It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or perhaps more appropriately, a sportswriter, to identify where the Washington Redskins were lacking last year.
However, when Washington rattled off four consecutive wins following the 16-7 loss in the Meadowlands, including improbable road victories at Dallas and Philadelphia, people began to talk about them as a force to be reckoned with in the NFC East.
First year head coach Jim Zorn seemed to have all of the answers and the Redskins looked like a legitimate playoff team.
But as ESPN's Chris Berman often quips, "Not so fast, my friend." The lowly, winless St. Louis Rams came to FedEx Field in week six and brought Washington and its fan base back down to earth.
Long story short: After a 6-2 start, the Redskins lost six of their last eight to finish in the cellar of the NFC East.
In my mind, one saying that rings true, year-in and year-out, is "defense wins football games." So, when a football team finishes the season fourth in total defense, yet misses the playoffs, you have to find a place to point your finger.
In this case, it's easy: The Washington offense finished 28th in points scored, just a few behind the Detroit Lions, who you may know, didn't win a single football game last year.
Defense can only do so much, and it just wasn't enough to overcome the absolute ineptitude of an offense that mastered the art of the three-and-out.
So, with the near-epic collapse in 2008 behind them, where are the 2009 Redskins headed?
As a fan, I'm hopeful. As a sportswriter, I'm cynical.
So, here we go.
Can the Defense Be Even Better This Year?
I believe it can and will be. People say Washington overpaid for Albert Haynesworth. Well, allow me to answer that with a question of my own. How valuable is a dominant pass rush?
Just ask the 2007 New York Giants—the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.
We've already established that the Redskins' defense was very good last year. Add a world-class pass rusher to the equation and we're talking about a potentially dominant defense. Believe me, there's a huge difference between very good and dominant.
If Haynesworth plays as advertised, defensive ends Andre Carter, and an aging, hopefully healthy Phillip Daniels, will benefit greatly.
The Redskins had only 24 sacks last year. That number could double with the addition of Haynesworth.
Brian Orakpo, the 'Skins first-round draft pick, is a scary talent who is billed as a DE/LB hybrid. The hope is that he will provide more play-making ability on an already stacked defense.
The linebacker corps is highlighted by London Fletcher and his play-making ability. He's 34-years old but flies around the football field like a rookie with something to prove.
Rocky McIntosh has been consistent, but hasn't lived up to the high expectations of the No. 35 overall pick from the 2006 draft. He could be geared for a breakout year.
With the departure of Marcus Washington, depth could be an issue at the LB position; thus why Orakpo may be undergoing a position change, but barring serious injuries, Fletcher and company should be solid.
The secondary now has a pass rush; that should make their job a whole lot easier, and turnovers should be a primary benefit. Fred Smoot, Carlos Rogers, and DeAngelo Hall make up the best triumvirate of cover cornerbacks in the NFL.
LaRon Landry is one of the hardest hitting safeties in the game and has improved steadily in his young career. Chris Horton was a seventh round steal last year. It is scary to think how good he might be with a full season under his belt.
Washington has a playoff-caliber defense, there is no argument there. They will keep this team in games in 2009 and may even win a few on their own; however, it takes a complete football team to make the playoffs in this league, and the Redskins need vast improvement on the other side of the ball.
Can the Offense Be Efficient and Opportunistic?
Well, if it isn't, there are two certainties: Jim Zorn will be out of a job and Jason Campbell will be hitting the free agent highway.
Washington has to improve immensely from last year's offensive debacle. The good news is they can't get much worse. The bad news is not much has changed.
Everybody knew the offensive line was a major concern that needed to be addressed in the off-season. The re-acquisition of Derrick Dockery was a step in the right direction, but failing to use any draft picks on the o-line was a bit of a head scratcher.
Pete Kendall and Jason Fabini are gone and retirement is not in the too distant future for Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen, and Casey Rabach.
Enter Stephon Heyer and Devin Clark. Both are young, talented guys with potential. They need to step up to steady the ship in 2009.
Jason Campbell is in dire need of some confidence and good protection could help. It didn't help, however, that Dan Snyder tried to replace him twice in the off-season, but he can't dwell on that.
This is Campbell's second year in Zorn's offensive system and if they can get on the same page, improvement is imminent.
Run the football. Get it to play-makers. It seems so simple.
Chris Cooley and Santana Moss need to touch the football early and often. Jason Campbell has to stretch the field so that defenses can't stack the box on the aging Clinton Portis. These aren't magnificent revelations.
Washington got receiver-happy in last year's draft, and it would be nice if either Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas could make an impact this year.
Although Thomas showed flashes of capability in 2008, my money is on Malcolm Kelly, assuming his knee is back to full strength.
At 6'4", 227 lbs., Kelly possesses the physicality that the Redskins haven't had in a wide receiver in quite some time. He also has tremendous hands and if he can be another weapon, Campbell's job will be a little easier.
The offense doesn't have to be special, it needs to be efficient and opportunistic. They have to move the football and take advantage of the field position that their defense will provide for them.
That's not asking too much, and if the offense can do their job, the defense will shoulder the load, and this will be a dangerous football team.
It doesn't help that the Redskins happen to play in the toughest division in the NFL. Playing the Eagles, Cowboys, and G-Men six times is brutal.
Washington has to take care of business at home. They did draw road games against Carolina, Atlanta, and San Diego, all daunting tasks; however, the out-of-conference schedule is relatively forgiving outside of that.
If this team plays up to its potential, they'll surprise a lot of people, just like they did in the first half of the season last year. The question is: Are the Redskins capable of finishing?
10 wins should be good enough to sneak into the playoffs, and, with admittedly lofty ambitions, that's where I have the 'Skins in 2009.
Anything short of that will earn Jim Zorn a free flight out of Washington, courtesy of Dan Snyder.