries in the offseason. They have a new set of starting linebackers, and to play an attacking defense they must hope that one of their cornerbacks, 39-year-old Darrell Green, doesn't finally lose a step and the other, Champ Bailey, doesn't make too many rookie mistakes.
They also entered last season with high hopes after acquiring tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson to supposedly anchor their defense. By the time last year's regular season opener arrived, however, things already had begun to unravel. They had lost starting defensive end Rich Owens to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, and cornerback Cris Dishman and linebacker Ken Harvey had begun to show their age. Turner and many Redskins players had begun to lose confidence in quarterback Gus Frerotte.
Their season ended, in retrospect, on Opening Day. They lost on the road to the New York Giants in a game they had plenty of chances to win. Frerotte threw away the game with a pair of third-quarter interceptions and was benched in favor of Trent Green. The Redskins were on their way to an 0-7 beginning and a 6-10 season.
These Redskins almost undoubtedly are improved. Even before Daniel M. Snyder's $800 million purchase of the franchise, the Redskins had said their goodbyes to Frerotte, Trent Green and fellow quarterback Jeff Hostetler, running back Terry Allen, wide receiver Leslie Shepherd, tight end Jamie Asher, Dishman, middle linebacker Marvcus Patton and safeties Stanley Richard and Jesse Campbell.
In all, the Redskins begin this season with 16 new starters on offense and defense (plus place kicker Brett Conway), counting both new faces and holdovers switching positions. These Redskins are younger and more athletic, particularly on defense.
"We can be a very good defense," Turner said. "Guys are starting to know each other and trust each other. You can see it developing."
Stubblefield and Wilkinson felt handcuffed by the team's defensive scheme last season. Stubblefield, in particular, was a disappointment. The Redskins didn't win a game with him in the lineup, and there were locker-room whispers that some of his teammates were disappointed he didn't return from a knee injury, missing the final nine games of the season.
Now Turner says Stubblefield again closely resembles the player who had 15 sacks and was the NFL's defensive player of the year for the San Francisco 49ers in 1997. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan opened training camp pledging to use an attacking system that would produce a relentless, ball-hawking unit, and Stubblefield and Wilkinson have been given the freedom they wanted all along.
They also have more help on the defensive line. End Marco Coleman, a free agent addition, is a high-energy player who has made a major difference, and he's a significant upgrade over Owens's replacement last season, Kelvin Kinney. The Redskins decided against meeting defensive end Chris Doleman's high asking price to come out of retirement because they were thrilled with the pass rush they got during the preseason from the two tackles, Coleman, starting defensive end Kenard Lang and reserve pass-rush specialist Ndukwe Kalu.
Many observers have wondered why the Redskins usually were so passive on defense last season. A major reason was the decline of Dishman and Harvey. When the Redskins got aggressive and took chances, they got burned. Their blitzers didn't reach opposing quarterbacks, and Dishman couldn't cover receivers one on one. Now, with Bailey starting opposite Darrell Green, the team's cornerbacks probably will be able to play man-to-man coverages effectively -- freeing additional manpower to go after quarterbacks.
The Redskins love their safeties, Sam Shade and Leomont Evans. They like the grit of Derek Smith, who has been moved to middle linebacker, and the play-making abilities of outside linebackers Shawn Barber and Greg Jones. The biggest question is how the new linebackers will hold up over the course of a long, demanding season. Neither Smith nor Barber is imposing physically, and Jones had back problems last year.
The bigger question marks are on offense, though. Johnson demonstrated during his Minnesota Vikings tenure that he will be productive when given the opportunity. But will he have enough help? Will running backs Stephen Davis and Skip Hicks keep opposing defenses honest, and will starting wideouts Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell be consistent, dependable downfield receiving threats?
The Redskins can envision best-case scenarios across the board. They think they're better on the offensive line, if only because they have more depth and shouldn't have to shuffle players from one position to another all season. Andy Heck at least has been a left tackle for 10 NFL seasons. Last year's Opening Day starter at the position, Brad Badger, was a converted guard who was learning on the job. Heck demonstrated during the preseason that he'd rather get a holding penalty than permit Johnson to take a hard sack.
Davis said this week his goal is to rush for 1,200 to 1,500 yards this season. The Redskins would be happy if Davis and Hicks combine for 1,200 yards. They believe that either Westbrook or Connell will be a Pro Bowl wideout some day and they're convinced that Irving Fryar, whom they lured out of retirement during the preseason, has enough left to be a reliable complementary receiver.
"We have enough weapons to be a good offense and a good team," Johnson said this week. "We have people who have talent, who can make plays and have a breakthrough season. We really moved the ball well during the preseason. We had a lot of long drives. We just have to be more efficient in turning that into points."
Even so, the Redskins would love for the Seattle Seahawks to accept their trade offer of a first-round draft choice (with Connell or a third-round pick, or perhaps both, likely to be thrown in) for holdout wide receiver Joey Galloway. If that happens the offense would be better.
Conway is untested but has so much raw ability that the Green Bay Packers used a third-round draft selection on him in 1997. Punter Matt Turk has been to three straight Pro Bowls, and Mitchell remains dangerous as a kick returner. The Redskins believe they've upgraded the special-teams coverage units that were vulnerable last season.
The schedule isn't the killer that it was last season, when the Redskins had to face the 49ers, Denver Broncos and Vikings in the first seven weeks. The NFC East again is less than overwhelming. The key for the Redskins is not to get buried early and reach their bye week with a record of at least 2-2. The schedule gets easier in the middle stages, and the Redskins could build momentum for the more difficult closing segment beginning in mid-December -- home games against the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins, sandwiched around road contests at Indianapolis and San Francisco.
It is an organization with a new attitude, thanks to Snyder. It is difficult to dispute that the league's youngest owner has established a renewed sense of urgency at Redskin Park. It is a win-or-else season. The Redskins, to borrow their motto from the George Allen days, once again are convinced that the future is now. A little good fortune would go a long way toward making them right.