Every compliment is parceled out judiciously. The praise is never too effusive, and a caveat lurks behind each platitude. Even Patrick Ramsey's coaches are reluctant to make expectations too high for the young quarterback, and, with the start of the regular season just a day away, an air of uncertainty hangs over the Washington Redskins' offense.
A year ago, Ramsey was on the sideline after losing a quarterback competition with veteran Mark Brunell. Now Brunell, seemingly rejuvenated at age 34, is nipping at Ramsey's heels. A shaky preseason did nothing to boost overall confidence in Ramsey, who still has a tendency to absorb sacks and throw interceptions.
The Redskins' surprising trade for an additional 2005 first-round pick and the subsequent selection of quarterback Jason Campbell could hardly be construed as a long-term vote of confidence, either, as the team's rabid fan base waits anxiously to see if Ramsey, 26, is ready to lead last season's 30th-ranked offense out of the doldrums.
With tomorrow's opener against Chicago looming, Coach Joe Gibbs was asked to brag about Ramsey, perhaps even enthuse others about the prospects of his passer. After mustering a modest appraisal of Ramsey's 2004 campaign -- a 3-4 record in seven starts, with 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 74.8 passer rating -- Gibbs closed his remarks with the following: "He's had real good work and been very much a student, so I think hopefully he's ready to roll here."
Hardly a robust affirmation, but perhaps an accurate summary. Ramsey is not an established NFL quarterback (he will be making his 24th start tomorrow) and has completed less than 56 percent of his career passes (although he has five more touchdowns than interceptions). Ramsey has never won three consecutive starts -- not surprising considering Washington's 18-30 record since drafting him in 2002 -- and was pummeled in his first two seasons under the lax protection schemes of then-coach Steve Spurrier.
Therefore, Gibbs has set moderate goals for the quarterback.
"Just doing his part," Gibbs said. "He doesn't have to do more than that, you know. Direct it and get us points, but just do his part. I think one thing about Patrick is he's a real good student. I think he's smart. When you put the game plan in he has a feel for what we're doing there, so he only has to do his part. He doesn't have to make something happen by himself."
Ramsey's propensity for forcing the ball downfield, particularly in the red zone, resurfaced in the preseason, when he threw four interceptions in the equivalent of roughly seven quarters, including one that was easily returned for a touchdown. Those miscues negated many of the gains made by the offense, including at long last a deep passing game. Gibbs is most irritated by untimely turnovers, and if Ramsey is to remain the starter, he had best eliminate them.
"I think we were able to move the ball and get some big plays" in the preseason, Ramsey said. "That was the obvious difference in our offense. But at the same time, we need to find the middle ground between those big plays and turnovers."
While the Redskins certainly completed more long balls, and new wide receivers Santana Moss and David Patten each averaged more than 19 yards per catch in the preseason -- a vast improvement from 2004 -- there were many times when the wideouts badly beat their coverage but the ball failed to find them. Ramsey is still developing chemistry with his small but speedy targets, and Washington expects to attempt many more deep throws this season.
"Every week that we've seen one of those [misfired] plays we've tried to correct ourselves and get a better timing," Moss said. "I think the feeling was a little better as we got on to the later weeks of the preseason. Hopefully, we're on the same scene, and if not we've got plenty of time to just keep progressing."
Ramsey's teammates have rallied around him. His positive attitude, upbeat personality, humility and work ethic have endeared him to others. He is easy to root for, and no one is a bigger supporter than right tackle Jon Jansen, Ramsey's close friend.
The offensive line, which sagged often last season and allowed 38 sacks, is adamant that Ramsey will not have such worries this season.
"I think we have a greatly improved passing game," said Jansen, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. "I think we've got guys who can get downfield and the quarterbacks are confident that they're going to stay protected. I think that's the big difference: They're not going to be standing back there thinking who they're going to get hit by. They'll be able to stand back there and wait for guys to get open and be able to get them the ball."
Unlike last year, when Ramsey and Brunell were splitting time with the first string, Ramsey has taken all the snaps with the top talent since the Redskins reconvened in March. He led the team through informal drills, organized team activity practices, minicamp and training camp. He played more than most starting quarterbacks in the preseason, and has been given every opportunity to take hold of this offense.
"We made an emphasis on trying to get ourselves some chunks" of yardage, offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "We've been able to get some plays like that, but not always as many as we would like. But we've seen some improvement in that area, and it will be interesting to see how all of that plays itself out."
The coaching staff is pleased with Ramsey because he has developed better touch passing and has learned to take velocity off his rocket arm and float balls when necessary, and Ramsey believes he has made the biggest gains in those areas. He expects to be more at ease in the pocket, and more competent overall.
If he is not, the same fans who called for Ramsey to replace Brunell last season will probably scream for a reversal of roles in 2005. Fairly or not, the brunt of Washington's offensive hopes rest with Ramsey, and his future in the organization may depend on a breakout season.
"You know what, it ain't up to Patrick," right guard Randy Thomas said. "It's up to the people around Patrick. I'm tired of people talking about Patrick this and Patrick that. If we do our jobs, then Patrick is going to do fine. That's why I believe in him, honestly. Last year we struggled as a line, so Patrick struggled. If we do well, then he's going to do well. So we're not going to put all that pressure on Patrick. If we lose then it's our loss, not just Patrick's."