Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
For years, the Washington Redskins have battled an addiction to signing free agents. Like most addictions, it has left a trail of destruction in its wake: no playoff wins in 11 of the last 12 seasons, wasted money, a disgruntled fan base, boxes of unsold Donovan McNabb jerseys, and so on. Dan Snyder tried to straighten things out by hiring two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan in 2010, but that’s yet to pay off; the Redskins are coming off a third consecutive season of double-digit losses.
This past off-season, the Redskins finally did what scores of fans and analysts have long been pleading for them to do: they made significant long-term investments via the draft. They used the second overall pick to acquire what they believe will be a franchise quarterback in Robert Griffin. Not since Heath Shuler in 1994 have the Redskins used an early first-round selection on football’s most important position.
If the Shuler reference isn’t ominous enough, how about the fact that trading up to get Griffin cost the Redskins first-round picks in 2013 and 2014, as well as the sixth and 39th overall picks in this past year's draft? Even when the Redskins build through the draft, they still find a way to mortgage their future. Perhaps they didn’t fight their addiction, but instead just gave it a new disguise.
Besides, it’s not as if Snyder and Shanahan ignored the 2012 free-agent market. They paid roughly 150 percent the sticker price in giving $20.5 million guaranteed to former Colts receiver Pierre Garcon. Taking some of the sting off that was the signing of former 49ers receiver Josh Morgan to a slightly more sensible 2-year, $11.5 million deal (though a steep $7.3 million of that was guaranteed).
Defensively, high-risk safeties Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson were brought in to help stabilize a secondary that still features grossly overpaid cornerback DeAngelo Hall, himself a living symbol of this team’s destructive past. There most likely would have been even more free-agent signings if the NFL hadn’t hit the Redskins with a two-year, $36 million cap penalty for violating the league’s mandate for limited spending (*cough* collusion *cough*) during the uncapped 2010 season. That wiped out $18 million of Washington’s $31 million in cap space, making it hard to bring in the next Albert Haynesworth.
Of course, easy as it is to take potshots at the Redskins, there’s a strong argument that they simply did what they had to do this past off-season. It’s been all but proven that a team without a franchise quarterback has next to no chance of winning meaningful games (games – plural) in January. Rex Grossman, who struggled in most of his 13 starts last season and was re-signed to only a one-year contract, may have been the last back-burner quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl (the 2006 Bears), but let’s be real: No team without a truly dominant defense can bank on winning more than five games with someone like Grossman as its starter.
Making a high-risk, high-reward bet on a player like Griffin is wise when the risk involved is simply "the possibility of continuing to be as bad as you’ve been for the past 10 years." Maybe the Redskins aren't completely beholden to rebuilding, but we can at least see now that they’re building for the long haul. That's something.
Robert Griffin, with his superb mobility, appears to be a terrific fit for Mike Shanahan’s West Coast style system. There’s a tendency to equate a mobile quarterback to a running quarterback, but good mobile quarterbacking involves much more than scrambling to move the chains. In Shanahan’s system, which features a heavy dosage of play-action rollouts, bootlegs and sliding pockets, a quarterback must be able to make throws and decipher defenses while on the move. Even executing a handoff can require top-notch mobility, given that the outside zone-stretch is so prominent in this scheme.
Griffin showed impressive proficiency as a moving passer at Baylor, and unlike many athletic quarterbacks, he exhibited an ability to make stick throws from the pocket in obvious passing situations. That’s critical because in the NFL, no matter how well a team runs the ball, quarterbacks are going to face obvious passing situations multiple times a game. Most of those situations will come in critical moments, too.
Shanahan saved everyone from going through a politically-driven dog-and-pony show by anointing Griffin as the starter during the team’s first minicamp. That means the only quarterback competition will be for backup duties between the wildly inconsistent, mistake-prone Rex Grossman and the sounder, but less gifted, fourth-round rookie Kirk Cousins.
In a lot of ways, no matter who is under center, Shanahan’s offense can only be as good as its front five. The key to his system is having a consistently unified flow of zone blocking up front. That’s what drives the one-cut run game, allows for the execution of rollouts in the passing game, and creates the subtle disguises that make all those runs and passes initially look alike. One reason the Houston Texans, coached by the former Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak, have ranked near the top in offensive output the past four years, is that just about everything the offensive line does looks the same for the first two seconds of each play. That freezes defenders, making things very easy on play-callers and ball handlers.
The Redskin offensive line is at nowhere near the level of Houston’s, though if everyone stays healthy (which wasn’t the case last year), it has a chance to get there. Left tackle Trent Williams is supremely talented. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger was impressive as a run-blocker before blowing out his knee in Week 6 last year. The Redskins might be skeptical of his ability to bounce back, given the fact that they reportedly flirted with Ben Grubbs in free agency and spent a third-round pick on SMU guard Josh LeRibeus. Even if Lichtensteiger holds on to his starting job, it’s important that LeRibeus get acclimated quickly, as incumbent backup guard Maurice Hurt, a seventh-round pick last season, hasn’t shown the necessary strength for warfare in the NFL trenches. Hurt, in fact, worked at tackle this past off-season, perhaps because the team is more excited about the prospects of fifth-round rookie guard Adam Gettis.
Another player with power issues is starting center Will Montgomery, though he’s at least survived as a utility man here for the past five years. On the right side, Chris Chester, like Montgomery, can play guard or center. Also, like Montgomery, Chester isn’t much of a grinder in the run game. However, he has good feet, which is far more important in a zone-blocking scheme. At right tackle, Jammal Brown is coming off a somewhat shaky season and has not been the same mauler he was prior to developing hip problems.
The Redskins must figure out who will run behind this zone line in 2012. Tim Hightower is a more gifted all-around player than last year’s fourth-round pick, Roy Helu, but Hightower is coming off an October ACL injury and never had great initial burst to begin with. He is, at least, a more decisive runner in this system than he was as a Cardinal early in his career. But that won’t matter if he’s not fast enough to consistently stretch to the edge. Helu is a very comfortable outside runner, which is odd considering he lacks much wiggle. He can catch underneath dumpoffs in the passing game, but unlike Hightower, he is not a fervid or refined blocker. Fantasy owners would be wise to ignore all Redskins running backs, as no one on the roster has ever shown signs of being a bona fide week-to-week stud. It wouldn’t be a huge upset, in fact, if last year’s sixth-round pick, Evan Royster, or this year’s sixth-round pick, Alfred Morris, somehow wound up leading the team in rushing. Even power-running fullback Darrel Young can’t be ruled out.
In some respects, Washington’s receiving corps is just a shinier version of the precarious backfield. There are still plenty of question marks. Pierre Garcon is certainly an upgrade over Jabar Gaffney (who was released) and Anthony Armstrong, but he’s unproven as a featured receiver. His greatest asset is strength, both with the ball in the air and in running after the catch. The question is: How well can he adjust to a more horizontal offense after spending his first four years having Peyton Manning put him in ideal one-on-one situations on the outside?
If Garcon flourishes, then things will open up for the hot-and-cold playmaking veteran Santana Moss. There were suggestions over the off-season that Moss would be dismissed, but aside from maybe Garcon, he’s this offense’s only true source of speed. The free-agent pickup Josh Morgan will compete with last year’s third-round pick, Leonard Hankerson, for slot duties. Both are coming off injuries (Morgan a broken leg, Hankerson a surgically repaired torn hip labrum). Both are also methodical runners, though each has a chance to be a practical inside receiver in this system. (Morgan is also experienced on the outside.)
Inside receiving is huge in Shanahan’s offense because anytime you run a bootleg, you have to have an outlet target drag over the middle of the field. This makes tight end a key position. The Redskins have a good one in the talented but immature Fred Davis. He has become a more fluid runner and can now line up in multiple places along the formation. Washington’s frequent use of two-tight-end sets makes the competition between the declining Chris Cooley (a ninth-year veteran) and converted wide receiver Niles Paul (a second-year veteran) noteworthy. Cooley has the edge because of his familiarity with blocking, but he also costs $3.8 million, which may be too steep, especially given that some of his blocking duties could probably be handled by Logan Paulsen (who costs $490,000).
Redskins coordinator Jim Haslett is a high-stakes gambler. When Haslett gives an offense an aggressive presnap look, that offense has to respond because Haslett almost always follows through on the look. It’s not uncommon for the Redskins to all-out blitz and play Cover-0 (they’re especially fond of this in the red zone). This is part of the reason it’s not uncommon to see Redskins cornerbacks (particularly DeAngelo Hall) give up big plays. But it’s also part of the reason you see Redskins cornerbacks (particularly DeAngelo Hall, again) make a fair share of big plays. Such are the risks and rewards with Haslett’s approach.
Hall returns as the starting left corner, though he claims he could soon be headed for more of a versatile nickel slot role (like Charles Woodson). A few years ago, this would have been laughable, but, recently, Hall has become a more willing and able tackler. He’s not capable of playing tight man coverage on a regular basis, though, so the slot, where zone concepts are harder to employ, may not be a good fit. Given that last year’s slot corner, Kevin Barnes, has struggled a bit himself in man-coverage, the most sensible plan for nickel would seem to be sliding Josh Wilson (a good underneath cutter) inside and using the free-agent pickup Cedric Griffin outside. Griffin, an ex-Viking who came off two ACL injuries in 10 months to start 14 games last year, is most comfortable as a zone player. Seventh-round rookies Jordan Bernstine and Richard Crawford, as well as the undrafted Chase Minnifield, could also be in the mix for nickel duties.
Last season, Haslett showed a somewhat newfound willingness to use his inside linebackers as blitzers. Don’t be surprised if he continues to do this in 2012 in an effort to create the type of hurried throws that his new safeties, Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson, can jump. Meriweather and Jackson are both rangy playmakers who found themselves on the free market because previous coaches despised their lack of discipline. Meriweather’s discipline issues showed up in New England and Chicago, Jackson’s showed up in Tampa Bay. Those are three conservative, execution-based defenses. In a system like Washington’s, where blitzes often accelerate an offense’s route combinations, discipline at safety can occasionally be less important, as LaRon Landry can attest to. That could bode well for Meriweather and Jackson. But should they struggle, the Redskins can always go back to Reed Doughty (an underrated box player) or DeJon Gomes (a vulnerable pass-defender but someone who at least has a year of experience in this system).
One could make the argument that Haslett should actually be less aggressive with his pass-rush concepts given that he can count on getting natural pressure from his two emerging first-round stars at outside linebacker. Fourth-year man Brian Orakpo offers tremendous speed-to-power leverage on one side, while second-year man Ryan Kerrigan brings explosiveness and surprising agility on the other side. Considering that both Orakpo and Kerrigan can play the run, there will be no reason for their backups to see much of the field this season.
Speaking of playing the run, the 37-year-old London Fletcher was re-signed to a two-year, $10.75 million contract over the off-season. Fletcher can be somewhat of a liability in coverage (in part because Haslett is unafraid to use him man-to-man against tight ends and, occasionally, even wide receivers), but he still has tremendous energy and instincts as a first-and-second-down force. Fletcher may continue to play in nickel, though ideally the Redskins would find someone to challenge for these duties. Fourth-round rookie Keenan Robinson is not believed to have great natural change-of-direction ability in space. New starter Perry Riley –- who replaced Rocky McIntosh late last season –- shows some quickness, but the jury is still deliberating on him. Lorenzo Alexander is versatile but not fast enough. The other linebackers are Jonathan Goff and Bryan Kehl, but if they could play, they might still be Giants.
It’s surprising that the Redskins ranked just 18th against the run last season given that their defensive line is so stout. Nose tackle Barry Cofield is worthy of the occasional double team and is capable of making plays laterally. Spelling him is a stocky, energetic veteran in Kedric Golston. On the edges, Stephen Bowen consistently used power tactics to penetrate backfields and plug holes last season. His bull-rushing prowess also shows up in the passing game. That’s the difference between Bowen and Adam Carriker, who is a solid anchor but only on first and second down. There’s hope that a chunk of Carriker’s snaps will go to Jarvis Jenkins, a second-round pick in 2011 who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. The 310-pounder played defensive tackle at Clemson. He’s not projected to be an impactful pass-rusher, but he has an initial burst that can be forceful against the run.
Kicker Graham Gano, who had five field goals blocked last year, will have to compete to keep his job, as the Redskins signed the veteran Neil Rackers to a one-year, $995,000 contract. Punter Sav Rocca is known for his ball placement. In the return game, the tiny but slippery Brandon Banks averaged a respectable 23 yards on kicks and 9.1 on punts last season, though many have complained that he ran too many kicks out from the deep end zone.
This is the first time since Shanahan arrived that the Redskins seem to be building a roster that fits the head coach’s scheme. That’s encouraging, though it will still take considerable time to strengthen the many areas of weakness here.
6 comments, Last at 10 Aug 2012, 10:25pm by LionInAZ