Passing Offense: Stay the Course, Start from Scratch, or Plan C?

A cliche I’ve cited in this space before is that “points come out of the passing game.”

Passing off cliches as analysis is often problematic and unbecoming of an analysis section like that at Hog Heaven.  But in this case, I’m citing the cliche as a counter argument to value metrics that suggest that the Redskins passing offense has been at or near the average for the last five seasons.  That’s four different playcallers for three different quarterbacks and under two head coaches, each player, playcaller, and head coach finishing “in the black” in terms of passing game value.

But the Redskins really do not score.  It was under Al Saunders where their point total best matched their yardage production, but even then, Saunders’ system was dependant on the running game to generate those points. The question about point production should be answered.  And so, if points do in fact come out of the passing game, is an offense that underacheives it’s yardage production in points in need of an upgrade in the passing game?

The argument is a bit simplistic for my tastes.  The Redskins do not need an upgrade in the passing game anymore than they need one in the running game, or in defending the pass.  However, there’s an element here of talent: the Redskins might not be getting everything out of their talent in the pass defense, and they might not be getting what they can out of the running game.  It’s hard to argue though, that with all the focus on it in the last three years, that there’s anything more to squeeze out of the talent in the Redskins passing game then they’ve already gotten.

And additionally, maybe there’s something to the fact that the Redskins can’t seem to score.  The one constant over the last two years for the Redskins has been an absence of big plays, especially against above average defenses.  Red zone play was a concern in 2008, but in 2009 the Redskins changed up the playcaller and scored in the red zone at an above league average rate.  The reasons the Redskins consistently fail to score points is because they struggled to get into the red zone in 2009, and they have been notoriously bad at scoring from 30+ yards away since 2007.  This is, at the very least, as much the fault of the passing attack as the running attack, and it’s probably much more a lack of offensive punch than anything.  The Redskins lack big play offensive players.  And without those big plays, the Redskins make scoring points a lot harder than it should be–and they make it look a lot worse than it actually is (which, yeah, is already harder than it should be).

So the question becomes: how can the Redskins improve their passing game?  To do this, they have to find a way to add an explosive player to the lineup, and they have to do it without losing some of their more dependable players, or disrupting the delicate balance that has kept the Redskins competitve beyond the point at which they probably should have been.

In my opinion, the worst solution is also the most popular: to start over from scratch.  When you consider that the Redskins have no above average players except for a pair of tight ends and possibly a quarterback, starting over seems like it wouldn’t be too much work.  The problem is, it’s not realistic.  There are players who were drafted within the last two years who are still incredibly cheap and worth at least giving a shot in this offense before making a decision, as well as players (like Derrick Dockery) who have many cheap years of contract remaining.  A complete rebuild would involve a dumping of those veterans.  The other big point here is that prior to the 2006 CBA negotiation, there was a legitimate cap doomsday scenario where the Redskins would have to start over from scratch with the back half of the roster: 20 or more rookies.  Essentially, this is the alternative to building on what the Redskins have on the roster already: free agents, draft picks, and undrafted free agents.

A much better solution is to try to turnover all the replacement level players and sub-replacement fodder as quickly as possible.  This involves ousting the Levi Joneses, Casey Rabachs, Will Montgomerys, Mike Williams, on the offensive line while moving Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, and making those tough decisions at the running back position that opens up some roster spots to bring in some younger talents.  The improvement, by this method, should be instataneously visable, but it comes with it’s own set of problems: good teams are build around great players and players who complement those great players.  But this method says nothing about adding actual talent to the passing game, rather, it centers around getting rid of the non-contributors.  This solution will not get you where you want your offense to be.  The Chargers, the Colts, the Patriots: those teams did not get where they are by simply smoothing over the bumps and holes on their offense and hoping for the best.  They got where they are by pairing great players with great players and then filling out the rest of the team with contributors and backing up the contributors with younger contributors.

The only constant that Mike Shanahan ever had in terms of greatness on his roster was a consistently strong offensive line: Matt Lepsis, Tom Nalen, Dan Neil…then Ryan Harris, Chris Kuper, and Ryan Clady.  The Broncos won with a back-end of career John Elway, and a very young, mistake-prone Jay Cutler.  Shanahan won with Jake Plummer, and he won with Brian Griese.  The offensive line was the constant, and the running back play was the varient.  Some backs produced top rushing units: Mike Anderson, Terrell Davis, and Clinton Portis.  Others were merely the best guys for the job in a given year: Olandis Gary and Tatum Bell fall in this category.  Rod Smith was the best receiver that Shanahan ever coached, with Ed McCaffrey as a close second.

To improve the passing game and to score points, the Redskins need to add a quality NFL player to the lineup at a few different levels.  The “prospects” on the offensive end of the roster are limited to three guys: interior lineman Edwin Williams and Chad Rinehart, and WR Marko Mitchell.  Here’s my plan: a controlled, structured rebuild.  Instead of tearing down the parts of the passing game that were a positive under Jim Zorn, which is that the Redskins passing game was highly efficient at generating yards after the catch, the Redskins should be focused on adding a quality route runner to the receiver rotation who can replace the big play ability of Santana Moss while offering the ability to stay healthy for a whole season.  With this player the Redskins should focus on acquiring either one or two lineman who can develop into near-pro bowl level players by their second season (for a first round pick) or third season (for a second round pick).  Keep the players who have been good after the catch: Cooley, Fred Davis, Devin Thomas, maybe even Ladell Betts, and add a big play guy, as well as a tackle who can help buy the time it takes to generate a big play.

Even with regard to the passing game, it appears that the quarterback of the Washington Redskins will not be a huge determinant of the offensive efficiency this team will feature in this upcoming season.  When the team does choose to address the quarterback position, it should be mindful that the selection is being made because, eventually, Mike Shanahan’s offense is going to be run through a veteran quarterback.  What the team has to determine is whether the right guy is available in this draft as opposed to next years draft or the 2012 draft.  If it’s determined that a big name player like Sam Bradford or Colt McCoy is the guy to lead the Redskins offense into the future, there is a benefit to adding the player now: he’s not going to be new to the system when he is needed under center.  There’s also growing suspicion that if the Redskins make it through the first round without taking a QB, they will be waiting until the fourth or fifth round to draft a developmental prospect.  This suggets that the Redskins aren’t enamored with any of the guys who figure to be taken in the top two rounds, but would still be willing to pull the trigger if the value is right.

A restructured rebuild is tough to pull off in one season.  Basically, to have a great offense in 2010, the Redskins will require a lot of luck, by which I mean they would have to get a contribution from some of those late round and UDFA Cerrato pickups who become some of the more productive players in Shanahan’s system.  This would be deemed “luck” over “good drafting” because for ths system to change so early into a player’s career usually means that a player is starting over fresh.  It would be unexpected to get significant contributon from either Rinehart or Edwin Williams this year, although Marko Mitchell figures to be in the wide receiver rotation.

But my plan is a lot easier to execute if the new team leadership is patient with the younger players of the prior regeme.  It’s possible that all Jason Campbell, Devin Thomas, and Malcolm Kelly are merely just average players who just serve to keep seats warm until their contracts expire and then younger prospects take over for them.  But it also makes it much easier to address needs such as rebuilding the offensive line into a strength if the team is patient with letting these guys play out their contracts.  The key is to not overreact in a spike in the production of average players that occurs due to unit-wide improvement.  The other key is to not block your prospects.  This is how teams get “lucky” in the late rounds with talent.  If there’s a role in the offense for a draft pick to play, you’re giving your draft class a lot more chances to succeed than the team that is trying to force these late round players into special teams roles.

It’s the “Plan C” of team building.  Staying the course wouldn’t be a terrible thing, but it would require investments in the running game and pass defense to exceed expectations.  Tearing it all down now could put the Redskins in a situation similar to Oakland or Buffalo.  But a structured rebuild would allow the unit to make small strides based on where they already are, without having to worry about being a special team by November.  And the patience shown, I believe, would not interfere with the aggression necessary to create a top level Redskins offense over the next season or two.

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