Is this the Worst Redskins Team of the Dan Snyder Era?

Washington Redskins' kicker Graham Gano (4) reacts after missing a 52-yard field goal during overtime against the Houston Texans at FedEx Field in Washington on September 19, 2010. The Texans defeated the Redskins 30-27.  UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

It’s too early to write off the last four games of this season as a team that is just playing out the stretch with no intent to improve, but in the first 12 games of this season, the 5-7 Washington Redskins have been every bit as bad as a Redskins team has ever been since Dan Snyder has owned the team.

In some ways, they are worse than any other Snyder-owned Redskins team.  And there have been some bad ones.

Part of this realization — with which my argument that this is in fact the worst Redskins team I can ever remember seeing — is that maybe things haven’t been so terrible in the last ten years.  Sure, expectations have been completely out of whack for more than a decade, but it’s not like any of the past 11 Redskins teams have re-defined what it means to be a terrible team.  The Redskins have never picked higher than fourth in the NFL draft in the last decade, which is where they selected last year.  They will not be picking in the top three this year either.  And chances are, they will probably win one of their final four remaining games, and end the season as one of, but not the worst, Snyder era Redskin teams.

But we don’t know that.  What we do know is that given all the available evidence, we can conclude that the Redskins have made the playoffs just twice in the last ten years.  A loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs will officially make it twice in the last 11 years.  The Redskins are just one loss away from not winning the division for the 11th consecutive year, a feat that makes Mike Shanahan’s plight (1 division title in his last 11 seasons as head coach — in the AFC West, mind you) seem fairly acceptable by comparison.  And of those 9 teams that failed to make the playoffs, there have been some bad teams.

None of those teams appear to be as bad as this team.

When we’re trying to determine which Snyder era team is the worst of the worst, we’re really talking about a team that “disappointed” because it won 8 games in its first year, then 8 games again in its second (which was not seen as a disappointment), then 7 games in 2002.  That seems like an incredibly mediocre team.  Then things got bad under Spurrier in 2003, winning just 5 games, then stayed bad a year later under Joe Gibbs at 6 wins.  After the most successful Snyder-era season in 2005, the Redskins were bad again in 2006 (5 wins).  Both of the 2007 and 2008 teams were above average, and combined for 19 wins.  Then there was the disaster last year (4 wins), and whatever you want to call this season (5 wins).  If you go strictly by record, the 2003, 2006, and 2009 teams are all worse than the current version, and the 2009 team is the worst of the bunch.  But if this were the case, you’d expect this team to compare favorably with those teams in a bunch of other ways, and it just simply does not.

There have been offenses far worse than the current group of Redskins led by Kyle Shanahan and Donovan McNabb.  The offense ranked in the bottom five of the league in DVOA in both 2001 and 2004.  Those were not bad Redskins teams, however.  They were poorly quarterbacked teams (Banks in 2001, Brunell in 2004), but they were well coached, played strong defense and strong special teams.  They won 8 games in 2001 and 6 games in 2004 without any contribution from the quarterbacks.  At best, it appears this team can win as many games as the 2004 team did (6), but will not exceed it’s win total.  My point is: you wouldn’t lump 2004 in with the disaster seasons above.  It was a bad year from a team that wasn’t expected to contend, nothing more.  From that foundation, the Redskins built the 2005 team.

Despite the line that the Redskins are where they are because they haven’t solved the franchise quarterback fallacy, and have played some real embarassing offense throughout the decade, none of that holds true upon further examination.  The only other below average offenses the Redskins have had in the Snyder-era are from 2002, 2003, 2009, and this season, 2010.  The offense in 2010 is a just a hair below the median offensive efficiency of all offenses owned and operated by Daniel Snyder, which puts it somewhere in between the offense that got Jim Zorn fired, and whatever Steve Spurrier was running earlier in this decade.  Spurrier’s best offense could run, but couldn’t throw the football.  Jim Zorn’s worst offense could throw, but couldn’t run the football.  They were near perfect equals of each other in DVOA efficiency.  The only other thing they have in common is that: they were better than the offense we’re seeing right now.  The biggest difference has been in the passing game, where Jason Campbell’s 20 TDs to 15 INTs were traded for Donovan McNabb’s 12 TDs for the same 15 INTs.

But one of the biggest reasons I think we know that the 2010 isn’t as good as the 2009 team was is because that offense — which has declined — is no longer the team’s biggest problem.  In the last four weeks, the Redskins defense has thrown itself into contention for the worst defense of the decade.  The four worst defenses of the last ten years would be (in no order): 2003, 2006, and 2010.  A George Edwards year, a Gregg Williams year, and a Jim Haslett year.

Fundamentally since 2003, the Redskins have always been good up on the line and able to stop the run.  Even in the disasterous 2006 defensive season, run defense was never a problem.  That was one of the worst passing defenses of all time, however, and that likely remains the worst defense of the Snyder-era Redskins.  The Redskins had talent in 2003, just no idea how to use it.  In both 2006 and 2010, the Redskins had limited talent, a reliance on bad players, and a poor pass defense.  What’s making it a real contest between 2006 and 2010 for the worst Redskins defense I’ve ever seen is the lack of fundamental run defense from the current group.  The pass defense appears to be improving and will not be reaching 2006 levels.  Stopping the run and tackling, however, are two things the Redskins have always been good at.  If they do not improve soon in those facets, the Redskins could be staring at the worst defense they’ve had in the last decade.

This defense is ranked last in yards, but probably isn’t one of the five worst defenses in football, which is likely the biggest difference between this group and the 2006 group.  They may very well end the season with the league’s worst run defense, but are unlike to sink to, for example, the level of pass defense the Dallas Cowboys display.  Back in 2006, that’s where they were at, mind you.  The 2006 defense remains the worst defense of the Dan Snyder-era, but the 2010 defense is a too-close second.

While this year, we’ve seen more creativity on special teams, as well as an improvement in both punt returns and kick returns with Brandon Banks back there.  We’ve also seen improved kickoff production with Graham Gano.  The punting and kicking games are still horrible, and add to bad outcomes for the Redskins offense on third down.  These problems could be avoided by going for it on all fourth downs, but the Redskins offense isn’t very deserving of an extra opportunity to pick up an additional down.  When you can’t kick, and you can’t punt, it’s tough to call your special teams units even average, even with the league’s best kickoff team and the improved return game.

So combining below average special teams with bad offense and very bad defense gets you a bad football team.  That’s obvious to all observers.  But the worst team we’ve seen in the last ten years?  What makes this team worse than the 2003, 2006, and 2009 messes?

The Redskins may have won fewer games in 2009 than any other year of the Snyder era, but if we can accept the offense not being worse than last year’s offense, I’ll admit that at the very least, that defense (18th in points, 10th in yards) was average.  I thought it was bad against the pass, but no worse than this current defense has been, and was much better at the run.  Hey, I criticized that unit for not being good enough.  For the investment made in it, “average” wasn’t good enough. And look, we invested nothing in our defense in transitioning it from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and we’ve suffered for the lack of investment.  There’s such a big gap between the run defense in 2009 and the run defense in 2010 that no amount of Brandon Banks can lead us to the conclusion that the 2010 team is better than the 2009 team.

So we can then conclude that the 2010 team is one of the three worst teams of the Snyder era.  It actually compares really terribly to the dreadful 2006 team though.  Not on defense, at least.  As bad as the run defense played against the Giants, the 2006 team would never have reached the points where stopping Brandon Jacobs would have had an effect on the game.  But Al Saunders’ first offense was his best, first for nine games with Mark Brunell, then for seven more with Jason Campbell. Yes, that team clutched it’s way out of a dreadful 3-13 finish with late wins over the Jaguars and Cowboys and Panthers, and is the team most similar to the 2010 team.  But #1) that was a much stronger special teams unit, and #2) that team was far stronger on offense, with strong QB play from Mark Brunell, and that career year from Ladell Betts.  As bad as that defense was, that was a better team than the 2010 team.

So then, the worst Redskins team of the Snyder era was either the 2003 Spurrier team, or the current mess of a team that the Redskins are currently putting out there.  One of those teams produced the 2nd worst defense of the era, the other the 3rd worst, both of which behind the 2006 team in terms of just raw, horrible pass defense.  Hard to say.  One team is 23rd in points against, the other was 24th.  That 2003 team really struggled to run the ball at times, but had success when Trung Canidate was hurt and Rock Cartwright was carrying the load.  This team has struggled to run the ball ever since Portis got hurt, since they won’t give the ball to Keiland Williams in key situations.  Advantage: 2003 team.  This 2010 team throws the ball better than that team did.  The receiver situation was similar: Darnarian McCants was Anthony Armstrong back then and Rod Gardner played the role of Joey Galloway, but Coles and Moss were having similar seasons.  This team has excellent receiving tight ends when it wants to use them.  Conversely, the fun ‘n gun didn’t use tight ends much, which was for the best because that team played Zeron Flemister and Robert Royal a lot.  There’s a clear passing advantage for the 2010 team and probably a small offensive advantage.

With a convincing special teams edge to John Hall, Chad Morton, and the other JetSkins, and a competent punt team led by Bryan Barker, there appears to be no clear edge between the 2003 team and the 2010 team in terms of which team was less competent.  These were the worst teams of the Snyder era: the worst Redskins teams that I have ever seen.  If we’re going to trust the process as the process according to Mike Shanahan, Bruce Allen, and company, I think it’s a legitimate question to look at the fact that this win now effort has produced results just as bad or worse than all of the win now efforts in the “fantasy football” Snyder era, and wonder: exactly when does this re-building begin?