ASHBURN, Va. -- Five observations on the Washington Redskins, based on a training camp practice of Aug. 2:
1. Let's get this admission of bias out of the way up front: Quarterback Patrick Ramsey, a guy a lot of teams would kill to have but who wasn't quite satisfactory enough for noted talent evaluator Dan Synder, is one of our favorite people. A kid with a lot of talent and a youngster savvy enough to understand that dollars will dictate that, despite the blowhard rhetoric, Mark Brunell will open the season as the starter. But kudos to Ramsey for not conceding anything and, for now at least, making the alleged competition for the No. 1 job a close one. Then again, he's getting some help from Brunell, who has not looked all that crisp in camp. It might not be altogether fair to assess Brunell based on Monday's practice, essentially a series of half-speed drills that followed an hour-long deluge which flooded the fields at Redskins Park, and made the session nearly inconsequential. But for this afternoon, Brunell looked much the same as when we saw him three straight days in Jacksonville last summer. It's obvious Brunell doesn't move as well as he once did. But as was the case last summer, the more notable concern was his lack of accuracy. Not that Ramsey was on-target throughout the practice, but he showed better marksmanship and, not surprisingly, a stronger arm. Brunell made what appeared to be some misreads and his attempts often sailed on him. In fairness, he rallied back from a poor camp in 2003 to temporarily fend off the challenge from first-rounder Byron Leftwich, and keep his No. 1 job through three starts, until sidelined by an elbow injury. In the first two starts, before being knocked out of the lineup by the Indianapolis defense, Brunell completed 42 of 59 passes for 394 yards, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. So, nice enough numbers, right? But a closer look reveals that Brunell rarely went vertical up the field in those two games. Instead, he threw a lot of screens and swings and check-downs. Maybe that's what the Redskins want him to do now. But that would signal a philosophical change for coach Joe Gibbs, who loves to set up the pass with the run and then throw deep off play-action, in his comeback season.
Washington paid Brunell more than $8 million in up-front dollars to sign on and, if he doesn't start, players are going to wonder why so much was invested in a backup who will turn 34 next month. So the conventional wisdom is that Brunell will start. The conventional question, if he doesn't look much better, is how long he holds onto the job? It says here that, had the Redskins kept Ramsey in the starter's spot and used the more fundamentally sound protection scheme that has been installed, he would be a quarterback with whom you could win.
2. We'll go to our grave insisting the Redskins surrendered too much to get tailback Clinton Portis. How do you trade a star at a premier position, cornerback Champ Bailey, and a second-round draft pick, for any running back? But notwithstanding that sentiment, we've got to concede this: Portis is a special kind of back. All the skeptics who still contend he isn't the optimum fit for Gibbs, who prefers a pure power back, can forget it. Now that the Washington offensive line actually has a professional-level blocking scheme from which to work, with the legendary Joe Bugel directing things, Portis is going to get big-time yards. It's tough to put a label on Portis as it is to tackle him. He's not a power back, nor a slasher, and isn't the prototype "downhill" runner, either. But he has uncanny vision, as do all great backs, and appears to simply sense the cutback lane even before it becomes available to him. Maybe we're going overboard here but, given his skills and the Redskins' new paradigm, Portis could go for 2,000 yards.
3. His disappointing three-year tenure as head coach in Buffalo aside, Gregg Williams is a terrific defensive coordinator, a guy who knows how to scheme-up a pass rush and to get pressure from a variety of angles. He's going to have to do exactly that with the Redskins, who have no proven "edge" rushers among their front four players. OK, maybe ends Regan Upshaw and Phillip Daniels can still flash some rush ability at times, but both are showing signs of wear and can't bring it like they once did. That means the primary rush duties are probably going to fall to linebackers LaVar Arrington and Marcus Washington, two guys with upfield explosiveness. With the retirement of Bruce Smith, who hung on just long enough to establish a new league record for career sacks, Arrington has become the acknowledged leader of the defense, and Williams will find a lot of creative ways to use him.
The player who has surprised some people here, at least those who apparently didn't know much about him, is Washington, signed from Indianapolis as a free agent. The former Colts starter is having a superior camp so far and, with Arrington, could provide Washington a kind of pincer-type movement from the outside. He may not log as many sacks as Arrington, but don't be surprised if Washington is close. While on the subject of linebackers, Mike Barrow might be an upgrade in the middle from the departed Jeremiah Trotter, but not by much. Suffice it to say that Barrow, at age 34, looks a step tardy to the ball. The goods news is at least the Redskins didn't pay him as much as they did Trotter over the last two seasons. Washington has plenty of nondescript bodies on the defensive front -- don't buy into the pitch that veteran free agent tackle Cornelius Griffin is anything special -- and will rotate a lot of people. But it still looks like the team will struggle to stop the run.
4. Now starting at free safety for the 'Skins first-round pick Sean Taylor? Uh, no. Try little-used third-year veteran Andre Lott, whose first two NFL seasons were remarkable only because of how unremarkable they were. That Lott is running with the first unit is partly attributable to the fact the former Tennessee star, a fifth-round pick in 2002 who has zero starts and 15 tackles in two seasons, has enjoyed a very nice camp. And also to the fact Taylor, who on occasion has worked as the No. 3 free safety, is off to what can only be called an inauspicious start. There just seems to be some bad karma floating around Taylor, who some scouts felt was the best safety prospect since Ronnie Lott, but who can't squeeze ahead of Andre Lott on the depth chart. The guy fired his agent days after the draft and then took three months to choose a replacement, only to fire the replacement Tuesday night, again leaving him without an agent. He played poorly in minicamps, suffered an eye abrasion when Arrington hit him in the face with a shaving cream pie, then skipped out early on the NFL's rookie symposium, which earned him a $25,000 fine. In the team's pre-camp last week, Taylor sprained his knee, and he has taken to blowing off interview requests. When pressed about their evaluations of him, some scouts now acknowledge Taylor basically mailed it in the second half of last year, knowing he was leaving school to enter the draft, and making sure he didn't get hurt. Who knows, maybe the guy will turn out to be the second coming off Ronnie Lott, but right now, he can't make a play. A couple more points on the secondary: Free agent addition Shawn Springs, who fought an incredible number of injuries (mostly hamstring problems) during his seven years in Seattle, looks very spry. And for whatever reason, Ifeanyi Ohalete, who started 15 games at free safety in 2003, has been dumped all the way back to the third unit.
5. Just a hunch, but we're betting fourth-year veteran wideout Rod Gardner has a pretty big year. In 2001, when Washington didn't really have a "lead" receiver, Gardner was miscast in that role. But now, with speedster Laveranues Coles on-hand, Gardner has become the No. 2, complementary-type wide receiver, and it's a comfortable slot for the former Clemson standout. Ironically, in the pair's first season together, Gardner posted a career-low average of 10.2 yards in 2003. That is nearly one-third the average Gardner had in his first two seasons. But if Coles is healthy, and we'll get to that in a second, teams will have to double-up on the Redskins most explosive playmaker, and that will leave lots of room for Gardner to operate. Plus people close to Gardner contend that he is motivated to have a monster season. Gardner makes as many acrobatic catches as any wideout in the NFL, is fearless going up in a crowd, and will win a lot of jump balls versus smaller cornerbacks. In the Monday practice, he demonstrated all those skills, adjusted well to the ball in the air, and dominated the Redskins secondary. Now to Coles: Although he told us his foot problems are improving, he still isn't full-speed, and will probably have to wear some sort of orthotics device in his shoe all season. Coles chose not to have surgery on the foot, gambling it would come around on its own, but that has not been the case.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.