August 28, 2009

Redskins vs Patriots Preview - Meaning, Expectation, Colt & Chase

As happens every year, the talk all week has been about how Preseason “Game” Three—for the Redskins, against the New England Patriots tonight at FedEx Field—is the most “real” test of the preseason.

You know the drill; the starters will play longer, the game-planning will be more complex, the results will be more meaningful.

I don’t buy it. Never have, never will. To me it’s simply the high point of the artificial buildup and hype surrounding the entire preseason phenomenon that the NFL has so brilliantly marketed.

Yes, it’s the most “meaningful” preseason game. In the same way as timing yourself against a stopwatch in the streets of Pamplona the day before they release the bulls is your most meaningful practice.

After the requisite Week 3 buildup last year, the Redskins marched off to Carolina, where the Panthers handed them their asses, 47-3. The starters were down 34-0 at the half.

The Redskins starting offense that day? Three consecutive three-and-out possessions to start the game, a two-first-down possession ending in a RB Ladell Betts fumble at midfield, three more three-and-outs, and a meaningless kneel-down possession deep in their own end to end the half.

The Redskins proceeded to start the regular season 6-2.

Three other 2008 Preseason Week 3 results, just for effect:

Buffalo 20, Indianapolis 7 (17-0 Bills at the half)
St. Louis 24, Baltimore 10 (17-3 Rams at the half)
Detroit 26, Cleveland 6 (16-0 Lions at the half)

We remember the ’08 Lions. RIP.

Point is … whether the Redskins get blown out by the Patriots tonight, play a typical back-and-forth preseason scrimmage or blow them out, you will not find this observer assigning any more meaning to it than any other preseason scrimmage. Not beyond the context of individual performances by certain players about whom the jury is still out:

QB Jason Campbell, WR Devin Thomas, OT Stephon Heyer, OG Chad Rhinehart, RB Marcus Mason, CB Justin Tryon, DT Antonio Dixon … feel free to add your own.

Stated another way, Preseason Game Three (“When Starters Play!”) will have no bearing on how the Redskins fare in 2009. Their season will be determined by a combination of factors, like these and others, that will simply not be foretold by anything that happens tonight.

 Jason Campbell’s development/performance in clutch situations
 Jim Zorn’s development
 The health of the offensive line
 The emergence of receiving threats to complement Santana Moss/ Chris Cooley
 The defense contributing turnovers/dictating field position
 Special teams locking down kick returns/converting clutch field goals
 The occasional fortunate bounce of a funny-shaped ball
 Etc.

It's just another preseason “game.”

So … what do I expect to see tonight?

Honestly, I expect to see QB Tom Brady lighting it up.

The Patriots are coming off a yawner of a home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which the vaunted New England offense—one season removed from shattering the NFL scoring record—scored six points.

Tom Brady—one season removed from setting the NFL record for TD passes in a season (50)—is no doubt itching to show the world he is in fact back from the injury that cost him all of last season.

Nobody gets rid of the ball quicker or with more deadly efficiency than Tom Brady. That's a bad recipe for this Redskins defense. If their front four bring good pressure early, I expect to see him whip the quick, accurate throws to the flat and underneath coverage he is so very adept at … and/or audibling to draw plays … forcing the Redskins linebackers and defensive backs to close fast and tackle sure.

Based on the last two times the Redskins have tried to deal with Brady that way—a 41-0 preseason loss in 2006 and a 52-7 regular season laugher in 2007—that's not a good bet. They were simply not competitive. Brady stood at the line of scrimmage, calmly read what the Redskins were doing like a text book, and dissected them with casual ease.

Until I actually see a Redskins defense in the Gregg Williams/Greg Blache system slow Brady down, my default expectation is to see more of the same. Sometimes you get the bear, but generally, you end up meat.

And for the record, should they actually find some success against him, you won’t finde me projecting regular season success into it.

That isn’t to say a popping Brady a couple of good shots and holding their own agaisnt him wouldn’t bring a few moments of satisfaction—it would. But by the time the Redskins take the field for the regular season opener in two weeks against Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs and the New York Giants in the Meadowlands, anything that happened in Week Three, good, bad or ugly, will have been long forgotten.


The Backup Quarterbacks

Before Colt Brennan threw a goal-line interception against the Steelers last week, I thought he had performed solidly and rebounded well from his shaky start against the Ravens in Week One. Colt was quick with the ball, on target and appeared in command.

Then came the interception, and because of the game situation—seemingly in hand late—it seems everything that came before it was forgotten.

What I saw was Brennan a split-second late on the throw. One beat quicker, or a couple of feet of better placement, and that pass could just as easily have resulted in the game-clinching touchdown, or just another incompletion. Instead … it became a preseason brouhaha.

Truth is I feel the same about Colt Brennan heading into tonight as I did heading into training camp. I think he’s going to be a good NFL quarterback in a year or two, and I think he’s tailor-made to the offense the Redskins are running.

Whether the stars align to put him behind center in meaningful regular season games or not, we cannot know—far too many variables are in play today.

Which brings me to Chase Daniel.

Here’s the short version (believe it or not ) ...

I’ve followed Daniel's career since was in high school, mostly because he played at Southlake Carroll, outside Dallas, which happens to be my brother’s neighborhood, and the school my niece will be attending next year. All Daniel did in his time there was lead Carroll to two Texas 5A titles, one mythical national championship, get named national high school player of the year and compile the kind of silly numbers that are almost impossible to digest.

After he graduated, he was deemed too small and weak-armed to play big-time college football, however, and so ended up “settling” for Missouri.

Where he compiled even sillier numbers.

And where, every time I saw him play, he displayed the same characteristics that have had me commenting, to anyone who would listen, since the first time I saw him play, that he was as polished and natural-looking a quarterback as I ever seen play in forty-plus years of watching football.

What does that mean?

That he sees the field.
That he reads defenses and makes the right choices with withering consistency.
That he senses the rush and moves as if on autopilot to avoid it.
That on the move, he is under control and able to deliver accurately and on time from any platform.
That he is tough as nails and bounces up after taking hits and never wavers.
That his arm is anything but weak.
That he is an athletic, instinctive runner with a knack for taking off and gutting defenses with huge runs in key situations.
That he commands the huddle and is the kind of natural leader teammates look to and rally around.

If I hadn't seem him play, I would read that list and laugh. He's too small and weak-armed, right?

Sadly, like just about everyone else … after he graduated I bought into the prevailing “expert” opinion that he was too small and too weak-armed to play NFL football. I didn't have the courage of my own convictions.

Well, what you saw the other night against Pittsburgh was what Chase Daniel has done at every level. Quite simply, he played the quarterback position as naturally, effectively and sometimes apparently effortlessly, as anyone I have ever seen.

I’ll admit it … I half-expected the experts would be proven right from the start, Chase would be exposed and that would be the end of it. I’ll also admit that when I saw him pick up right where he left off at Missouri, in command of himself, his offense and the game, in his pro debut, against guys wearing the same uniforms worn by the defending Super Bowl champions … I kicked myself for not having the guts to have predicted it.

Was last week a mirage? Will Chase Daniel’s stature, arm strength and inexperience catch up to him tonight against a Bill Belichick defense, or next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the preseason finale, or the day he might eventually stand over center in a real NFL game?


But don't bet on it.

August 26, 2009

Redskins vs Steelers Review: Defense

There were several Redskins defensive storylines I could have focused on Saturday night, when Washington squared off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Preseason Week Two.

You know the kind …

Had MLB London Fletcher really lost the half-step he seemed to have misplaced a couple of times against the Ravens in Week One? Did sophomore CB Justin Tryon replace the athletic supporter said marauding purple gang stole from him? Was Redskins Defensive Coordinator Greg Blache going to demonstrate yet again that there is, in fact, a flavor less than vanilla?

Stuff like that.

But at “game” time, when it came right down to it, turns out the only thing I was really dialed in to see was whether or not the Redskins revamped defensive line could get after the damn quarterback.

Drilling down even further, I discovered the one thing I really wanted to see was how the starting group fared in that regard. Depth is a wonderful thing, to be sure. A dynamic, dominating wall of slobbering oncoming burgundy and gold, overrunning the offensive line from the opening gun, however, is even, well …wonderfuller.

The last time the Redskins had one of those, I had hair. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a connection.

So, preseason level of appropriate seriousness properly calibrated …

The first series lived up to the hype—all of it.

DT Albert Haynesworth and Co. swarmed, harassed and otherwise flummoxed Pittsburgh QB Charlie Batch (who I think might have hair once too) and his offensive line on four successive pass plays, forcing a holding call, four ugly incompletions and leaving the Steelers with 4th-and-11.

FedEx Field was rockin’ and your humble scribe grinnin’.

1-10-PIT 29 (8:08) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete short left to 39-W.Parker (99-A.Carter). PENALTY on PIT-78-M.Starks, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at PIT 29 - No Play.
1-20-PIT 19 (8:03) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete short right to 39-W.Parker.
2-20-PIT 19 (7:57) (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass short right to 39-W.Parker to PIT 21 for 2 yards (23-D.Hall).

Apparently, the officials got caught up in the moment too, however, because after the 3rd down play, they called a really [emphatic epithet] weak personal foul on Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall for an alleged late “hit” (somewhere, Night Train Lane ran off his tracks).

3-18-PIT 21 (7:10) (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete short left to 83-H.Miller.
PENALTY on WAS-23-D.Hall, Unnecessary Roughness, 15 yards, enforced at PIT 21.

Personally, I think they wanted to watch the Redskins defense do their thing some more.

Which they did.

1-10-PIT 36 (7:04) 39-W.Parker up the middle to PIT 38 for 2 yards (93-P.Daniels, 23-D.Hall).
2-8-PIT 38 (6:26) PENALTY on PIT-38-C.Davis, False Start, 4 yards, enforced at PIT 38 - No Play.
2-12-PIT 34 (6:06) 39-W.Parker left tackle to PIT 35 for 1 yard (99-A.Carter, 64-K.Golston).
3-11-PIT 35 (5:23) (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass deep middle to 10-S.Holmes to WAS 18 for 47 yards (22-C.Rogers). Washington challenged the pass completion ruling, and the play was REVERSED. (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete deep middle to 86-H.Ward (23-D.Hall).

There was a brief “Immaculate Reception Lite” moment there when the officials, clearly enjoying themselves, allowed a 3rd-and-11 pass to bounce off the ground to a grateful (and surely guilt-ridden) Steelers WR Santonio Holmes, who pranced with it all the way to the Redskins 18.

Fortuntately, the 21st century prevailed and instant replay set the record straight.

First string defense, first possession:

8 plays, 6 yds, 2 penalties
Passing: 1-for-4, 2 yds
Rushing: 2 carries, 3 yds

As first impressions go—starting Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger or no Pittsburght starting QB Ben Roethlisberger—turning in a couple of emphatic three-and-outs in succession against the defending champions was a pretty nice home introduction to Greg Blache’s new toy.

The happy buzz didn’t last, of course. The next time the defense trotted on the field, setting up shop at midfield (more on that below), the Steelers reminded everyone watching of two very important facts:

1. They are, in fact, the defending world champions, and
2. Preseason giveth, and preseason taketh away.

1-10- (4:03) 39-W.Parker right end to WAS 43 for 7 yards (23-D.Hall).
2-3-WAS 43 (3:25) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete short middle [96-C.Griffin]. PENALTY on PIT-16-C.Batch, Intentional Grounding, 10 yards, enforced at WAS 43.
3-13-PIT 47 (3:19) (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass short middle to 10-S.Holmes to WAS 37 for 16 yards (48-C.Horton; 22-C.Rogers).
1-10-WAS 37 (2:39) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete deep left to 17-M.Wallace.
2-10-WAS 37 (2:32) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete short right to 86-H.Ward.
3-10-WAS 37 (2:28) (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass deep middle to 86-H.Ward to WAS 13 for 24 yards (30-L.Landry).
1-10-WAS 13 (1:45) (Shotgun) 16-C.Batch pass short left to 83-H.Miller to WAS 3 for 10 yards (22-C.Rogers, 48-C.Horton).
1-3-WAS 3 (1:03) 16-C.Batch pass incomplete short right to 83-H.Miller.
2-3-WAS 3 (:58) 39-W.Parker right end for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

As you have no doubt surmised, there is a reason the two 3rd-down plays are bolded. Those of you who have followed the Redskins the past few years don’t need me to explain. For those who have not … they’re bolded because the Redskins always give up 3rd and long conversions. Those two plays were highly unwelcome symbolism, given The Moment was supposed to belong to Big Alber and Co. And if you saw his face on the sidelines afterwards, it was apparent he agreed.

The drive went nine plays in total. On the seven non 3rd-down plays, the Steelers picked up 20 yards—10 passing (1-for-5, including an intentional grounding call), and 10 rushing (two carries, including the 3-yard TD).

On the other two plays, both 3rd-and-long situations, they converted on two relatively easy-looking passes over the middle for 40 yards (16, 24). Hey, if you found yourself mumbling “I’ve seen this movie,” you weren’t alone.

And that was it for the first team. The next time the Redskins defense took the field, most of the starters were wearing baseball caps and quaffing Gatorade on the sideline.

Total Steelers offensive numbers on the first two possessions:

Plays: 15 (6, 9)
Total yds: 56 (6, 50)
Passing: 4-for-10, 52 yds
Rushing: 4 carries, 13 yds
Points: 7

[Don’t yell at my math—the breakout numbers account for penalties]

So what does it all mean?

It means that the defensive line, at full bore, looks every bit as capable of wreaking havoc on offensive lines as has been projected since the day Haynesworth put ink to the dotted line.

It means that for at least one more week, despite said brief glimpse of dominance, the lingering concern in some minds that the Redskins defense still can’t get off the field on 3rd downs remains alive. It was "only" two plays out of 15, but they were killers.  We know that drill.  We don't like it.

It means that, on at least one of the two possessions, the starting corners and safeties played far enough off the ball to allow opposing receivers to roam pretty much at will underneath … while the defensive line either got tired, bored or something else bummer-inducing and didn’t apply any pressure … or the Steelers offensive line took pity on Charlie Batch after the first series debacle and decided to save his life … or Greg Blache decided he had played with his shiny new toy enough on the first possession, and on the second went back to giving vanilla a bad name, and calling off the dogs and torturing his DB’s by putting them on the proverbial desert island again.

And it clearly means that trying to read anything serious into preseason is … please feel free to fill in the blank.  Me, I’m fresh out of preseason adjectives.

Still, those first few plays, with the crowd on the edge of its collective seat, and the Redskins defense exploding off the ball and hunting in packs through the Steelers offensive backfield … far as I'm concerned, the regular season really can’t come soon enough.


One other defense-related thing that put a smile on my face was the last series. It seems like it’s been a long time since I watched them get after the passer in the final minutes of a one-score game. For years, it's seemed as if the master plan has been to sit back in the dreaded “prevent” and hope to stop somebody.

This last Saturday night, with the “game” on the line, the Redskins defense looked determined to punch somebody in the mouth and steal their candy.

1-10-PIT 32 (4:04) 33-I.Redman up the middle to PIT 33 for 1 yard (57-C.Glenn).
2-9-PIT 33 (3:31) 13-M.Reilly pass short middle to 15-M.Nance to PIT 41 for 8 yards (29-L.Holmes).
3-1-PIT 41 (2:52) 33-I.Redman right tackle to PIT 43 for 2 yards (75D-A.Dixon, 58-R.Henson).
1-10-PIT 43 (2:18) (Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly scrambles up the middle to PIT 48 for 5 yards (76-J.Jarmon).
Timeout #1 by PIT at 02:10.
2-5-PIT 48 (2:10) (Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly sacked at PIT 41 for -7 yards (95-C.Wilson).
Two-Minute Warning
3-12-PIT 41 (2:00) (Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly right end to WAS 39 for 20 yards (41-K.Moore).
Timeout #2 by PIT at 01:45.
1-10-WAS 39 (1:45) PENALTY on PIT-84-D.Sherrod, Illegal Substitution, 5 yards, enforced at WAS 39 - No Play.
1-15-WAS 44 (1:45) (Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly pass incomplete deep right to 19-T.Grisham.
2-15-WAS 44 (1:40) (Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly pass short middle to 19-T.Grisham to WAS 35 for 9 yards (29-L.Holmes) [91-R.Jackson].
3-6-WAS 35 (1:17) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly pass incomplete short right to 82-B.Williams (40-M.Grant).
4-6-WAS 35 (1:14) (Shotgun) 13-M.Reilly pass incomplete short left to 82-B.Williams [76-J.Jarmon].

Yeah, I know—I see the 3rd-and-long conversion too. Old habits die hard.

Preseason or no preseason, fact is it did this old heart good to see the Redskins get after the quarterback in a game-ending one-score-game scenario and slam the door shut.  If that alone turns out to be an indication of a shift in Blachian philosophy, sitting through four preseason "games" will have been worth it.


Going over the NFL’s drive stats for this piece, something jumped out.  So for [stuff] and giggles (and since at one point during the game I remarked—not for the first time—“does it seem like the entire game is being played in Redskins territory?”), here is a breakdown of the starting field position for each team throughout the game.

See what if anything jumps out at you ...

Pittsburgh (9 possessions)

First half:
26 (6 yds), 50 (TD), 31 (1 yd), 10 (21 yds), 38 (46 yds, FG), +35 (5 yds, Missed FG)
Avg start: 31.6 yard line

Second half:
26 (9 yds), +45 (22 yds, FG), 46 (-4 yds), 32 (33 yds, end game)
Avg. start: 39.75 yard line

Game: 34.8 yard line

Washington (10 possessions)

First Half:
35 (62 yds, FG), 11 (0 yds), 20 (7 yds), 8 (33 yds), 36 (1 yd), 18 (21 yds, INT)
Avg. start: 21.3
Second Half:
40 (TD), 24 (25 yds), +18 (TD), 20 (69 yds, INT)
Avg. start: 41.5

Game: 29.4 yard line

Maybe there’s more to this whole defense thing than just ... defense?

Okay, I'm outta here.

NEXT UP: Colt Brennan & Chase Daniel

August 24, 2009

Redskins vs Steelers Review: QB Jason Campbell

Coming off a solid-but-forgettable debut against the Baltimore Ravens last week, Redskins starting QB Jason Campbell had an opportunity against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night to take the proverbial bull by the horns.

A good performance against the defending champions would have gone a long way toward quieting the growing undercurrent of concern among Redskins fans that Jason Campbell may not be The Man for The Job in 2009.

Going 1-for-7 for 10 yards, and engineering just three points, was probably not what he had in mind.

Since numbers alone rarely tell the whole story, however … I reviewed his plays again and tried to look a little deeper.

On the first play of the game, Campbell got good protection from his offensive line and went deep to a streaking Malcolm Kelly, who had gotten behind Steelers super-safety Troy Polamalu, on a deep post. Campbell’s pass was under thrown (as much as a tight spiral that travels 60 yards in the air can be) and off line, however, forcing Kelly to slow and adjust his route back toward the center of the field and allowing Polamalu to catch up and knock the pass away.

After the game, Campbell admitted being surprised by Kelly’s speed, a statement that initially raised my eyebrows. Given time to reflect, perhaps it should better serve as a reminder as to how little actual game time the two have working together.

"It was close,” said Kelly. “The crazy thing, though, is that me and Jason never practiced that route all week long. The first time we ran it was in the game. We'll get it done, though—we'll complete it next time."

Time will tell.

Former Redskins QB Joe Theismann, by the way, doing color commentary on Comcast, mentioned the wet ball as a possible factor. Anyone who has ever tried throwing deep with a wet football can understand the sentiment, but I suspect most fans would chalk that up to simple excuse-making. Whether it played a role or not, I’m glad Campbell didn’t go there.

Campbell’s second pass was supposed to be a screen to RB Clinton Portis in the right flat, but the Steelers diagnosed it and Campbell threw the ball away. Should he have tried to make a play anyway, maybe scramble and look downfield for a second option? Good chance Brett Favre would have. Jim Zorn, on the other hand, I have to believe would say no. Preseason. Rain. The Pittsburgh Steeler defense. The smart, veteran play in that situation was to throw it away.

The subsequent 3rd-and-10 play was a pass over the middle to an open Santana Moss that appeared to get away from Campbell and sailed high. A leaping Moss was unable to make the catch, and it was fourth down.

All in all, not the most auspicious beginning for Jason Campbell … but upon further perhaps not as dire as I suspect a whole lot of ramped up fans thought. Campbell has a history of starting out games too jacked up missing early passes, then settling down and getting going. The compressed time frame and sample size of a half-dozen passes per preseason "game" forces the issue, and leaves us with the temptation to project the raw numbers over an entire game.

Instead of punting the ball after the Moss incompletion, Jim Zorn authorized the fake punt, and RB Rock Cartwright rumbled for 15 yards for the first down. I don’t expect to see many gambles like that—fake punts on 3rd-and-10 from his own 35 two minutes into a game—in the regular season, but in this case, Zorn’s gamble worked and provided Campbell and the offense had new life.

Which became evident immediately.

1-10-PIT 45 (14:13) C.Portis up the middle for 2 yards.
2-8-PIT 43 (13:45) C.Portis left tackle for 3 yards
3-5-PIT 40 (13:06) (Shotgun) J.Campbell pass short right to 82-A.Randle El (PENALTY on WAS-60-C.Samuels, Illegal Formation, 5 yards - No Play.)
3-10-PIT 45 (12:38) (Shotgun) J.Campbell pass short middle to C.Cooley for 10 yards
1-10-PIT 35 (11:54) C.Portis left tackle for 2 yards
2-8-PIT 33 (11:16) J.Campbell scrambles up the middle to PIT 29 for 4 yards
3-4-PIT 29 (10:35) L.Betts left tackle to PIT 22 for 7 yards
1-10-PIT 22 (10:01) C.Portis left guard for 11 yards
1-10-PIT 11 (9:23) C.Portis right end for 8 yards
2-2-PIT 3 (9:14) L.Betts left tackle for 1 yard
3-1-PIT 2 (8:34) L.Betts left tackle -1 yards
4-2-PIT 3 (8:17) S.Suisham 20 yard field goal is GOOD

As reflected in the bolded plays, Jason Campbell had a good series. He stepped up and threw accurately and on rhythm, hitting Randle El on a crisp 3rd-and-6 conversion over the middle that was nullified by the Chris Samuels formation penalty.

On the subsequent 3rd-and-11, he slid up into the pocket to avoid pressure and drilled Chris Cooley for the first down.

Two plays later he pulled it down and scrambled—a quick, aggressive decision for positive yards. [The man really does need to learn to slide, though. To borrow a phrase once used to describe former Redskins QB Gus Frerotte’s running style, Jason Campbell slides like an octopus falling out of a tree.]

With the offensive line protecting well and opening lanes for the running game, Zorn found a play-calling rhythm on the drive, and the offense rolled down to the Pittsburgh three yard line. There, faced with 2nd-and-2, Zorn opted to take the ball out of Campbell’s hands, sending Betts off left tackle twice.

I would really like to have seen him let Campbell roll out and take a shot into the end zone on at least one of those plays—a TD pass there would have been a great confidence-builder—but for reasons I’m sure he thought more important at the time, Zorn went Ground Jim instead.

The first Betts run picked up a little more than a yard and left the Redskins 3rd-and-inches. The second attempt, disappointingly, was a fairly tentative, too-upright run on which Betts lost at least a yard.

Zorn, knowing his team needed to come away with its first points of the year, opted for the chip-shot field goal. I had no problem with the decision to take the points in that situation … if I have a question, it's with the decision to run straight up the gut into the teeth of the number one defense in football on 2nd and 3rd down.

But ... it’s preseason. Maybe Zorn was simply “evaluating” Ladell Betts. Given the results, Mr. Betts may want to hope not.

Regardless, the offensive series after the fake punt was easily the starting Redskins offense first moment of clarity in 2009. All the elements—playcalling, QB, line, receivers and RB’s—came together, giving both the team and its fans a taste of success and the welcome feeling that maybe things were indeed headed in the right direction.

Unfortunately, it didn’t carry over to the next possession.

Zorn started aggressively again, calling for another deep ball, this time up the left sideline to Santana Moss. The good news? The offensive line provided good protection and Moss had inside position and a lot of green in front of him. The bad news? Campbell’s pass, again, was short and off line, this time wrong-shouldering Moss. Maybe the wet ball thing wasn't so far off ... one thing we have rarely seen from Jason Campbell is a tentative deep ball.

On 2nd down, Betts was stopped again for no gain, and on 3rd-and-10 Campbell rolled right, didn’t see anything he liked and threw it away again.

And that was it. Todd Collins was in on the next Redskins possession.

The smart thing to do, of course, would be to yet again point out that it's preseason and nothing we've seen has any guaranteed bearing on what we will some come the regular season. But what fun would that be? We have a week to kill before the next "game" and chance to over-analyze, so let's get our money's worth.

One thing about Jason Campbell throughout his time in Washington, he’s been pretty deft on the long ball. If anything he’s been too long on occasion, rarely too short. I’m not all that concerned with the two missed deep shots. For one thing, he was able to take them behind good protection from his line. And on both occasions the receivers had separation. Maybe the wet ball was a factor, maybe not. Bottom line, for now I’m just filing the under-throws away as something to keep an eye on.

The two deep passes and miss over the middle to Moss were the three passes you’d like to have back. The throw to Randle El that was nullified by penalty, and the subsequent one to Cooley, were money. The two throwaways and the scramble I have no problem with.

There is no way to project what would have happened next in an actual game. How many times have we seen a quarterback start a game with bad numbers, say 1-for-7 for 10 yards, then go 7-for-8 for 100 yards and a score to head into halftime 8-for-15 for 110 yards and a TD?

Unfortunately for Campbell, until we actually see some extended success, his 2009 numbers have not been encouraging:

4-for-13, 48 yds., 0 TD, 0 INT
Completion percentage: 30.8%
QB rating: 43.1
Possessions: 6 (including 3-and-out prior to fake punt)
First Downs: 6
3-and-outs: 3
Points scored: 3

That kind of production is not going to get it done, and Jason Campbell knows it as well as anyone. There have been some extenuating circumstances (play-calling, routes by receivers, penalties, weather, etc.) that should buy him at least some continued benefit of the doubt, but the fact remains the production has been lacking.

Moreover, what I had most hoped to see from Jason—indication that the game has finally slowed down for him, rather than the speed of the game dictating to him—has yet to materialize. Much as I want to believe in his development into a playoff-level quarterback, I haven’t seen him take that step yet. While clearly a subjective read, to me he still appears too often a beat slow reading the coverage and getting the ball out.

And next week against the NE Patriots, the road to that necessary destination won't get any easier. Bill Belichick defenses are not traditionally not the best to get untracked against, preseason or not.

One thing is for sure … another statistically poor performance, without at least a little magic (that elusive touchdown pass would go a long way), and it won't be hard to believe that the creeping doubt among many fans will also begin to permeate in the locker room.

So far through two preseason games, Jason Campbell has not looked like the more confident, quicker, decisive and accurate passer we’ve heard about in camp. Instead he's looked at various times unsettled, unsure and inaccurate.

Here’s hoping what has come across from the stands and on TV looks a lot worse than it really is, and that Jason’s lack of production has been due as much to the nature of preseason, the plays he’s been asked to run and various outside factors … and not the water-treading at best, and regression at worst, that it appears to be.

NEXT UP: Greg Blache & the Defense

August 22, 2009

Preseason Week II - Game Day Wish List

With one preseason “game” under our belts—last week’s 23-0 bummer against the Baltimore Ravens—I have pared the wish list down for week two:

I. All season, the single most crucial element in any real Redskins game will be the play of its young veteran quarterback, Jason Campbell. His performance in tonight’s preseason “game” against the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t have much bearing in terms of the final score, but it will carry significance in terms of confidence and progression for Campbell himself, his teammates, his coaches and fans of his team.

Last week Campbell was solid-if-unspectacular. He chose safe underneath routes, seemingly the result of both his own instincts and the design of Head Coach Jim Zorn, who stated after the game he went into it with legitimate concerns about his offensive line’s ability to protect Campbell against the Ravens’ aggressive pass rush, and called Campbell’s few plays accordingly.

Fair enough.

In week two I’ll be looking to see both Zorn and Campbell build on that and pull the trigger on at least 2-3 downfield looks. They don’t have to be 50-yard rainbows—I’ll settle for a couple of 25-yard seam routes or deep outs. Just call for the man to take a deep drop and cut it loose a couple of times. What that will also do, of course, is test the starting offensive line, which, while protecting Campbell well last week, faced no jailbreak blitzes or sophisticated stunts from Baltimore. The Ravens didn’t start really coming after the Redskins passers until after Campbell was done for the night. I’m not expecting the same from the Steelers tonight.

I hope to see the Pittsburgh send the house at Campbell a couple of times, see the Redskins pick it up professionally and Campbell execute the right quick read to beat it. The line and Campbell’s consistent inability to do that during the 2-6 slide over the second half of last season was a primary cause of that slide. Their ability to reverse the trend in 2009, in all likelihood, will be the primary factor in what kind of season the 2009 Redskins are going to have.

For all the focus on pass protection heading into last week’s opener, one thing that jumped out during the “game” was the starting offensive line’s inability to create even a whiff of running room.

Here are the running plays from the starting units’ two series, and the eleven total runs during the first half. I didn’t do the second half because, well … I was bummed. [Courtesy of]

First team:
1-10-WAS 27 (14:19) 46-L.Betts right tackle to WAS 27 for no gain
2-10-WAS 38 (13:03) 46-L.Betts right end to WAS 42 for 4 yards
1-10-WAS 39 (5:35) 46-L.Betts left tackle to WAS 39 for no gain
2-10-WAS 39 (5:02) 46-L.Betts right guard to WAS 42 for 3 yards
In four running plays over two drives, the Redskins starters managed seven yards (1.75 avg.). And it wasn’t against a Ravens defense putting eight men in the box to stuff the run either. With the exception of the final play of the second possession, Baltimore came out in base 4-3-4 sets and simply ran to the ball. Unfortunately, no Redskins broke through the line into the second level to take on LB or safeties. There was no movement up front at all.

The rest of the first half, with the second and third groups, didn’t go much better:
2-10-WAS 23 (12:17) 24-M.Mason right end to WAS 28 for 5 yards
1-10-WAS 22 (11:09) 24-M.Mason left tackle to WAS 23 for 1 yard
2-9-WAS 23 (10:29) 24-M.Mason up the middle to WAS 26 for 3 yards
1-10-WAS 11 (6:50) 24-M.Mason left end to WAS 11 for no gain
2-4-WAS 29 (5:18) 24-M.Mason left end to WAS 28 for -1 yards
1-10-BAL 34 (1:59) 31-R.Cartwright up the middle to BAL 30 for 4 yards
1-10-WAS 38 (:02) 31-R.Cartwright left tackle to WAS 43 for 5 yards
Rock Cartwright did pick up nine yards in two carries at the end of the half, but against a Baltimore defense playing "prevent" in the 2-minute drill.

I have no illusions about using tonight’s preseason action against the defending champions and their top-ranked defense to “get the running game un-tracked”—it ain’t gonna happen. But I would like to see a couple of seams in there. Maybe a six-yard off-tackle run or two where someone blows someone else off the line. Just something to show me that the old legs up front can still get a little push and coordinate a lane or two in the normal course of play.

The only real surprise from last week’s preseason clunker was the ease with which Baltimore moved the ball against the Redskins first defensive group. Game plan or no game plan, different team agendas or not, that wasn’t what I was expecting to see from a unit widely viewed as among the elite defensive units heading into 2009.

I’d like very much to think that the starting defense will come out a little hungrier tonight, looking to make a statement in front of the home fans.

[Assuming there are any "home fans" among the expected throng of Steeler fans at FedEx tonight, using the Redskins as an excuse to get out of town for a while. Not that it's that surprising. If I lived in Pittsburgh I’d grab every opportunity to come to Washing—er, Landover, too.

Oh, relax Pittsburgher—it was a joke. Mostly.]

We won’t really see it tonight, but maybe we will see the first visible hint of what could turn out to be one of the more interesting side stories of the year—the reincarnation of Greg Blache as a riverboat gambler.
“According to several players, the presence of [DT Albert] Haynesworth has made old-school defensive coordinator Greg Blache more daring in his approach. With young players such as first-round pick Brian Orakpo and third-round supplemental pick Jeremy Jarmon, Blache has a lot more speed and depth to work with." – ESPN
Please, let it be so. And let this kind of talk not only indicate an overall more aggressive approach, but prescience:
“… Greg Blache now believes [S LaRon] Landry should be more than just an NFL starter. Here would be Blache's goals for the third-year safety, simply put.

‘Creating turnovers for us," he said this week. "Having six-eight picks. Some devastating plays where he's got some of these highlight kind of hits and breakups on the ball, and at the end of it him taking a trip to Hawaii as a Pro Bowl safety as opposed to being an alternate.’

I'm looking for a huge year out of LaRon, because he is healthy. This is his third year. He's got the position figured out. This could be a real break-out year for him." - RedskinsInsider
Two things could make the 2009 Washington Redskins special,

1) the emergence of Jason Campbell as a legitimate Pro Bowl-level quarterback, and
2) the defense playing up to their level of expectation.

Of the two, if you had to bet real money you’d probably go defense without a second thought. An early series or two of dominance—even of the “yeah, but it’s just preseason” sort, would be a tasty morsel to take with us into the next week of hyper-dissection leading up to preseason “game” three against Tom Brady and his merry band of Patriots from up New England way.

No injuries.

Enjoy tonight, and if you're going to the game and planning to tailgate ... be smart. We don't want to lose any Redskins fans to tragedy because they forgot that they, too, were in preseason mode. Keep your wits about you.


August 18, 2009

The Vick Conundrum

So ... Michael Vick.

I wasn’t intending to ‘go there’ in this space—to me his is a straight social issue, and only tangentially Redskins-related in that Vick’s new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, play in the same division.

However, a friend of mine whose thoughts I value and respect deeply recently wrote a strongly-worded, passionate piece about Vick’s return to the NFL, and got my juices flowing a bit. Add to that the fact I am a Virginia Tech grad myself, and have followed Vick’s career since he showed up in Blacksburg a decade ago with fascination and natural partisan interest, and next thing I know ...

For the record, I do not claim original insight here, nor do I offer this as some soapbox social statement. I would just like to touch on an aspect of this entire situation that I haven’t seen given as much play as I think is warranted:

Everyone’s personal view of this entire incident is inextricably bound to and viewed through the lens of their own personal value system.

That's an obvious statement on a certain level that I know we all understand intellectually. I’m just not sure how many of the more passionate voices I’ve heard speak on the subject have really accounted for it or acknowledged its relevance.

Personally, I find dog fighting abhorrent. I ache for the animals, harbor righteous rage against the humans who perpetrate it, and feel deeply frustrated confusion at the reality that so many fellow human beings utterly lack the empathy gene.

I find the way women are treated in much of the world abhorrent. The thought process behind treating any fellow human being as chattel has always been and will always be incomprehensible to me.

I find it incomprehensible that children are abandoned, beaten, abused, exploited, ignored. I did so long before I had kids of my own; and today, as a father, it's an issue I cannot even think about without bringing knots to my gut and bile to my throat.

I feel these things, in large part, because I was raised in an environment where they were considered wrong.

But I also do things I know others find abhorrent. I eat meat. I don't subscribe to any of man's religions and am not shy about debating the matter with those who do. I don't care a whit about any else's sexual orientation.

I don't find those things abhorrent, in large part, because I was raised in an environment where they were considered normal.

Mike Vick was raised in an environment where dogfighting is viewed by many as perfectly normal. That is not to imply he had no choice but to find it normal ... but it is a factor; one it is both unfair and unrealistic to dismiss out of hand. I will never condone his actions, but will also not forget the context in which he made them when it comes to how I view who he is now, and what I believe our society should demand/expect from him for the rest of his life.

None of us will ever know what if anything has changed in Mike Vick's heart. It is possible he's a changed man today, and his experience will create in him the champion of and ultimate weapon against animal cruelty the world over. It is also possible he remains the exact same man he was before this whole sorry affair broke, and the only thing that's really changed is that he is and will be one hell of a lot more careful about what he shows in public.

The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in between. It almost always is.

Should he be allowed to make a living at the thing he does best? Of course he should. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of the legal system we live by—you pay your debt to society as the laws of the day dictate, then have the right to get on with your life.

Should the NFL have been forced, legally, morally or otherwise, into the role of social conscience or arbiter? I think not—not unless we're prepared to live in a society where some Solomonic regulatory agency has the right and/or duty to dictate to any business who it can and cannot hire based on whatever crimes they have already been punished for in the legal system.

Me, I don't want to live in that society. But that's a discussion for another day.

Bottom line ... I do not and will not pretend to know what is in Mike Vick's heart. I do think he should be able to play in the NFL. And I do think the Philadelphia Eagles would be totally justified demanding, in return for hiring him, that he use his celebrity to help bring the stark realities of dogfighting into the light. To hopefully have some small effect in someday bringing it, if not to an end, at least to its knees. But that decision should be theirs, not imposed on them from without.

There will always be people who take pleasure in blood sports, in activities that take advantage of those—human and otherwise—who cannot say no. We all know that. But "the rest of us,” even while admittedly superimposing our own value systems, also have the right (or duty, depending on your own values) to try to reduce their numbers.

I believe that for as long as his skills allow, Michael Vick can and should serve society—not to mention current and future generations of man’s best friend—in that regard, particularly given the stage and platform of the NFL.

Whether his heart is in it or not.

August 14, 2009

Review: Six Campbell Pass Plays

A lot of people seem to think there was a football game played at M&T Bank Stadium Thursday night. I’m not one of them.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to go on about NFL teams approaching preseason games so differently, and using them for such different purposes, that projecting any regular-season meaning onto them—final score or otherwise—is a straight waste of time.

And I won’t get into how these preseason affairs are glorified scrimmages at best, and at worst, slickly packaged, almost criminally overpriced hype passed off as “games” to a football-starved public.

Not today. Today I’m going to parse the only thing I had any real interest in (Brian Orakpo and no injuries notwithstanding) ... Redskins QB Jason Campbell and the offensive line’s performance on passing plays.

There were six. Here’s how I saw them:

First Possession

1st-10, WAS 15. Ravens put four on the LOS. Redskins OL holds firm—no penetration. Campbell takes a 3-step drop, looks far right at Devin Thomas on a slant, short middle at Fred Davis, short middle left at Chris Cooley, then finally to Ladell Betts in the left flat. Four options. The OL is doing its job. Campbell might have chosen to go to Cooley at the first down marker (with a LB about a yard off left shoulder), but he chooses Betts instead, alone in the left flat with blockers. Campbell’s throw is on target as he leads Betts up field for 11 yards (-2 catch, 13 RAC).

Campbell and OL both solid.

2nd-9, WAS 27. Ravens put four on the LOS. Redskins OL holds firm—no penetration. Campbell takes a 5-step drop (play-action fake to Betts), then looks right side toward Thomas & Cooley. Thomas runs a skinny post, crossing with Cooley as he breaks toward the sideline. Campbell delivers on rhythm to Cooley for 11 (9 catch, 2 RAC).

Campbell and OL both solid.

1st-10, WAS 38. Ravens put four on the LOS. Campbell takes a 3-step drop, turns and throws immediately toward Thomas, who is 5-yards upfield on the left numbers. A LB is moving to cover Betts in the flat and crosses between Campbell and Thomas. Campbell appears to see him just as he’s releasing the ball and pulls the string a little. The ball sails high and skips off Thomas’ fingertips incomplete.

There was no apparent reason to rush throw given the protection—Campbell’s better option would have been Randle El, uncovered at the first down marker out of the left slot. Campbell dropped, turned and threw without any hesitation or seeming to find Thomas first; clearly throwing to a spot. Unless he was directed to throw that pass regardless of coverage, it’s a poor decision given the time to throw, the rushed and/or forced pass and missed opportunity for the likely first down attempt to ARE.

OL solid, Campbell questionable.

3rd-6, WAS 42. Ravens put four on the LOS. Campbell in shotgun, takes a 3-step drop. OL holds the DL, Samuels rides the RDE wide. Campbell looks right side to Cooley at first down marker, just coming out of his break. He starts to throw, then pulls it down. Cooley breaks open as Campbell steps up into pocket and looks away to the middle of the field. Ray Lewis closes, Betts lets him go, sliding in behind him into the open middle to provide an outlet. As Lewis gets to him, Campbell throws at the last instant, without stepping in (can't), going deep sideline to a wide-open Marques Hagans at the Ravens 28. Hagans leaps but the ball is inches high and off his fingertips.

Campbell may have given up on Cooley too soon. The OL provided enough time to allow him to give Cooley the extra half-second necessary to finish his break, and Cooley was open at the first down marker. If Campbell had connected with Hagans—and it was close—it would have been a good play, potentially a big one if the uncovered Hagans had been able to say in bounds.

However, by passing up the high percentage conversion play available on 3rd down, and then missing Hagans, the series is over.

OL solid; Campbell questionable.

Second Possession

1st-10, WAS 24. Ravens put four on the LOS. The OL holds—no penetration. Campbell takes a 7-step drop (play-action to Betts). He steps and throws in rhythm to his first option, Randle El, in the intermediate middle, for 14 yards (14 catch, 0 RAC). Campbell had Cooley available in the right flat at the LOS with a 5-yard cushion to run, but elected to go with the deeper option. The pass was a little low, forcing a good to-ground catch by ARE, but the ball was on time and on target, covering 23 yards without ever getting more than 3 off the ground. The man has an arm.

Campbell and OL … solid.

3rd-8, WAS 41. Ravens puts seven on the LOS. Redskins have six (OL, TE). Campbell in shotgun. Ravens bring four from the left side, drop two from the right into coverage. Betts slides left to pick up the safety blitzing off the edge. Cooley takes a bad angle on the blitzing LB, allowing immediate inside pressure on Campbell. The only visible bailout target is Randle El at the first down marker—but two Ravens are in the throwing lane. The LB hits Campbell as he throws, the ball comes out low and skips short.

The Ravens zone blitz left Dockery, Rabach and Rhinehart blocking air, while Heyer neutralized the DE. The play came down to Cooley’s whiff block on the LB, forcing Campbell to have to throw it away.

Campbell and OL acceptable. Cooley not so much.


In their brief appearance, with zero motion, misdirection or apparent interest in going downfield to threaten the defense, the Redskins starting quarterback and offensive line were solid, if not particularly dynamic.

The offensive line did well in six pass protection opportunities, even if only facing one schemed blitz on the evening. Couldn’t have asked for more.

Jason Campbell (3-for-6, 38 yards) looked good on three, made what appeared questionable decisions on two, and appeared to throw it away smartly on the last.

Draw from that what conclusions you will, my friends. And feel free to disagree with my read on any of the plays. Personally, I found the performance mildly encouraging, and will head into next week's glorified practice session against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FedEx Field hoping to see no worse than more of the same. And maybe even a pass down the field for grins.

Preseason NFL Football. Gotta love it.

August 12, 2009

2009 Preseason Opener: Top Five Wish List

Once again it's time for the requisite "what I want to see" piece heading into the first preseason game of a new season. Gotta do it—it's as much a part of the early-season NFL ritual as stopping at Best Buy for new box of blank DVD's. Only so many games can live on the DVR before it starts bogging down.

Top Five Wish List
Washington vs. Baltimore

V. Speed.

For as long as I can remember the Redskins have not been a fast team. They've had fast players now and again, sure, but haven’t been a fast team. In fact, they've often looked plodding by comparison. So at least twice in the "game" tonight, I want to react to a play by a Redskin that bespeaks pure speed.

Doesn't matter who does it, or in what context:

A running back beating inside pursuit and turning the corner. A linebacker or defensive end coming off the edge, closing on the QB with evil intent and actually getting there. A wide receiver pulling away from a defensive back who seems to have the angle. A punt returner splitting the gap with a burst. You’ll know the kind of play I mean if (when!) you see it.

Former Cowboys Head Coach Jimmy Johnson talked about speed being the one thing he realized he needed to bring to the roster when he took over in Dallas back in 1989. No Redskins fan has forgotten how that worked out.

Speed thrills. I want some.

IV. I was actually kind of glad to hear big DT Albert Haynesworth won't play. For one thing, it removed the chance of reliving the massive letdown that was the first preseason game back in 1998, when uber-free agent signing DT's Dana Stubblefield and Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson first lined up next to one another.

Those of you too young to remember can't imagine the hype leading up to the first preseason game that year—those two guys were the missing ingredient, baby. And those of you old enough to remember surely haven't forgotten the air escaping from our collective balloon as the ho-hum Miami Dolphins proceeded to march right down the field for a TD on their first possession, largely on slashing off-tackle runs right through our brand new multi-million dollar turnstiles.

And no, I'm not suggesting Haynesworth is going to be a bust—far from it. I'm just happy enough to save that first peek for a week, and use this week to get my first look at what this year's defensive might look like without him … because you know he's going to miss at least a game or two.

To that end, nothing would make me happier tonight than seeing some other defensive big men stand up and get noticed. Rookies Brian Orakpo or Jeremy Jarmon, young returning vets Chris Wilson or Rob Jackson, old hands Andre Carter or Phillip Daniels ... anyone.

Just get after the passer—show some movement up front. Gotta have it.

III. One thing I'll be looking for will probably only get much attention if it doesn't happen. I want to see the Zorn Redskins 2.0 show clear signs of having upgraded in terms of overall gameday organization.

I want to see units getting on and off the field like they know what they're doing. I want to see competent game and clock management. Maybe even see the Redskins dictating the pace of the game as often as reacting to it. It will take at least 2-3 regular season games before I'm ready to draw any real conclusions on this one, but the one thing I know I don't want to walk away with tonight is the impression they weren't organized or ready to play.

Hiccups are to be expected—it is preaseason game one. Technicolor yawns, on the other hand, would be a real drag.

II. Okay, there is one thing I'd like to see more than a Haynesworth-less pass rush. The same thing every Redskins fan is hoping to see—the quarterbacks and offensive line looking competent in the passing game.

I don't ask much. Couldn't care less about the final score. Couldn't care less about the stats. Just let me see a solid sampling of plays where the QB is able to drop, make a read and release without two or three guys smacking him in the mouth.

Let me see the line look like it generally knows who to block, and individual linemen not getting whipped or bowled over in their one-on-one matchups all night.

Let me see the QB's—Jason Campbell in particular—look like they know where to go with the ball and when, then either throw on rhythm, pick up a few yards on their own if nothing's there or just get rid of the damn thing.

Quarterback and offensive line, working in concert. I think it was Robin Williams who once said of that dynamic, "What a concept."

No injuries.


It's really here, ladies and gentlemen. Redskins football.

Don't forget to enjoy it.

August 9, 2009

2009 Redskins: One Split-Second Away

Have you seen this man?

(Photo by Brian Schurman)

If you have seen him—sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating, ever the work-in-progress—the Redskins will remain what they have been for years … a team capable of beating the best in the NFL one week, and losing to the worst the next. A team that will, ultimately, fall short of expectation.

If you have not seen him, however, and the man wearing "17" in burgundy and gold jogging onto the field at Giants Stadium on September 13 turns out to be the guy they were talking about in Ashburn just a week ago … hold on to your hats.

The notion that Jason Campbell is the key to their season is hardly novel—you can’t find a Redskins piece these days that doesn’t cover that angle. But not many drill down just how close the Redskins might be to breaking out, how dependent that possibility is on Campbell, and just how close Campbell might be to making that jump.

Let’s take it macro to micro.

Ownership is in place. For all the fits, starts, learning curve and unresolved philosophical cranial flatulence concerning the offensive line, Dan Snyder is serious about procuring the pieces. If you can find a lifelong Lions, Bengals or Cardinals fan, see if they can say the same with a straight face.

The Coaching Staff is in place. Head Coach Jim Zorn enters his second year under the big headset with all the attendant advantages—familiarity with his players, coaching staff and rhythms of the job, and a full year to adapt and refine his roster and offense to fit one another. He has acquired one invaluable thing that can only be gained one way … experience. And with solid assistant coaching up and down the line (DC Greg Blache, OL Coach Joe Bugel, DB Coach Jerry Gray, et al), Zorn will not go to battle alone but flanked by battle-hardened lieutenants.

The defense is in place. Last year's 4th-ranked overall unit (7th passing; 8th rushing) didn’t stand pat and didn’t tinker, it upgraded—big time. The Redskins added DT Albert Haynesworth, consensus “Best Available Free Agent” and arguably most dominant defensive lineman in football, rookie DE/LB Brian Orakpo, on the short list of best pass-rushing prospects in the 2008 NFL Draft, and early training camp surprise DE Jeremy Jarmon from Kentucky.

Factor in another year of maturity for young veterans S LaRon Landry, CB DeAngelo Hall, S Chris Horton, DT’s Anthony Montgomery and Kedric Golston and LB Rocky McIntosh, plus solid leadership from such as LB London Fletcher, DT Cornelius Griffin and returning DE’s Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn. Stir them together under the steady hand of Greg Blache, and it is hard to envision a dropoff. Logic suggests instead that the Redskins defense will be better, maybe even dominant.

Offensively, things are less clear, but perhaps not as dire as many would have you believe. Last year at this time, criticism came from many quarters about how the Redskins had badly neglected the defense by using their top three draft selections on offensive players. Specifically, on skill players brought in to do something all agreed was a serious concern—upgrading the passing game.

WR’s Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly and TE Fred Davis are no longer rookies and no longer afterthoughts. If eve one of the three emerges as a legitimate weapon to complement WR Santana Moss in 2009, the upgrade could be dramatic. Give a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady an array of Santana Moss, Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Cooley, Fred Davis and Todd Yoder, and you would hear few complaints about the receiving corps.

Behind RB’s Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright (and/or whichever of the young lightning bugs emerges from training camp among Anthony Aldridge, Dominique Dorsey and Marcus Mason) and big FB Mike Sellers, the running game may not be top five in the league, but top ten is not a stretch, particularly if they ever get to face honest defenses, no longer stacking the line or scrimmage because the Redskins pose no legitimate passing threat.

The offensive line, of course, is where many suggest the season will turn. I disagree … and bear in mind I do so having yelled from the rooftops as loudly as anyone about this franchise's inexcusable neglect the offensive line for the past decade. The Redskins are going to have bad days in pass protection this season. Count on it.

Thing is, with breakout quarterbacking they could have a breakout season anyway. And from where I sit, only one question mark remains as to whether or not Jason Campbell is the man to lead the charge.

Cannon arm capable of any NFL throw? Check.

Character? Check.

Work ethic? Check.

Athleticism? Check.

Leadership? Check-minus. It might not be Manning-esque, and may not always not show from the stands, but the unqualified, unsolicited supportive locker room comments from teammates over four years speak volumes.

Pocket presence and processing speed? Ah … the heart of the matter.

Jason Campbell can step up in the pocket and make any throw required of an NFL quarterback; he’s done it often enough to prove the point. He has a tendency still to drift backwards away from an edge rush rather than step up in games where he’s been pin-balled all day, but you won’t find many QB’s who don’t.

Where Jason Campbell remains a question mark—and the key to the success of the 2009 Washington Redskins—is whether or not he can make the equivalent of the plays not below, one by Todd Collins and one by Colt Brennan.

The kind of play that is often the difference between a hard fought win and a heartbreaking loss.

The kind of play that is pure read-and-react instinct.

The kind of play that requires a deft touch throw under duress, from an off-balance platform, in the face of a fierce rush, in the deciding moments of a game.

The kind of play we have not often seen from young Jason Campbell.

- 13:57 of 2nd Qtr: Campbell steps up, reads, fires accurately.
- 2:49 of 2nd Qtr: Campbell hesitates, drifts, holds too long, pays steep price.
- 13:29 of 3rd Qtr: Collins pass to Portis in the flat, under control, accurate, decisive.
- 2:43 of 4th Qtr: Collins TD to Betts. Reaction, timing, accuracy, touch.

This one speaks for itself:

You can’t teach those plays—instinct, reaction time and accuracy under duress are gifts. You either have them or you don’t. To date, Jason Campbell has not shown he possesses them in sufficient quantity to make the leap from average to elite.

Truth is I still see Jason Campbell as miscast in Jim Zorn’s offense. I still think he’s the classic drop-back, downfield play-action passer Joe Gibbs drafted him to be, not the step-and-fire, quick-release surgeon Jim Zorn needs him to be.

But I’ve also seen enough good things from Campbell to hold out hope that he can still speed up his game enough to finally force defenses to play the Redskins honestly again. To not allow them to stack the line of scrimmage, pin their ears back and attack a shaky pass-protecting OL with little respect for and no real fear of the quarterback's ability to made them pay.

If Campbell has made real strides this offseason, and can reduce by a fraction of a second the time between what his eyes see as he drops from center and the ball leaving his hand in response … the results will be clear and perhaps startling.

It won’t happen in one game, maybe not even two or three. Defensive coordinators around the league will begin this season as they have the past several, believing that the way to shut down the Washington Redskins offense is to throw the kitchen sink at their quarterback and count on making more plays than they give up.

Only one thing will force them to adjust ... a quarterback who makes them pay for their aggressiveness, coming up with the one or two key throws a game at the most crucial times, when a split-second decision and accurate touch throw ultimately decides whether Redskins Nation spends its Monday thumping its collective chest or kicking its cat.

Preseason game or not, come Thursday night when the Redskins open their season in Baltimore, I’ll be looking for indications of whether or not we have, in fact, seen Jason Campbell.