Lost amid the endless Colt vs. Chase dialogues and the weeping and gnashing of teeth when the popular Colt Brennan, third quarterback extraordinaire, shuffled off to injured reserve on Saturday was a much more critical point: Is this Redskins team significantly better than last year's?
Brennan's duel with Chase Daniel for the role of a guy who would take no snaps and play almost no part in the team's success or failure in 2009 made for great training camp fun.
While other teams--the Cleveland Browns, the Detroit Lions, the New York Jets--staged actual battles for the starting job, Washington's endless fascination at that position almost annually comes down to the No. 2 and No. 3 guys, or does no one remember Babe Laufenberg?
Two questions jump to mind as the Redskins settled on 53 players and jettisoned 22 with the opener against the New York Giants now a week away. Is this team better, and will it play better?
Not always the same thing here. Good rosters can have poor chemistry. Lesser players, united in their resolve, can produce and win. The confluence of the two elements--strong roster, strong character--makes for championship potential. Shop a little in the free-agent market, draft well and put it on the field.
"I think we're always looking to develop the young guys and then we have high-priced starters," says Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president. "Then you have the younger guys who can develop and come up that are cheaper and that is how you build."
The quarterback situation really didn't change. It is Jason Campbell, playing possibly for his career with the Redskins and his contract, though his focus truly seems to be playing for the Redskins and developing his game. He showed some real flashes in preseason games and yet could still not hit the deep pass or engineer much in the way of touchdown drives.
This is a wait-and-see. Upper management wants a franchise quarterback. Maybe Campbell becomes one. Maybe he does not. Todd Collins remains the second banana and fits the role.
The receivers are better. Malcolm Kelly really seems to get it. Devin Thomas improved. Fred Davis can contribute. How much do these three second-round picks of a year ago actually add to the package? Ah, this will unfold over time. As a position, though, this is stronger and that has to help Campbell.
Adding Marcus Mason to the backfield is also a nice touch. Four running backs? Well, Mason might not be active all that often but the Redskins now have some options as they spell Clinton Portis with Ladell Betts on third downs. Having Mason around will be better than taking on a worn-out husk like Shaun Alexander if an emergency arises. Take that variety pack of receivers and Betts as a receiving threat and this offense ought to have some different dimensions.
The offensive line, which bore the brunt of the late-season criticism last year when point-scoring vanished, starts a sound veteran group. As it did last year. Gone from the 2008 edition are guard Pete Kendall and long-time right tackle Jon Jansen. Kendall is unsigned while Jansen accepted a one-year deal with the Detroit, so it's probably not a stretch to say neither is with an NFL team at the moment. Derrick Dockery for Kendall is plus.
The problem here is depth. Mike Williams plays right tackle and only right tackle. Great comeback story but he hasn't taken a snap in a regular season game since 2005. Center-guard Edwin Williams made the team as a rookie free agent. Guard Chad Rinehart, a third-round pick last year, has never played a down. Nobody is an experienced left tackle except Stephon Heyer and he's the right tackle. If anything should happen to Chris Samuels, the Redskins are looking at a double switch, with Heyer moving over. This could be an issue, just as it was last year when Samuels and guard Randy Thomas went down.
Defensively, two key changes in the front seven will bear watching. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth has to play like Albert Haynesworth and not like Mrs. Butterworth. He was hardly on the field at all during preseason games but seemed to make a difference when he was. And he has to, because it once again seems clear that without him the Redskins will struggle to get to the quarterback.
No. 1 pick Brian Orakpo will open at strong-side linebacker and move to right end in passing situations. This guy can play and, throughout preseason, got held often by offensive tackles trying to block him. As a rookie, he won't get the calls. And, playing two positions, he will wear down. Teams will pick on him when he lines up at linebacker but he has upside where Marcus Washington was only going to get older and less durable. Haynesworth and Orakpo are serious upgrades for a defense that ranked fourth in total yards allowed but was near the bottom of the league in sacks and takeaways.
Three No. 1 picks will start in the secondary. LaRon Landry is as good a safety as there is in the NFL. DeAngelo Hall can cover. Carlos Rogers played very well early last season and the tailed off. As a group, with Fred Smoot available at corner or safety, the Redskins seem solid.
Can they make big plays, create turnovers and position the offense with a short field? All to be determined.
Specialists are better. Kicker Shaun Suisham improves because he gets the game's best holder, punter Hunter Smith. Smith upgrades an area where the Redskins used three players last year, almost always to ill effect. Long snapper Ethan Albright is a Pro Bowler. Rock Cartwright is in the upper tier of kickoff returners. Let's hold off on saying what the Redskins will do on punt returns though Antwaan Randle El has to figure this is his job to lose.
Coach Jim Zorn goes into his second year with some of the critical roster holes plugged by new people. His system is in place and it's a good one, if executed properly.
On paper, the Redskins look better. They were 8-8 a year ago after a fast start and a painful fade. They're in the tough NFC East but they've got some red meat on the schedule--the St. Louis Rams, Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders. Chowing down on that menu would mean the club could play .500 ball against everyone else and win 10 games.
No one knows when injuries will hit or if they will decimate a single position. The Redskins enjoyed good fortune in that department in preseason, in part because of their judicious use of starters.
Now it starts for real. Are they better? Looks that way. Will they play better? Wait and see. Wait and see.
*Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and Redskins.com to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. Go to Redskins.com for the Redskins Blitz column and NFL Blitz on Friday. Larry also appears on Redskins Nation, airing nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, both in the Washington, D.C. area. *