Through one of the most furious player acquisition frenzies in team history, seven projected starters are among 13 new arrivals, the Washington Redskins clung to one premise: Patrick Ramsey, the third quarterback taken in last year's draft, was penciled in with indelible ink at the most critical position on the team.
Starting wide receivers and running backs and defensive linemen and even place kickers were on the Redskins' shopping list, but a 24-year-old with exactly nine games of NFL experience, all of it in one up-and-down season, would be their starting quarterback next fall.
"We didn't need to go find us a quarterback," Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of player personnel, said recently in the lobby of Redskins Park. "We felt that we got a guy. [We said] 'Let's go take care of everything else.' "
As Cerrato spoke, Ramsey walked by, leaving a quarterback session with coaches. Cerrato turned to him and feigned a warning: "Patrick, I'm saying great things about you. You better not make us look bad."
Laughter filled the lobby but there was truth in the humor. Although the Redskins addressed most needs, banking the offense on Ramsey's right arm is considered around the league the key to their success. As a rookie last season, Ramsey finished with a mediocre quarterback rating (71.6) and threw nine touchdown passes and eight interceptions, completing 51.3 percent.
"He didn't do all that great, but he did pretty well," Coach Steve Spurrier said of Ramsey. "We think his -- what's that word? -- upside is very good. We think he's got all the qualities to be an outstanding player."
He'll need to be good early. Five of the Redskins' first six opponents made the 2002 playoffs and the only insurance is veteran Rob Johnson, an oft-injured journeyman signed as a backup. The Redskins still don't know who their third quarterback will be as they try to make their first playoff appearance since 1999. Amid the excitement generated by the arrival of the likes of right guard Randy Thomas and wideout Laveranues Coles, Ramsey has heard a recurring theme from friends, family members, even teammates.
"Everybody asks me, and the honest answer is I don't feel any pressure," said Ramsey, looking relaxed in a rose-colored sweater, faded blue jeans and white running shoes. "I don't foresee myself screwing up."
To that end, Ramsey has spent much of his time preparing for the start of training camp on July 25. After guiding the Redskins to a 20-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in their 2002 finale on Dec. 29, Ramsey and his wife, Virginia, vacationed, visiting Columbia, La., a rustic town of about 500 residents on the banks of the Ouachita River, an hour from the quarterback's home town of Ruston. Ramsey fished for bass and hunted for deer and duck -- staples of his childhood -- on about 4,000 acres of wetlands.
After returning, he has focused on football. In early February, Ramsey flew with Virginia to Tempe, Ariz., for 10 days to attend the Athletes Performance Institute, a training facility for professional athletes such as Nomar Garciaparra, the Boston Red Sox' shortstop, and Washington Freedom star Mia Hamm. For three hours daily, Ramsey lifted weights, ran on an exercise machine and threw footballs. The quarterback didn't take a break on Valentine's Day, also his birthday. Ramsey worked out from 9 a.m. to noon before taking Virginia to a resort in Sedona, Ariz., where they had a romantic dinner.
He has been a regular at Redskins Park since March 1 and attended "quarterback school" with Johnson for two weeks this month. When Ramsey goes home -- he and Virginia live with Dixie, a 4-month-old Labrador, in a 2,400-square-foot townhouse in Sterling, about five minutes from Redskins Park -- he brings a thick, white binder with detailed information on quarterbacking Spurrier's system. The guide is broken down into five sections: "Schedule," "Basic Information," "Play Calling Procedure," "Protection" and "Screens." Full of football jargon and complex diagrams, it's no wonder Ramsey also carries two notebooks (with pens and markers), which the quarterback uses to take about five pages of notes each day. (Despite the guide's breadth -- detailing subjects such as formations, routes and audibles -- it's only a slice of Spurrier's playbook.) "It's precisely what I need," Ramsey said, "at this point in my career."
Much has been written about how much Ramsey missed by holding out of training camp for 16 days last summer, causing the Redskins to consider trading him to the Chicago Bears. But if he struggles this season no one can blame it on missed time.
"If I'm not markedly improved [from] where I was last year during training camp, they will probably need to look for another quarterback," said Ramsey, laughing heartily. "Because we have a lot of time to really focus on things. I already feel improved, and I have five [more] months."
Over the next five months, the Redskins hope Ramsey can do more than merely grasp the nuances and semantics of Spurrier's persnickety system. "He needs to learn why we run these plays," said Noah Brindise, assistant quarterbacks coach, "not just know how to run them." It helps that Ramsey graduated cum laude with a double major in accounting and finance. "You don't have to explain things more than once," Brindise said.
Last season, Ramsey was so focused on overcoming NFL defenses that the quarterback shucked the fundamentals Spurrier deems essential, such as employing the exact number of drop steps, and disguising his passing intentions with slight shifts of the head instead of locking on receivers. (Spurrier has even admonished Ramsey about handing off correctly.) Ramsey didn't bother with such subtleties while setting 20 school records at Tulane. But a finer line exists in the NFL, Ramsey has learned, between completions and interceptions.
"My focus is going to be to make the details second nature," said Ramsey, cradling and petting Dixie at home, "so that I can focus on the big things."
Perhaps Ramsey's biggest flaw last season was sloppy footwork. His feet lacked rhyme or rhythm, contributing to being sacked nine times in seven games. Despite being resilient in the pocket, Ramsey hasn't learned to navigate it for throwing lanes. In college, Ramsey utilized the shotgun, and didn't learn drop steps until last year.
The Redskins want the 220-pounder to slim down slightly, increasing quickness. Ramsey's lack of elusiveness doesn't mean he's slow -- the quarterback can run a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash. The Redskins aren't looking for Ramsey to be Michael Vick or Michael Jackson. Washington merely wants Ramsey to be fundamentally sound in footwork.
Last season, Ramsey had a bad habit of taking a "double-hitch" step before throwing, causing some passes to arrive late. In one film session of the season finale, Ramsey was shown his incomplete pass over the middle toward wide receiver Derrius Thompson (now with the Miami Dolphins). The pass, after Ramsey's double-hitch step, was tipped at the last moment by a Dallas Cowboys linebacker, preventing a touchdown.
"Instead of hopping twice, what you should do is just kind of hop once and throw," Brindise explained. "It's more of a rhythm thing. Little things like that, hopefully we can iron out between now and next season."
So far, the signs have been encouraging, but critics often point out that the offseason has been the most successful time of year for the Redskins. Still, coaches can see improvement.
"Last season, at first when you talked to him," said Hue Jackson, the offensive coordinator, "it was like a foreign language."
Starting in the first minicamp, May 2-4, Ramsey will receive the majority of snaps. Voluntary sessions take place in the final two weeks of May. And the last minicamp is June 6-8. The Redskins play four exhibitions before their regular season debut against the New York Jets on Sept. 4 at FedEx Field.
"Preparation by a quarterback is a year-round process," Jackson said. "Normally, the biggest improvement from one year to the next is done in the offseason. The great players are the guys who do it when they are away from their coaches. They are always trying to push the envelope just a little bit to become better. I think [Ramsey] is one of those kinds of guys."
So does his wife.
"One of his strongest qualities is how driven he is," said Virginia, 23, who celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary last Sunday. "Without a doubt, that's how he's gotten to where he is today. I'm always impressed by dedication.
"He studies [football] at home when he needs to but we're able to relax at night. We have our game nights and watch movies and hang out."
Among the books in one of their bookshelves is "Good to Great," by Jim Collins. Although it's about business leadership, Ramsey said that the book -- given to him by a pastor -- translates to the field. "I'm trying to be a better leader," said Ramsey, who is currently reading "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," by The Post's David Maraniss.
Three weeks ago, the couple closed on a home in Purcellville, a town in Loudoun County recommended by tackle Jon Jansen, who lives there and is Ramsey's closest friend on the team. The Ramseys wanted a neighborhood with plenty of space. Next month, they will move to a 3,200-square-foot home, surrounded by three acres of woods. "It's more like what me and Ginny grew up in," said Ramsey, "and what we'd really like to go back to."
The Redskins expect Ramsey to be better, but not necessarily an all-pro in his second year. Spurrier pointed out that recent Super Bowl winners haven't had star quarterbacks. To keep the starting job, Ramsey must limit his mistakes and manage the offense.
Said Spurrier: "We just ask Patrick to do his part: play smart, play tough, make a certain amount of plays. Certainly, we're not asking him to carry the team."
Perhaps the person with the most riding on Ramsey is owner Daniel Snyder, a lightning rod of criticism around the league for heavy spending that has resulted in only one playoff berth. If Ramsey fails and the team struggles, Snyder, who helped seal all the offseason deals, will again be blistered for a shopping spree that failed.
"We got better linemen to help him, and we got speed receivers to help, so he should be better," Snyder said of Ramsey. "I don't think our season hinges on him. It's about the team, and he is a big part of the team."
The Redskins' best receiver last season was a two-year veteran, Rod Gardner -- who amassed a career-high 1,006 yards on 71 receptions -- but he often was the only wideout capable of consistently getting open. The addition of Coles should substantially increase Ramsey's average completion from 6.8 yards. Coles gives the Redskins a proven playmaker opposite Gardner. Last season Coles caught 89 passes, tying him for second in Jets franchise history, for 1,264 yards. And running back Trung Canidate is considered a better fit with the offense because he is faster than Stephen Davis.
"We're surrounding him with playmakers. It takes the pressure off," Jackson said. "He doesn't have to be perfect with his throw."
Coles was fifth in the AFC in receiving yards after becoming Chad Pennington's go-to guy. But the rapport Coles developed with Pennington will take time to develop here, the receiver said, especially since almost one-fourth of Washington's roster is new. Pennington is a finesse passer, the opposite of Ramsey, who in 1997 was the No. 1 prep javelin thrower in the nation while attending Ruston High.
"We're starting over from scratch right now," said Coles, who averaged 14.2 yards per catch last season. "I'm in a new situation, a new offense."
Exactly where Ramsey found himself last season. In his NFL debut on Oct. 6, he led the Redskins to a 31-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans after taking over for injured Danny Wuerffel. Ramsey had two touchdowns and no interceptions while throwing for 268 yards.
Two footballs from that game sit atop a tan, four-level bookshelf in Ramsey's home. One is the first NFL touchdown of Ramsey's career. (As a Christmas gift, Virginia had the ball painted with the specifics -- a 20-yarder to Gardner in the second quarter -- and encased in glass.) The other ball is a game ball from Spurrier.
After Ramsey's debut, it looked like he would end the franchise's recent history of 13 starting quarterbacks over the past decade. But in starts against the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, Ramsey threw four interceptions and fumbled seven times. Spurrier returned to using a quarterback carousel.
When the Redskins were eliminated from the playoffs, Spurrier shifted gears to his younger players. With Ramsey starting, the Redskins won two of their final three games. "You look back through the whole season," Gardner said. "Pat kept improving, kept improving."
In the 2002 NFL draft, the organization rated Ramsey higher than quarterback David Carr, chosen No. 1 by the Houston Texans, according to two team sources. Ramsey has a strong arm, with the oomph of a Serena Williams serve. ("You get open for a tenth of a second," said wideout Darnerien McCants, "he's going to get it there.") When Coles asked teammates for a scouting report, the speedster was told he could not outrun Ramsey's arm. But his most distinguishable intangible last season was his toughness playing behind a porous offensive line. Coming from a rookie, that endeared him to teammates.
"What gives us hope is he's a tough kid," said Spurrier. "He's got courage. He won't flinch in the pocket. He's won the respect of his teammates. Those linemen are going to block their tails off for Patrick."
Ramsey was a cheerleader during the offseason signings. On Feb. 28, the quarterback was taking a 10-hour drive to Washington from Gatlinburg, Tenn., when he learned from agent Jimmy Sexton that the Redskins signed Thomas, also represented by Sexton.
A self-described "grandpa driver," Ramsey pushed a tad harder on the pedal the next few minutes, then speed-dialed Virginia, a few relatives and Jansen.
"I had a few hours to celebrate," Ramsey said.
The reaction was no less giddy two weeks later, when the quarterback attended an NFL draft workout in Knoxville, Tenn., and Cerrato told Ramsey that the club had just given Coles an offer he couldn't refuse (a $13 million signing bonus).
"We've addressed every position, and I'm incredibly excited about that," Ramsey said. "I know all these guys can make plays, and they've all made plays. That's the thing: We're not counting on anybody who . . ."
Ramsey chuckled before finishing the sentence, "other than myself, doesn't have any real experience."