A tale of two teams: How the 2012 NFL Season will shape the future of the Redskins

In which the author looks at two very different futures for the Washington Redskins, one at a time.  

A quick note: this piece is meant to be a bit tongue in cheek.  The crystal ball would obviously state that the future of the Washington Redskins lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  The Redskins have never picked higher than they just did for RG3 at any point in the common era draft.  They have never finished with the worst record in football.  And yet, it’s been 21 years since the Redskins last won the super bowl and just as long since they last won more than 10 games in a season.  The total spread of the Redskins’ successes and failures — the reason for our obsession — usually means the difference between 4 and 10 wins in any given season.

Lessons learned the hard way

“When will the Redskins learn that trading away future draft picks for ‘impact’ players is a bad strategy?” reads the headline on Redskins Hog Heaven.  The date is January 20, 2013.

In the very elementary stages of my preparation for another NFL draft — the 2013 NFL combine still a month away — I lament the Redskins missing the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, the fourth straight finish with a losing record, and aim to put the bow on a three year castastrophic failure of a period of “leadership” by the ousted Mike Shanahan.  The culmination of three bad football teams coming in a 2012 season where Redskin opponents found it too easy to score, and the Redskins offense under Robert Griffin III simply never looked anything like it was promised.

Worst of all, the Redskins put the entire league on notice in the preseason by lighting up the scoreboard — other team’s second teamers, that is.  The season began with so much promise, but the problems began at the quarterback position very early on, where Robert Griffin III was outplayed by fellow rookies Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck, and barely finished the year with better numbers than Brandon Weeden, who lost his job to veteran Seneca Wallace at Thanksgiving.  Griffin showed his toughness and mettle to hang in there for 16 straight weeks, but the product on the field was so inconsistent that you’d think the Redskins would have been better off with him hurt.  Sticking with his man to the bitter end, Mike Shanahan refused to make a quarterback change and invite the controversy of giving Rex Grossman or Kirk Cousins first team practice reps.  

The hope was that Robert Griffin would get better throughout the season, and while it’s more than possible that he did come out a better player in the end, you wouldn’t be able to tell it by the results on the field.  Griffin managed a meager 67.4 QB rating in the month of November, finishing with a 75.1 mark for the season.  Although it’s worth pointing out that such a figure is one the young quarterback can build on, he’s going to be learning a new offense in 2013, and essentially will be asked to repeat his rookie year.  The good news, of course, is that Griffin will be just 23 in February.

The Redskins receiver situation enters the offseason as muddled as ever.   I suppose you have to start with Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL with 15 dropped passes in 2012, matching the number on the back of his jersey.  On a rate (snap-by-snap) basis, Garcon had arguably his best professional season, averaging better than 15.0 YPR and finishing at the top of the league in yards after catch.  But Garcon’s 550 yards and 3 touchdowns seem more like a bad Antwaan Randle El season, and it appears he lost the faith of his young quarterback.  Leonard Hankerson was lost for the season in the third week, and his career is at a crossroads after ending the season on IR in both of his first two pro campaigns.  Hankerson has two different 100 yard games in just five career starts, but what good is he to the Redskins if he can’t stay healthy? Ditto for Josh Morgan, who appeared in just 7 games after suffering a setback in his hamstring after hurting it in the third preseason game.  Santana Moss, who replaced Garcon in the lineup late in the year, is not expected to be retained.

None of that really matters because the Redskins were forced to fire defensive coordinator Jim Haslett following a three game stretch in the division where his unit yielded a total of 104 points.  The culprit was the pass defense.  Despite Brian Orakpo’s career high in sacks and spike in overall sack rate, the Redskins didn’t get the expected production from either London Fletcher or Ryan Kerrigan on the other side.  Kerrigan would not admit to being hurt when pressed, but how else do we explain a 3.5 sack season from a player who promised a lot more in 2011?  Overall, it’s hard to blame Haslett’s coaching outright: this unit simply had too many holes in the back seven and needed a scapegoat to take the fall.  The Redskins haven’t been able to cover the pass since they last made the playoffs, and I’m not sure why we expected more from this team.

After Mike Shanahan’s December resignation, the Redskins made the rather noncontroversial decision to terminate the contract of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

The real issues for the Redskins now feel the same as they’ve always been.  The organzation claims that behind GM Bruce Allen and a tenured front office, it has top-down leadership.  But the questions on whether or not the Redskins are prepared to hire a personnel czar under Allen remain unanswered, and the status of that is likely going to remain unaddressed until after the 2013 NFL Draft.  The Redskins enter 2013 with an incomplete personnel department, and down their first round pick for each of the next two drafts, with no chance of receiving any compensatory help at the league meetings.

The Redskins have a ton of holes in the roster.  They hope that Griffin can provide much needed stability at the quarterback position, and build on his rookie campaign.  Beyond the quarterback position, and the quiet improvement shown in the offensive line after some major struggles early in the season, the Redskins don’t really have an area of strength on their roster.  With Orakpo heading into the final year of his contract, and the team unable to agree on a long term deal with impending free-agent Fred Davis, even two long-term positions of strength pose question marks for the future.

All of this is frivelous if the Redskins can get a big return on their investment in Griffin in 2013, but had they gotten that return in 2012, the future would not seem quite as uncertain.

A far too early look ahead to next year’s team

Again, the date is January 20, the morning of the NFC Championship game between the third seeded Washington Redskins and the top seeded Green Bay Packers at Lambeau field.  After previewing the big game, I couldn’t help but to look ahead to how much better next year’s team could potentially be.

The number one reason the Redskins are playing for the NFC Championship is the quarterback.  Robert Griffin set pretty much every franchise passing record in the book as a rookie — so, okay, yeah…the bar really wasn’t all that high — but it was a remarkable rookie year for Griffin and he is widely expect to take home the rookie of the year award in a couple of weeks, hopefully one to go with his Super Bowl trophy.

We were quick to criticize and now it must be said: Mike Shanahan got it right this time at the quarterback position, and now it would appear he’s closer to getting an extension than he is to forced retirement.  He got it right with the Roy Helu pick in the fourth round, and the 14 game starter from 2012 (1 week inactive – one week opening in ‘empty’ personnel) put up an excellent season with 1,500+ yards from scrimmage.  He was right about Josh Morgan, and about Leonard Hankerson.  Not only were there enough reps to go around for both receivers, but Hankerson narrowly broke 1,000 yards in the seasons final week, becoming the only Redskins receiver in the last decade to do that other than Santana Moss.  Moss and Garcon ended up splitting reps more evenly than each contract would have suggested, but both had rather successful seasons.  Garcon scored four different times from more than 35 yards out, and Moss remained the Redskins best receiver in the red zone, as the two combined for 12 receiving TDs.  Although the Redskins receiving corps is still somewhat incomplete, it won’t be hard to finish now.  Especially not after the five year, $27 million dollar extension the Redskins gave Fred Davis in training camp.

The most improved offensive player and lynchpin on the offensive line was Trent Williams, who turned in the best season ever by a Redskins LT, allowing just one sack (Minnesota’s Jared Allen, who Robert Griffin rolled right into on third and long).  Behind such a performance, the Redskins enter 2013 with one outstanding contractual issue on the offensive line (LG Kory Lichtensteiger, an unrestricted free agent who is expected to return).  It’s hard to say enough about the job that rookie C Josh LeRibeus did in his first NFL season.  Shanahan remains adamant that LeRibeus will eventually take Chris Chester’s place as the team’s right guard, but the team is no longer in a rush to move him from Center.  Right Tackle Jammal Brown is not expected to be retained, despite having his best season as a Redskin.  He is a game time decision against Green Bay, after missing the first two playoff games with a foot sprain.

The Redskins defense has been better than anyone could have imagined.  Although this is hardly the most talented version of the defense to date, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan have terrorized quarterbacks all season from all sorts of different angles.  They’ve been so hard to find, that Kerrigan doesn’t always even play on third down.  Very often, the Redskins will bring in their sub package and turn just about anyone loose: S Tanard Jackson, LBs Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson, even slot corner Richard Crawford, a rookie, has a pair of hard earned (and brutally delivered) sacks.  Kerrigan and Orakpo have both improved immesely against the run, which helps out the captain London Fletcher.  Fletcher goes to the pro bowl again this year, although he clearly isn’t moving well anymore, and this may be more of a legacy pick related to the success of his team.  Either way, it’s a well deserved capper to his career, if we are indeed looking at the end.  Fletcher came into the league and won the super bowl in his second year, and if the Redskins can deliver him another trophy a decade and a half later, well, that’s why he’s still in the game, isn’t it?  Meanwhile, Jarvis Jenkins (6.5 sacks) and Adam Carriker have showed everyone exactly how good the Redskins defense could have been a year ago without those critical injuries.

The defensive offseason will have three primary goals: draft London Fletcher’s successor, address the secondary which has been well protected this year by it’s pass rush, and come to a long term contract agreement with star rusher Brian Orakpo, who sacked the quarterback 17 times in the regular season.

It’s clear that Mike Shanahan has improved the Redskins immesely at all the critical positions: they know that Robert Griffin is their quarterback of the future.  But they also know that Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are, as a tandem, just as important to the success of the Redskins.  They lack a true go to target not named Fred Davis, who controls the middle of the field, and they lack a true elite cover corner, as their lone pro bowler in the secondary Josh Wilson (7 INTs – career high) enters the final year of his contract.

Because of the Griffin trade, the Redskins will likely be unable to address the go-to receiver, and will instead have to opt to develop Leonard Hankerson (1,014 yards at age 24) from within.  Either way, this is a group that is very difficult to cover because of how well the Redskins utilize the whole field with Fred Davis.  He remains the key to the offensive gameplan every week, and will be expected to emerge as an 1,000 yard player next year, when he is healthy enough to catch more than the 60 receptions he was credited with in 2012.

At the end of the year, the story of the 2012 Redskins follows the expected path: the offense is clearly incomplete and could use some help, but Griffin is an explosive player who played all 16 games as a rookie and set multiple team passing records.  Despite some injuries to starters (Fred Davis, Jammal Brown, Chris Chester, Santana Moss), the Redskins finished in the top ten for total offense (realistically, they were closer to the 12th or 13th best offense — still their best finish in about 7 seasons) and their most productive weapon, Helu, is still a realtive unknown outside of fantasy football circles.  Griffin got it done in year one, making numerous plays outside the scheme that Rex Grossman simply never offered, and making his offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan look very smart.  Best of all, the game never appeared too fast for Griffin.  He has some bad tendencies; he’ll pull his eyes down in the pocket rather than slide away from pressure — but he gets the ball to the open guy more often than not.  And Griffin’s arm strength was more highly featured in the pros than it ever was at Baylor.

If the Redskins can beat the Packers and go to the super bowl, it will likely be because their late-season uptempo offense took the next step and put them in position to win the franchise’s fourth title and first in the last 21 seasons.  Griffin is the triggerman, Shanahan the boywonder genius, his father finally the team guru in line with his hefty salary, earning every cent this year.  Now hiring: someone who thinks they can defend these guys at their breakneck pace.

All year, the Redskins offense was more toolzy than effective, which is quite a statement about an offense that enjoyed this much success so soon.  A year ago, Cam Newton took the NFL by storm with his ability to combine deep-level touchdown passes into tight windows with the ability to go up, over, and even though linebackers.  Robert Griffin plays from the pocket most of the time in a pocket-based PA heavy attack prefered by the younger Shanahan.  But the ability of Shanahan and Griffin to work at this pace during the week and into games gives the NFL something that defensive coordinators at this level never have to deal with.

The Redskins defense might not be all that in 2013, and a lot of their success this year has been behind a blitz-heavy offensive attack and the ability to handle big plays in a way they were unable to in 2011.  But the fundamentals of this defensive group are at time lacking, and with the quick pace now of the Redskins offense, the opposing offense gets a lot of shots to expose the Redskins defense.  Still, the Redskins would not be at this point without their defense.

The Redskins don’t have a ton of holes heading into next year.  The offense needs a little shot in the arm to reach its true potential, and the defense needs a pair of foundation players to pair with Orakpo, Jenkins, and Kerrigan.  Wilson had a fantastic year, but will be a free agent prior to the 2014 season, and the Redskins are not expected to retain him.

It would be nice to have a first round pick next year, but with the short term results and the long term projection of such a young team, it’s really just not that big a deal.  If the second rounder is spent on a middle linebacker, as projected, then the Redskins will have all of day three to address the secondary, the receivers, and to try and find a right tackle and someone to take the load off of Roy Helu.  That can be done.  A year ago, I thought the Redskins were too far away to fill their holes.  Turns out the investment they made in Robert Griffin was worth it, and the flawed team we saw in training camp outlasted every other team in the NFC East and will take the Packers on today to represent the NFC in the super bowl.

For an incomplete roster, you have to be thrilled with that result.  I know that I am. 

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