Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters:

The Redskins have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs this year.

I am probably going to regret saying that, but it's true. The team that finished 5-11 last year could very well be playing into 2008.

The reason for the possible playoff nod for the 'Skins isn't so much because Washington is terribly good going into the 2007 season, but simply because there are a lot of teams in the NFC that figure to be just terrible. Question marks appear to be the “it” fashion accessory in the NFC East this season and while the Redskins logically figure to be chasing Dallas, New York and Philadelphia — all playoff teams in '06 — it honestly wouldn't shock me if Washington sat atop the NFC East when the dust clears in January.

Look around the division. Is there any quarterback situation that makes you think “sure thing?” Eli Manning? Tony “Oh no?” Donovan McKnee? Jason Campbell might not have the most experience entering this year, but there's also something to be said against two streaky quarterbacks who will be under the microscope every week and another who is coming (perhaps rushing) back from injury. Anyone remember Daunte Culpepper's year last season?

The Redskins are blessed with what I consider to be a fairly easy schedule. There are only three teams outside of the divisional opponents that seem to be surefire playoff contenders (Chicago, New England and the New York Jets), while games at home against Miami, Detroit, Arizona and Buffalo and on the road against rebuilding Minnesota and Tampa Bay all seem within reach. Potentially that's six wins right there. Top the Giants' sinking ship twice and steal one of the home games from Dallas or Philly and there's your nine.

Possible? Sure. Likely? Well …

Washington has its fair share of detractors this season, and frankly they are right to doubt a team that features a young quarterback, aging offensive and defensive lines and a defense that ranked 31st out of 32 teams last season in yards allowed per game. However, there are a few signs that indicate the 'Skins might be better than most coming off a year in which they finished with the sixth-worst record in the NFL.

For starters, there's consistency. Al Saunders is still the offensive coordinator, meaning that most returning players have probably advanced to about page 240 of his War and Peace-like play book. And while Jason Campbell works through that hefty script, he'll be able to lean on a running attack that amassed 995 yards over the final six weeks of 2006.

Defensively, all of last season the staff blamed the team's defensive shortcomings on bad luck. It sounds like a ridiculous statement for a team that allowed an average of 23.5 points per game. Consider though that they missed Shawn Springs for five games. Consider also that the defense finished near the top of those rankings just two years earlier.

The biggest burn factor for the Skins defense last year was their secondary. Adam Archuletta never fit in. Sean Taylor's roving head hunter role left the corners on islands far too often and Carlos Rogers was too busy celebrating overthrown balls to notice when he was getting torched up and down the field. This year, Fred Smoot is back and Springs is healthy, giving some depth to the secondary. Add London Fletcher at linebacker and the run defense gets a boost. That has to be heartening considering Washington allowed 458 yards rushing in the final two games last year.

On the flip side, there are some big obstacles Washington will have to overcome to make a serious run at the playoffs.

First and foremost, Chris Samuels must stay healthy because if he does, you might as well start fitting Cambell for a hospital gown. Adding Pete Kendall from the Jets was a great addition, but the lack of depth on the offensive line could unravel the team's offense.

Campbell has been working hard this summer to learn from last season, but he's still young. He also still has limited targets, with only Santana Moss and Chris Cooley providing proven receiving options. Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El need to step up and earn those bonus-laden contracts Danny Bank Account gave them in 2006.

The coaching staff has its own battles to win. Last year reports of dissent from the locker room and poor communication between coaches and different defensive units pointed to a conclusion that ego was interfering. Last year's results ought to erase any hubris from this year's staff, but they'll have to figure a way to get the most from their players and not their play books. If they can drive home the fact that last year was unacceptable and rekindle a drive in these free agent acquisitions that goes deeper than that bonus in their bank account, then Washington has all the makings of a team fit for 17-plus games.

Will it happen? We'll find out soon enough, won't we?

 

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