All of that could lead to Washington ranking behind only Seattle and Carolina in the NFC, as was true in January. However, not only is much riding on the aging Brunell, but the NFC East figures to be such a battle that the Redskins could wind up anywhere from first — hosting a playoff game — to last. The lack of depth at offensive tackle could be a killer if Chris Samuels or Jon Jansen goes down. The injuries to Clinton Portis, Shawn Springs, Philip Daniels and Cornelius Griffin in August aren't a good start, but coach Joe Gibbs is 7-for-7 making the playoffs after a non-winning preseason such as this one.
Washington plays just six games against 2004 playoff teams, but three (Jacksonville, at the Giants, at Indy) come in a four-week stretch in October. The closing schedule is kinder with four of the final six at home and the road games against relative weaklings New Orleans and St. Louis.
Gibbs' teams have traditionally thrived in December (40-14) so if the Redskins are in playoff position on Thanksgiving, they should make a repeat postseason visit for the first time since 1991-92, the last two seasons of his first go-round in Washington. Even so, a Super Bowl berth for the first time since 1991 is unlikely with the Seahawks and Panthers stronger at quarterback.
Three keys for the Redskins' season:
1. Quarterback Mark Brunell has to stay healthy. Brunell rebounded nicely in 2005 after getting benched in November 2004. However, most of his success came early. He had 12 touchdowns and just two picks in Washington's first five games, 11 scores and eight interceptions in the final 11 games. He was dreadful in the playoff opener at Tampa Bay, setting an ignoble record with 41 passing yards in a victory. Brunell had just 89 yards through three quarters the following week at Seattle. Admittedly, the 2005 Redskins sorely lacked a solid downfield target other than Santana Moss. And Brunell wasn't 100 percent after hurting his right knee in the penultimate regular season game, proving again that when his legs aren't right, neither is his left arm. Brunell will be 36 in September and struggled in preseason. Veteran backup Todd Collins, who knows the offense cold from five years in Kansas City under new associate head coach Al Saunders, and 2005 first-rounder Jason Campbell both struggled enough in preseason to make Brunell's health even more paramount. Brunell has started all 16 games just twice in his career, in 1996 and 2000 with Jacksonville.
2. The Redskins have to prove they can adjust to offensive coordinator Al Saunders' offense. While Saunders and coach Joe Gibbs are both branches of the Don Coryell coaching tree, they've never worked together and there are some differences between their schemes, notably Saunders' preference for a fullback over a second tight end/H-back and his willingness to attack downfield more than Gibbs did the past two seasons. After two preseason games, there were still plenty of rough edges to be refined.
3. Offensive tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels have to stay healthy. With the ageless Ray Brown finally retired, Washington is left with the unproven Jim Molinaro, Tyson Walter (a guard in Dallas) and journeyman Spencer Folau, out of football last season, as its backups. Samuels played the second half of 2005 on a gimpy knee which was repaired in February. Jansen, who missed all of 2004 after tearing an Achilles' tendon, played all of last year with one or two broken thumbs. The right one has been operated on three times, most recently in May.