Redskins Season Preview: Hope Abounds in Ashburn
RGIII and stout defense may mean big things for the 'Skins this season.
There's something magical about the beginning of the NFL season. With a league built on parity, exciting offseason maneuvers by many teams via trades, free agency and the draft, it's a time of year when fans of even the lowliest NFL franchises can dream big and convince themselves — if only for a few weeks — that this could in fact be THEIR YEAR.
The Washington Redskins open the 2012 season on Sunday at 1 p.m. against the vaunted offensive attack of the New Orleans Saints. Like it or not, the Redskins have fallen into the ranks of the aforementioned lowliest NFL franchises. This is a fact that yours truly, a self-professed homer for the Redskins, has had to accept in the face of mounting evidence that confirms the team has been bad for, well, a really long time.
Since 1993, the 'Skins have made the playoffs just three times, with a meager four winning seasons during that span. During the past three seasons, the team won a grand total of 15 games. By comparison, the Green Bay Packers won 15 regular season games last year alone.
Add to those dismal statistics the epic and punch-line inducing failures of Redskins player acquisitions such as Albert Haynesworth, Adam Archuleta, Deion Sanders, Dana Stubblefield and Jeff George, combined with the cringe-worthy coaching experiments of Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn, the Redskins have spent most of the last two decades as a team capable of both startling ineptitude and jaw-dropping hilarity.
Despite all of this, Redskins fans finally have reason for hope, and not just this season, but for many to come. In the interest of full disclosure, I predicted a Redskins playoff run last year, as well as a Pro Bowl appearance by a former starting quarterback whose name rhymes with Tex Postman. But, even with those, eh, misses, a few of my predictions did come true (primarily with the play of a vastly improved defense), so add to that the mercurial talent of Robert Griffin III an upgraded receiving corps and another crop of solid draft picks, and you've got the recipe for a team that could be in the running for a playoff spot this year, and play at a championship level within the next three years.
RGIII as Good as Advertised
If the NFL draft were a game of No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, then the Redskins went all in and more when they made the bold trade with the St. Louis Rams to nab RGIII. Sitting with the sixth overall pick, and aware that there was no chance the Heisman trophy-winning quarterback from Baylor would still be available, the Redskins traded away this year’s top pick and a second rounder, as well as their first round draft picks for the next two years to obtain the Rams’ second overall and pick Griffin.
The trade the Redskins made is unprecedented in NFL history. If RGIII is a bust, it will be considered the worst trade for a draft pick in NFL history. But early returns indicate the quarterback has the potential to be a star, and at a minimum won't fall completely flat on his face.
Throughout the preseason, the rookie quarterback has been poised on and off the field. No debilitating character flaws have yet emerged, such as those that sunk the careers of fellow overhyped rookie QBs Jamarcus Russel ("purple drank") or Ryan Leaf (jerk). His preseason play was solid. Leading a generally vanilla offense, RGIII showed he had a command of the offense and the ability to make throws. He seemed to have solid chemistry with the Redskins’ newly acquired wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. While they may not be household names, the two show the Redskins new preference for younger free agents with potential, rather than older players with big time names and contracts. Combined with returning receivers Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson, as well as highly talented tight end Fred Davis, the rookie quarterback has a decent crew of pass catchers to target this season.
Perhaps most intriguing for football fans in general is that RGIII didn't run the ball during the preseason. In college, he displayed his world-class speed by rushing for nearly 2,200 yards and 32 touchdowns as a quarterback. The threat alone of RGIII displaying his Olympic-caliber speed on the football field will keep opposing defensive coordinators up late at night. Of course he's a rookie quarterback and of course he's going to make mistakes, but the Washington area has not seen the arrival of any player in any sport as potentially exciting as RGIII since the Redskins drafted Sammy Baugh (yeah, that was in 1937).
Front 7 Could be Elite D
Last season gave Redskins fans a preview of what defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense can do if outfitted with the right players. The team finished ranked 13th overall in the league in yards per game allowed. While that statistic alone is not overwhelming, it was a vast improvement from the squad's performance last year, when the defense ranked second to last in the NFL.
Most importantly, the defense now has the type of disruptive players up front that can bring the heat against opposing quarterbacks, resulting in more sacks and turnovers, the key to any defense's success in the modern pass-happy NFL. Young stud defensive ends/outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan teamed with fireplug nose tackle Barry Cofield and fellow linemen Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker to help the unit finish tied for 10th in the league in quarterback sacks. With inside linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley providing run support, and the return of "rookie" linemen Jarvis Jenkins — a preseason star last year before a torn ACL sidelined him for the year — the Redskins will be a formidable force up front on defense, which should allay concerns about two new starters at safety in the secondary.
Hold the Line!
The Redskins’ biggest potential weakness remains the offensive line, a unit that was neglected for years under the regime of former General Manager Vinny Cerrato. Despite solidifying the left tackle position by drafting Trent Williams two years ago, the line remains a hodgepodge of castaways from other NFL franchises, combined with younger players drafted by head coach Mike Shanahan that he hopes may one day become stars. But for now, the unit remains unproven at best, and a liability at worst.
In addition to Williams, the Redskins will trot out center Will Montgomery, guards Chris Chester and Kory Lichtensteiger, and right tackle Tyler Polumbus for the first game of the season. For the most part, the Redskins picked up these players after they were cut by other teams, or as value-based free agent signings. In name and experience alone, these players are not drawing comparisons to the vaunted "Hogs" offensive lines of the Redskins’ championship teams in the 1980s.
But the Redskins novel offensive approach —which favors quick and agile offensive linemen rather than the usual plodding behemoths that man the trenches for other teams — can make it hard to judge an offensive linemen's performance on another team as a measuring stick for how he'll play with the Redskins. Take Lichtensteiger for example. Originally drafted by Shanahan when he coached the Denver Broncos, the guard was cut by both the Broncos (post-Shanahan) and the Vikings before being picked up by the Redskins. Since that time, he's been arguably the team's best interior lineman.
The unit clearly still lacks depth and experience, but may have enough playmakers to make the Shanahan system work and protect the prized rookie quarterback.
The Redskins have enough talent, especially on defense, to hang with any team in the NFC East. Offensively they still lack a proven home run threat at wide receiver or running back, but RGIII may provide enough of a threat himself to open up room for other players. If Griffin can stay healthy, and if the offensive line and defensive lines are not decimated by injuries, the Redskins can flirt with a playoff birth with a 9-7 record. The team is still a couple of years and playmakers away from contending with the NFL's elite, so any playoff run will be short ... for now.
RGIII will beat Andrew Luck for offensive rookie of the year. Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and London Fletcher will represent the team in the Pro Bowl. If you like fantasy football, the Redskins may not have any superstars, but players like Garcon, Davis, Griffin and whoever is starting at running back (Alfred Morris anyone?) should be on your roster.