Coach Joe Gibbs wouldn't admit that nine games into last season – and he probably still won't admit it – the Redskins began playing for 2007.
And make no mistake, much has been staked on this season. This is the year Jason Campbell, with a full offseason as the No. 1 quarterback, is supposed to make a huge jump. This is the year running backs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts have a chance to pound out 1,000 yards apiece.
But for Campbell to take the next step, he needs help. He has to have more receiving options than hitting Santana Moss on quick hitches.
Even if the offense becomes consistently effective, the defense must return to its '04 and '05 form, when it was the strength of the team. For that to happen, right end Andre Carter must put together a complete season, tackle Kedric Golston must make big strides to take pressure off Cornelius Griffin and pricey free-agent pickup London Fletcher-Baker must be the consistent, sure-tackling, every-down middle linebacker the coaches expect.
Since Gibbs' return, the team has had a bad year, a good year and then another bad year. Gibbs did not come back to the NFL because he likes roller-coaster rides. If things aren't going well early this season, don't expect him to show the patience he displayed last year.
Offense: Coordinator Al Saunders runs the offense, and "run" is a word Saunders must remember. His play-calling tilted toward the pass until the final games of '06. This year, the Redskins will run first, throw second. They will be a between-the-tackles, power-running unit. When Campbell does throw, he'll attempt to stretch the field. If successful, it would open underneath routes and create more space for the running game.
Defense: Coordinator Gregg Williams' unit must improve after a season in which there was a big drop-off in tackling efficiency. Williams is an innovator and isn't afraid to try such things as playing man-to-man coverage behind a zone blitz, but his players must execute better for those strategies to work. Williams runs an aggressive scheme in which he uses lots of blitz packages and line stunts. He does a good job of disguising his tactics.
QB Jason Campbell: Campbell has the arm to get the ball deep, and the team intends to make defenses respect that arm. Campbell, though, must improve his accuracy on all throws. He tended to wait too long for patterns to develop last season, and he seemed unsure of himself and unfamiliar with his receivers. The hope is experience will bring improvement. Experience also should allow Campbell to handle more of Saunders' playbook.
WR Santana Moss: Lots of money has been invested on wideouts, but the returns have been so-so. Moss is the only reliable commodity. Antwaan Randle El is an excellent punt returner but only an average receiver, and No. 3 receiver Brandon Lloyd has been a major disappointment. Moss is dependable, sure-handed, quick off the line and has speed to beat deep zone coverage. He also has an excellent work ethic. The only knock on Moss is lack of durability.
DT Kedric Golston: The defensive line should be better if it is healthier than last season, when left end Phillip Daniels and tackles Griffin and Joe Salave'a all were slowed by injuries. But even if they are healthy, someone must step in and play more effectively next to Griffin. Golston became a starter as a rookie, but to keep that job he needs to get stronger and be more consistent with his pad level so he doesn't lose leverage.
OLB Marcus Washington: Washington starts on the strong side and has the highest motor on the team. When healthy – he had surgery to correct last year's hip and knee problems – he can do it all. He is a fast, sure tackler who can cover and get to the quarterback when asked to blitz. If either Lemar Marshall or Rocky McIntosh comes through on the weak side, Washington might get more opportunities to pressure quarterbacks.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Poor investments in the nation's capital have damaged the team's chances of winning. Unless it can successfully lobby to get out of one of the NFL's toughest divisions, the struggles will continue.
Prediction: 5-11 (fourth in the NFC East).
The team addressed specific problems in its free-agent shopping instead of going on another spending spree, but the Redskins still have multiple issues on both sides of the ball. They have talented players, but several of them – Lloyd, safety Sean Taylor and cornerback Carlos Rogers – tend to underachieve.
This is not a playoff team, but if things fall right, it could stay in the race for a postseason berth for much of the season.
Paul Woody covers the Redskins for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch and Sporting News.