The 2009 Saints Model will work for the Skins, but the Roles Will be Reversed

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 21: Kedric Golston #64 (L) of the Washington Redskins grabs hold of quartback Kurt Warner #13 (R) of the Arizona Cardinals in the third quarter at FedEx Field September 21, 2008 in Landover , Maryland.  Washington defeated Arizona, 24-17. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst /Getty Images)

The Redskins have spent most of this offseason dismissing the idea that they’re going to take a rebuilding year in the wake of a 4-12 finish in 2009.  The team’s leadership simply doesn’t see a need to waste this year because, ultimately, their plan is to uphold the status quo of the last eight or nine years of Redskins football, and to execute it a lot better and to earn their respect not though copying a small market strategy, but to throw their weight around like a large market franchise is supposed to.  In the future, the Redskins will be in on just as many big name free agents as they were in the past, but this offseason, we’ve established the hesitancy of the team to pay a second tier free agent like a top tier one.  This restraint is most welcome in Washington.

If you remember back to the 2009 offseason, the Redskins were very close to a deal with then Cowboys DE Chris Canty, with the price tag at somewhere between $7 and $8 million per year.  Then they unexpectedly agreed to terms with Haynesworth for the practical value of $12 million per season.  As we’re seeing today, there were obvious problems with the structure of the Haynesworth contract.  It wasn’t a particuarly uncommon Redskins-type contract: lots of guaranteed money, deferred over the first few years of the deal, incredibly front weighted from the players perspective, and incredibly back weighted from the perspective of “the books.”  The Redskins had avoided such problems by only investing in high character guys, and while I’m not one to assault Haynesworth’s character without knowing him, he’s certainly not a London Fletcher, a Marcus Washington, or a Phillip Daniels as a person.  Those are the players who have gotten front loaded deals from Joe Gibbs and company in the past, but as one Mr. Vinny Cerrato took the same contract strategy and applied it to players like DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth…well, you can see the downside of taking the risk at this week’s minicamp — or at least see the absence.

Well, the Canty-deal-that-wasn’t is exactly the kind of deal the Redskins (and other teams) should not be making.  Canty might have been worth $7 million a year to remain a Cowboy, but he’s certainly not going to be worth that much to the Giants, and wouldn’t have been to the Redskins.  Given the option, getting Haynesworth was by far the smarter use of financial resources.  If anything, we’re seeing the risk of entering the free agent market to improve your team: the Redskins got the on-field performance they paid for, as well as the very worst of the baggage they got when they invested in a self-centered player.  That’s really two of the three types of free agent contracts: bad contracts, high risk contracts, the other being short term bargain signings (4 years or less).  The Redskins took a risk on Fletcher (a 5 yr long deal in the face of age) and won, and took a risk on Haynesworth (4 years with 2 expensive non-guaranteed years) and have been burned thus far — in spite of performance.

Anyway, the Redskins are going to move forward without Haynesworth in the interim, because they more or less have no other choice.  So will Hog Heaven, at least in this manner: the team thinks they’ll be able to win without him, and I do like to talk about winning, so let’s see if the current Redskins group can win, you know, that Championship thing that I hear so much about every February.

A model for sustained excellence

Throw your money around, but do it wisely.  Draft well, and don’t waste picks on mid-tier veterans.  This is a work in progress.

A model for 2010 success

Recent super bowl champions such as the 2008 and 2005 Steelers, the 2006 Colts, and the 2004 and 2003 Patriots didn’t become champions overnight.  The 2001 Patriots and the 2007 Giants were plenty fortunate to get to the super bowl and win it before most of their talent matured.  Those teams had better talent bases the following year, but the 08 Giants failed to win a playoff game and the 02 Patriots failed to make the playoffs.  The Redskins really can’t address either of those models because one would have required better decisions over the last four years, and the other isn’t a plan so much as it is to take advantage of all fortunate breaks a team gets in a year (scheduling, playoff upsets, uncontested lower playoff seeds, tuck rules, Kordell Stewart, etc).  However, the last two NFC Champions have come out of humble July beginnings, really dominated for a good chunk of the year, and then made sure to play their best football in the postseason.  I’d throw the 06 Bears into the same category as a model that the Redskins, who have no prior history of sound decision making — but plenty of building blocks regardless — can adapt.

None of those teams went all the way to the super bowl without the help of both units.  The 06 Bears are remembered as a defense-only plus some special teams group, but they had one of the best running games in football that year.  Eli Manning went interception-less through the first three playoff games in January 2008.  The Cardinals defense embarassed Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme in consecutive postseason games.  The Saints D had to face Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning in their three playoff games.  They won them all, and really frustrated Manning and Warner (though neither went without their moments).

But clearly, the formula used by the three “surprise” (at least by preseason standards) NFC winners is to have a single unit that can go out and dominante even the best competition, and then to have another unit with a contributing element: one that isn’t an embarassment and can exploit matchups, but defers to the strength of the team in critical situations.  If that’s the model that the Redskins are going to copy this year, it’s not going to be the offense that is going to lead that charge.  It’s going to have to start on defense where the big money and touted draft picks are.

In another article, I will examine the likelyhood that the Shanahan offense can hold competent against even the best teams in the NFC, in a playoff situation.  The final section in today’s piece will look at the defense, and how dominant it will need to be to make a difference in the 2010 Redskins season.

The Sky is the Limit?

Former DC Greg Blache fancied his defense as a boring, unflashy, slow-and-steady-race-winning, complement to an elite offense that the Redskins simply never had, and certainly, upheld this standard until the last few games when his unit sunk well into the realm of “underachieving.”  Blache has done the same thing with his units back since his days calling the shots in Chicago: it’s a group that would have done great paired with a 40 point, explosive offense, and could have won a whole bunch of 35-21 games with Drew Brees or Philip Rivers doing Jason Campbell’s job, and Norv Turner or Sean Payton doing Jim Zorn’s (along with a bunch of other offensive personnel moves the team didn’t make).  This, of course, wasn’t the reality of the situation: the Redskins hadn’t spent a first round draft pick on an offensive lineman, wide receiver, tight end, or running back since Chris Samuels, and it’s acquisitions of former first rounders at those positions were clearly aging prior to even the 2009 offseason.

The Redskins put all of their blue chippers on defense ever since Joe Gibbs took the head coaching job in 2004.  That’s: Sean Taylor, Carlos Rogers, Rocky McIntosh, LaRon Landry, and Brian Orakpo; replacing guys like LaVar Arrington, and Champ Bailey.  It’s pretty unreasonable to expect a unit to go out there and be the best at it’s craft — the very best units find success in the most unexpected places — but to expect the Redskins defense to do more than it has over the last two years given the talent it thinks it has is just being a fan with winning standards.

So with Blache retired, it falls to Jim Haslett to create a unique defense that can really cause all sorts of problems for not just the poorly coached offenses, but the kind of offenses they might see in a postseason.  To really get the kind of defense that just dominated teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland to come rise to the occasion against Indianapolis, Minnesota, and Green Bay.  That’s the kind of flying around 3-4 unit that will really take the Redskins deep into the playoffs, one that can be among the best 2 or 3 units in the game.  But, for some perspective, how much better than the average were the units that led recent teams to the George Halas trophy for winning the NFC?

  • According to DVOA, the Bears defense and the Saints offense both ranked second in the NFL those respective NFC-winning years, and neither trailed the team that led those categories by an amount of significance.
  • More importantly, both flat out led their conferences in those categories of dominance.  The Saints were further out in front of the field than the Bears were, but the Bears had no equals in the NFC where as the Saints offense could have been changed to the Dallas offense or the Green Bay offense and still would have won the championship.
  • Dallas and Green Bay, of course, got absolutely torched on defense in their elimination games.  The Saints lost a few battles on that side of the ball, but won every war.
  • Kurt Warner tore apart all defenses in 2008, getting little meaningful contribution from his running game which made the Cards’ offense look less dangerous than it really was.  The Cards had the best aerial attack in every playoff matchup they had that season.  You can contrast that with 2009, when the Cardinals offense trailed both Green Bay and New Orleans in passing effieciency.

The formula then, for winning with a single, dominant unit, appears to be two parts:

  1. Go through the regular season and really dominante your conference (and by extension, all opponents) on defense, and;
  2. Either drive through a conference playoff field that lacks compare to your unit’s dominance, or be fortunate enough to not have to play a team that has a comparably dominant unit.

It’s hard to say whether things would have been different for the Saints if Dallas or Green Bay had come to town, or different for the Cardinals if they had to face the Giants instead of the Eagles, or the Bears if they had to match up against the Eagles instead of the Saints.  History does seem to feel that they were fortuante to not have to find out.  Of course, I could probably spin that argument to fit my case no matter who wins the NFC this year, so you’re going to have to take me with a grain of salt.

The expectations for the Redskins defense needs to be that they will challenge both of Dallas’ top-looking units for the mark of the conference’s best category, will challege the offense of the Giants in not one, but both matchups, and will have the fortune of missing either the Saints, or the Falcons, or the Packers in the postseason, should those units continue to produce as advertised.  Because outsome of some fun passing attacks, the real competition for the Redskins lies within the division, at the three teams they currently look up at, and have the good fortune of seeing twice, each.  For a unit that went very much missing against the Cowboys at home, and the Eagles at home, and the Giants…well, pretty much always, a shutout or two will go a long way towards showing that yes, the Redskins defense is an elite unit on par with those that win super bowls, and while I’m afraid to place such high expectations on this group, I do feel good about the level they can achieve coming off a disappointing year in 2009.

Donovan McNabb and Labor Uncertainty

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Redskins

One of the blemishes on this first offseason for the new Redskins’ front office, in my opinion, was that they got the worse end of the Donovan McNabb trade.  Context is everything.  If neither Kevin Kolb or Jason Campbell had existed, and for sake of argument, the trade was occuring between the Eagles and the Redskins in a vacuum, a second round pick is not a hefty price to pay for the back end of a player like Donovan McNabb’s career.  There should be a legitimate concern that the receipiant in the trade only receives maybe a year or two of quality play in return (if that), but McNabb is a good enough quarterback where even one year at his expected level of play can justify a second round pick.  In fact, McNabb’s $12 million figure for this season is well below the market rate for a quarterback of his stature.

The problems with the trade come in when you consider who Kevin Kolb and Jason Campbell are in the NFL hierarchy of quarterbacks.  Bascially, the Eagles had an internal problem of holding two quarterbacks on the roster who they wanted to start next year, and couldn’t afford to outright release McNabb to get to Kolb.  They needed to find a trade partner, and the Redskins assisted the Eagles out of their mini-mess, offering in return a valuable draft choice (now Eagles S Nate Allen).  What the Redskins got in return looks good in a vaccuum, but makes little sense when you consider what they had before.  McNabb’s $12 million contract is team friendly, but not moreso than Campbell’s $3 million.  McNabb has quality years left, but certainly fewer left than Campbell.  McNabb has been to pro bowls, but neither McNabb nor Campbell is particularly likely to make it to one in the future.

To take the Eagles problems off their hands, you’d expect a big upgrade in terms of on field play, but truth be told, you can probably expect more immediate impact out of a high second round pick in terms of wins than this QB upgrade will get you.  The Eagles take a big risk by moving forward with an unproven Kolb, but they know it’s a risk that’s likely to pay off, just as deep down, Redskins fans realize that somehow, someway, the McNabb trade has all the makings of an awful move.  In the past, I’ve compared it to the Jason Taylor trade, but while I think the outcomes will be similar, the fundamental error here is not a repeat of the past.  The Redskins are in uncharted waters after this trade.  Thing is, with McNabb’s career getting to a breaking point — either his production explodes in Washington and drives up his legacy consistent to that of a hall of famer, or he plays fewer than 20 games with the Redskins and kind of drifts off into a forgotton land of very good quarterbacks who never did bring home the title, and simply were never dominant enough to be in the Hall of Fame.  Honestly, that’s not a bad point to take a risk on a player with a great legacy.  Better than doing it five years from now.  Problem is, at the price of the trade, it’s hard to envision a winning scenario.

One scenario under which a McNabb acquisition might have made sense is if the Redskins hadn’t won four games with a middling passing game and putrid running game, but rather, couldn’t make plays through the air or on the ground en route to a 2-14 season.  It’s possible, especally if the Redskins had lost to the Rams, that the team (if they had legitimately struggled at quarterback last year) would have been in position to take Sam Bradford with the 1st overall pick.  It’s just another example of why I don’t think McNabb made/makes sense for the Redskins, when one of the only reasons that the Redskins didn’t get the first overall pick with their luck/inept coaching last year was competent veteran QB play.

All of that is water under the bridge.  The Redskins found a taker for Campbell in Oakland, and received a future pick that — while having no present value — will help offset some of the future imbalance of this McNabb deal over time.  I felt it necessary to preface the following discussion about McNabb and how his legacy in Washington may depend more on an agreement between the NFL owners and the Players Association, than on anything McNabb or Mike Shanahan can do.  Right now, the Redskins are between a rock and a hard place in terms of their ability to win under Shanahan, and while I think I’ve shown pretty conclusively that this trade doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Redskins, I also believe that the Redskins might have had their hand forced by external factors that they cannot control.

In 2010, the Redskins will compete against perhaps the toughest schedule they’ve ever had in the NFC East.  While there have been years, (consecutive years actually in 2007-2008) where no team in the division finished with double digits in the losses column, this will be perhaps the first year that both the Eagles and the Cowboys will be top five teams in the NFL going into the season.  Meanwhile the Giants have a chance to be a top ten team, and the Redskins should be a top half team.  There’s a lot of divisions that the Skins could compete and win this year, but the NFC East likely is not one of them.  There are plenty of wild cards available for NFC East teams to grab, as always, so I’m not predicting that the Redskins won’t make the postseason, but if they do, it will not be as a favorite to advance.

Following the 2010 season, the Collective Bargaining Agreement ends.  There is a very high probability that there will not be football in 2011.  Faced with the reality of the situation, the Redskins decision makers knew, going in, that they had very little time to make a play at winning the super bowl right away.  It’s probably a correct assumption that keeping Jason Campbell on board for this upcoming season doesn’t give the team a good enough chance of winning under the current CBA, so they took a risk, and made a change.  If I was going to go balls out like that in an attempt to win now, I think it would make more sense to take a chance on an unknown quantity than to go with McNabb, but perhaps there is an unknown quantity to the McNabb that the Redskins are planning to utilize.  Like I stated, I have an expectation for how this will end, but the Redskins still are in uncharted waters, and just because there is no apparent plan doesn’t mean one is absent.

I do wonder what the Redskins’ plan for the 2012 season is.  All we know about the NFL three years down the road is that there might have been two seasons played between now and then, or just one.  On November 25, 2012, McNabb will turn 36.  It’s hard to see him as a quality quarterback at that point.  Pro football reference offers this list of statstical comparables for his career through 11 years:

Career Mark Brunell, Steve McNair, Terry Bradshaw*, Jim Kelly*, Troy Aikman*, Boomer Esiason, Roger Staubach*, Drew Bledsoe, Ken Stabler, Bob Griese*

Brunell was still effective at that age, but there was little downfield component to the Redskins offense at that point.  McNair (RIP) is a much better comparable, and his last hurrah came right around McNabb’s current age.  If the Redskins had acquired McNair in 2006, he wouldn’t have made it through the 2010 season.  Bradshaw was still effective around his retirement, which occured consistent with the McNair timeline.  Jim Kelly, like Bradshaw and unlike McNabb didn’t have to change teams at the end of his career, but he was able to play like an average NFL QB past his 33rd birthday for about three years.  Aikman’s injury profile fits in next to McNabb’s and he was effective through his age 33 season, but then ineffective at 34 when Lavar Arrington drilled him to end his career.  Boomer Esiason had some really ineffective years at the end of his career, which lasted a lot longer the other McNabb comparables, but he won 8 games and made the pro bowl in his first year after leaving Cincinnati.  Staubach was awesome in his mid to late thirties.  Bledsoe had a league average year as Cowboys QB in 2005, then was done.  Stabler was never good after leaving Oakland.  Griese made it through 33 at the top of his game, then dropped off.

McNabb’s comparables have scattered league average performances after their 33rd birthdays, but most of them chose to retire before getting up into their mid thirties, oftentimes due to injuries.  I’d feel a lot better about McNabb’s chances of playing to 2012 and beyond if not for his injury history and the upcoming labor dispute.

Realistically, I think the Redskins are looking to squeeze one year plus out of McNabb, but whether or not this trade makes sense for the future certainly seems to hinge on whether anyone at all plays football in 2011.  If McNabb misses more games in 2010, and things don’t appear to be looking up, it’s certainly a lot to ask a quarterback who has accomplished as much as he has to hang around through the 2011 non-season as QB of this team waiting to try to win as a 35-36 year old quarterback on the other side.  Put simply, not many quarterbacks who weren’t durable in their early thirties played enough to win in their mid to late thirties.

What does this all mean?  Well, it appears from a quarterbacking standpoint, the future is now for the Redskins.  Pending an extension that seems like a formality, McNabb is the QB of this team for the next two seasons.  Whether the NFL even plays that second season is out of everyone’s control, and whether McNabb is still in the NFL at age 35 in 2012 is his choice alone, and depends heavily on how well the Redskins do this season, and how healthy he is at the end of the season.  McNabb comparables seem to confirm that it is very likely that he will hit the ground running as a Redskin, and if nothing else, should be a constant that allows the coaching staff to evaluate it’s young talent on offense.  If the NFL plays it’s 2011 season, McNabb is almost certain to be the Week 1 starter for the Redskins.  If history suggests anything, it’s that the window to win might already be closed at that point.

Certainly, the Week 1 game THIS year will have extra meaning when Dallas comes to town.  The Redskins are going all in gambling that they will win it, and carry that momentum through the rest of it’s early schedule, and be the talk of the NFL at midseason again.  After all, the reputations of a bunch of really high profile people depend on the success of this plan.