Minicamp more like audition than first meeting

ASHBURN, Va. -- LaVar Arrington said it felt more like
August than March. The offensive coaching staff met past midnight
on the first day.

No one does the offseason better than the Washington Redskins,
and Joe Gibbs' first minicamp was no exception.

"That's about as well as I've seen this team play -- in or out
of season," linebacker Arrington said after the three-day camp
ended Sunday.

About 5½ months before their first game, the Redskins already
have the clock ticking on the 2004 season.

The usual get-to-know-you first minicamp was more like a
trial-by-fire audition, and players are expected back in a couple
of days for classroom meetings -- even though the Super Bowl ended
less than two months ago.

"Can we push the season back?" Gibbs said. "All we need is
six more months. As long as we never play a game, I'm going to be
in good shape."

Gibbs was joking, but there was a serious tone as he outlined
the program for the next few months. While he claims to have very
few rules, it's clear he expects every player to do his best to
attend every "voluntary" meeting, workout and conditioning
session -- or pay the consequences.

"It's very important for us, this offseason," Gibbs said.
"For me, it's kind of easy. I'm going to lay it out, and then I'm
going to watch -- making mental notes of who works hard, who's here.
We're going have a stress test at the end of the summer. We're
going to put them on a treadmill."

The message is coming through loud and clear, even for
established stars like Arrington, who said he plans to do his
offseason conditioning at Redskins Park for the first time.

"It feels like August, the way we're practicing," Arrington
said. "It's almost like there's a game next week."

Which leads to the obvious question about burnout. Sure, Gibbs
is refreshed, having been away from 12 years. But can he expect
players to keep up this type of pace all the way to September?

"Always as a coach, you're trying to balance it," Gibbs said.
"How much work -- as opposed to keeping them excited."

Gibbs said he's scheduled much of the offseason work for the
middle of the week, giving the players long weekends. There's also
the traditional long break from late June to the start of training
camp in late July.

Nevertheless, the intensity of the first minicamp was an
eye-opener. Four officials were hired to ref the practices. On
Sunday, there were two mini-fights and plenty of trash-talking. The
defense seemed to blitz on every play.

Ready or not, a new season has started.

"Basketball (players) aren't the only people that have March Madness,"
cornerback Fred Smoot said. "We're going through it right now."