January 8, 2016

Redskins vs Packers - Thoughts and Prediction

It’s a rare treat to write about an upcoming Redskins playoff game, much less one they can reasonably be expected to win. Nonetheless, that is what exactly has come, shall we say, to pass.

Which leads directly to one of the two key components I believe Redskins vs Packers will come down to.

1. The Redskins passing offense.

The first key to continuing the 2015 Redskins unlikely march to respectability (and beyond?) for another week will be whether or not the passing game can remain at or near the productivity level of the past month.

The Redskins running game hasn’t scared anybody since week three—it has become the occasional body shot, thrown less to affect serious damage than to keep the opponent from comfortably keeping his hands high protecting only his chin. And It has worked. The passing game, on the other hand—the relentless effective jabs and occasional right cross—has progressively ramped up over the second half of the season to the point where the Redskins come into this game boasting arguably the hottest passing offense in football.

There has been a lot of talk—understandably so—about the Redskins having to mitigate against an elite quarterback in the Pack’s Aaron Rodgers if they have realistic hopes of winning Sunday night. Truth is, given recent trajectories, it could reasonably be argued that the Packers will have to mitigate just as warily against a currently lethal Redskins passing attack.

As Kirk Cousins, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon, et al, go Sunday night, so will go the Redskins. If those guys show up, the Reskins have a better than even chance of being the ones holding helmets high as they run off the field Sunday evening. They have become the identity of a surging, suddenly legitimate and increasingly confident team, and its strongest case to legitimacy as an NFL playoff contender.

2. The Redskins defense on “off-schedule” plays.

Washington’s defense has been operating on the edge all season. Playing with leads down the stretch, they have been able to back off defensively, forcing opponents to put together long drives and consume enough time to ultimately allow let Skins to walk away winners.

They don’t put consistent pressure on the passer rushing only down linemen—they rely heavily on sending extra rushers to generate pressure. In this particular game, against a Packers offense that has struggled the second half of the season, the concern is less with their ability to contain on-schedule plays, but their ability to track down Rodgers and maintain coverage down the field once plays breaks down and Rodgers starts moving. That’s where the Redskins shortage of true defensive playmakers—both up front and in the backfield—will ultimately prove their biggest test.

Few are better than Aaron Rodgers at buying time, sliding, rolling, and ultimately delivering accurately on the move. The Redskins will probably need some breaks—a couple of crucial drops, perhaps a tipped ball INT, or more likely, what has been their defensive salvation several times this year, their knack for tearing the ball loose from receivers after the catch.

Their ability to cause/recover fumbles this season may well be the reason the team was able to hang around .500 long enough for Kirk Cousins and the passing offense to finally catch fire as they have over the past few weeks. The Redskins are almost certainly going to need turnovers to beat the Packers. Seasoned elite QB’s rarely tank it in playoff games—we have to assume Aaron Rodgers is going to “bring it” all day long. No lead may be truly safe until time finally runs out.

Some general thoughts, since you’ve come this far:

- It’s not hard to envision the Skins starting fast Sunday night, and even building a substantial lead heading into the 4th quarter. But unless the Washington ball-control passing game—and maybe even some well-timed runs—can achieve meaningful time of possession down the stretch, it’s also not hard to envision a frenetic finish with Rodgers going sandlot, moving around and gunning his team back into the game.

- Washington is the hotter team heading into this one—that’s not in question. What is in question is whether or not that will carry over into the first playoff game in which they can reasonably be considered favorites for this coaching staff, this quarterback, most of this roster, and this franchise in many years.

- Will Cousins be the Cousins we’ve seen over the last half a season, completing 70% of his passes and directing multiple long scoring drives? Will he be the stone cold killer in the red zone—51 of 84 (60.7%), 22 TD, 0 INT, 4 TD rushing, QB rating 109.7—he has been all year? Or will the biggest stage and brightest lights of his young career push him a step back?

Many long years of disappointment and shattered hopes make it easy to look at this one and see the Redskins coming out flat, making mental errors, turning the ball over, giving up big plays on defense, and ultimately failing to get the job done. No long-suffering Redskins fan can be faulted for harboring those demons.

But this Redskins team has also seemed to change the paradigm.

It’s only been ten weeks since they were 2-4, trailing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at home, 24-0 in the second quarter, staring into the abyss of a bye week at 2-5 and a road trip to then-undefeated New England on the horizon. The quarterback looked average at best, the running game was stuck in the neutral, the head coach—close to halfway into his second season sporting a 6-16 record with no clear signs of evident improvement—and the team reeling with significant injuries.

It was hard to see much light in all that darkness.

Since then?

The Redskins came back and won that Tampa game, in historic fashion—nothing short of the greatest comeback in the storied 78-year history of the franchise. They have since shouldered aside a host of “yeah, but’s” … you know them by heart by now … “can’t win a road game” (they’ve won three straight) … “can’t win in prime time” (they beat Philadelphia in their own house to claim the division title) … “don’t have a quarterback” (you don’t hear much “interception machine” or “not clutch” talk these days) … “the head coach is a failure” (don’t tell that to the guys who play for him).

I do believe the magic they’ve harnessed over the past month isn’t illusion. I think this team is what the vast majority of Redskins fans hoped they would be, heading into the season—a rebuilding team showing signs of turning into a pretty good one—and maybe a bit ahead of schedule. There were few predictions of this team finishing above .500 this year, much less hosting a playoff game and having a legitimate shot at winning.

Hey, I hear the demons still—they’re tenacious little ****ers. But the harder and longer I look at that light coming from down at the other end of the tunnel with this team, the less it looks like the oncoming train I’m so used to getting flattened by and more like, well, a legitimate NFL team on the rise.

This is where I think I’m required to post a prediction:

It will almost certainly not be easy. In fact I can practically guarantee it won’t be.

It might come down to a last-second field goal by the revelation that has been Dustin Hopkins.

It might come down to a Rodgers Hail Mary as time expires falling harmlessly to the turf or nestled in the arms of a Redskins DB playing only because it seemed we lost every-damn-body who was supposed to be playing back there along away this year.

It might be one Alfred Morris, offering a symbolic skyward middle digit to all his critics and converting a crucial 3rd and 2, with 1:30 left in the game and GB out of time-outs, allowing Kirk Cousins to genuflect in Victory Formation a couple times as the faithful gutturally levitate FedEx.

This has all happened very fast, this apparent Redskins Revival, and there’s been precious little time to really step and back assess the big picture … but as I sit here today, I find myself believing.

Feels good. Damn good.

Redskins 27, Packers 24

Hail.

October 28, 2015

Cousins: A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

There have been two Kirk Cousins in 2015.


Seven games into his first season as a full-time starter, in four home games Cousins has shown a confidence and competence that make a strong case for him as a legitimate NFL quarterback:


108-for-144 (75%), 1006 yds, 6 TD, 2 INT, QB rating 101.8
Record: 3-1


That's a top-ten guy. Elite, no. Legit, yes.

Unfortunately, NFL teams play half their regular season games on the road. And through his first three road games in 2015, Cousins has simply not looked like the same player. His body language has been different, his decisions and throws have been different, and of course, the results have been different:

76-for-124 (61.3%), 731 yds, 3 TD, 6 INT, QB rating 65.6
Record: 0-3



That's a guy you have to scroll pretty far down the stats page to find.

And therein lies the rub. When you put the two Kirk's together, by NFL standards you have Just A Guy:

184-for-268 (68.7%), 1737 yds, 9 TD, 8 INT, QB rating 85.1
Record: 3-4



So where do the Redskins go from here? Easy. They spend the balance of 2015 finding out if Kirk Cousins can take his act on the road and be more than Just A Guy.


They might find out he cannot. They might even find out he heads the other direction and brings his shaky road act home. But until and unless that happens, his performances and results at home have shown enough promise to make it imperative the Redskins let him play out the season as starter. They cannot cave to public sentiment or anything other than pure football merit and pull the plug on Cousins in 2015.

As a rebuilding team long starved for legitimate, consistent quarterback play, the Redskins need to let him either prove he can take his act on the road, continue to grow as a player and leader, or if he is unable to overcome the road demons that have thus far scared the dickens heck out of him and anyone with a passing interest in the burgundy and gold.





September 15, 2015

Upon Further Review: Game 1 - Dolphins 17, Redskins 10



The Washington Redskins opened the 2015 regular season at home last Sunday with a 17-10 loss to  the Miami Dolphins.


What did we learn?  Debatable, given the whole "sample size" thing.  But two things I think we can safely surmise, at least for the moment, are:


1. That the home team did not make the transformative leap forward that fans, at least privately, once again had quietly been asking of the Gridiron Gods on yet another opening day.  I admit it—when TE Jordan Reed caught that sweet fade pass from QB Kirk Cousins in the corner of the end zone, capping off a 17-play, 88-yard, 8:49 drive, and giving the Redskins a 10-0 lead late in the second quarter of a half they had dominated in the trenches, I allowed myself to look directly into the sun.


When I squinted just right, I could see a 27-10 throttling of those overrated, overhyped Dolphins, and a sweet Monday morning spent poring over local and national media stories by pundits falling all over themselves telling us how they saw it coming all along.


Ndamukong Who? The Redskins Are Back! 


But ... by the time the Redskins allowed Miami to cruise easily back down the field to score an answering TD of their own in the closing minute of the half ... and after the Redskins then methodically shot themselves in the proverbial cleat enough times throughout the second half to let Miami to leave town a relieved winner ... we had learned something else:


2)  That while the 2015 Redskins did not in fact open the season flying, heralding that The Corner Had Been Turned, neither did they get Obliterated or Otherwise Humiliated at the hands of the big bad Tursiops truncatus, as so many had predicted.


Which is good.


So, because the Redskins were neither awesome nor awful, and because until they become a winning team again they remain a losing one, fans are obliged to keep looking to numbers and trends, searching for arcs and developments good and bad, from which to try to glean meaning.


Thusly couched … there was good to be found.


RB Alfred Morris (25 carries, 121 yds.) ran over, through and around the Dolphins all afternoon, and after one week is the 4th leading rusher in the NFL.  Even better, combined with rookie Matt Jones, the Redskins head into week two ranked third in the league in rushing. 


The right side of the offensive line, featuring top rookie draft choice RG Brandon Scherff and second-year RT Morgan Moses, acquitted themselves just fine, thank you, despite apocalyptic predictions, against a Miami defensive front expected to overwhelm them.


And new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s defense, new scheme, multiple players, missing and injured starters and all, allowed 10 points.  Only one team in the NFL would have lost on opening weekend allowing just 10 points—the woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars, who scored nine in a home loss to the Carolina Panthers.


Unfortunately for the Redskins (here comes some bad stuff), NFL teams are also expected, from time to time, to field Special Teams, and the 2015 Redskins picked right up in that area where they have left off for more years than we care to recall.  In a seven-point loss, the Redskins special teams directly cost the team ten points; a missed 46-yard FG under ideal conditions, and a lethal, game-deciding 69-yard punt return touchdown, straight up the middle, with nary a fingertip laid upon grateful Dolphins return man Jarvis Landry.


Not to rub salt in the wound, but the 17 total points surrendered by the Redskins would have been enough to win any game played in the NFL opening weekend … except for the one they actually played in. Which is a roundabout way of saying that scoring 10 points just is not going to get it done.


The offense moved the ball (349 total yards), but could not score—an all-too-familiar formula.


Special teams, once again, were an albatross with an anvil tied around its ankle (assuming albatri have ankles).


And the aforementioned defense, while playing well enough to limit Miami to 10 points, left seven points on the field as well, as a sure pick-six interception somehow defied physics and passed through new starting CB Chris Culliver into the surprised and relieved hands of a beaten Dolphins receiver.


Bottom line?  The good stuff could not overcome the bad stuff, and the 0-1 Redskins head into week two, against a St. Louis Rams team fresh off beating the two-time defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, knowing that, but for a blown play here and there, they could be 1-0 and handing out sunglasses.


Instead, Rebirth will have to wait another week.


***


Meanwhile, until we have something more uplifting (and by that I mean winning) to talk about, we’ll start tracking some of the more relevant stats here that, over the course of a season, more often than not support the “winning team” versus “losing team” formula when all is said and done.


QB Play
Kirk Cousins: 21 for 31 (67.7%), 196 yds., 1 TD, 2 INT (21st yds., 29th QB rating)


Turnover Differential
1 takeaway, 2 turnovers (-1, T20th NFL)


Third Down Conversions
Offense – 6 for 14 (43%, 15th NFL)
Defense – 5 for 12 (42%, 14th NFL)


Happy Birthday, Dad!



February 25, 2015

Redskins first-round draft picks "that got away." Or did they?

     "Since 1984, a span of 31 drafts, the Redskins have taken 20 players in the first round. Only two of them, 2000 first-round picks LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels, have signed second contracts with the Redskins. Some, like Brian Orakpo, have stayed on the franchise tag. Carlos Rogers, the team’s top pick in 2005, was kept around another year as a restricted free agent. But for the most part the Redskins’ first rounders have moved on when their rookie contracts were up if not sooner."

Initial reaction to the Rich Tandler piece excerpted above? Damn, this team needs to learn to hang on to its young talent.

Second thought, based on memory of the last 30 years? What young talent?

Clearly, retaining only two out of 18 first round selections over 31 years does not sound too good. But the implied conclusion of the piece—that the Redskins need to get better at retaining their home-grown young talent—may not be the right one. For one, it pre-supposes those picks were worth re-signing in the first place. And, if they were not, it points to a very different conclusion.

Here is the Redskins first-round history since the chosen starting point of 1984, accompanied by highly scientific notes and observations.

(Why 1984? Beyond possible Orwellian connotations, I'm thinking it was because the three first-round picks prior to that—Art Monk (1980), Mark May(1981) and Darrell Green (1983)—didn't exactly support the thesis.)

1984—1990. No picks.

1991—Bobby Wilson. Whiff.

1992—Desmond Howard. Just a guy. Yes, he got a Super Bowl MVP trophy—for someone else—on the wings of one shining moment in one really big game. Beyond that, the Heisman Trophy winner was just an average NFL … kick returner. The Redskins did not err letting him go. The Green Bay Packers let him go during the off-season after his moment of glory.

1993—Tom Carter. Just a guy.

1994—Heath Shuler. Whiff.

1995—Michael Westbrook. Whiff.

1996—Andre Johnson. Double-whiff.

1997—Kennard Lang. Whiff.

1998—no pick.

1999—Champ Bailey. The only no-brainer on the list. He should have been re-signed. True, the Redskins did not choose not to resign Champ Bailey based on on-field performance—they ended up trading him away because they, and he, believed they had to based on off-field considerations that we will not rehash here today.

2000—Lavar Arrington and Chris Samuels. Both re-signed. One turned out to be far more flash than substance. The other was the exact opposite.

2001—Rod Gardner. Whiff.

2002—Patrick Ramsey. At best a “maybe.” Some still suggest the Redskins “ruined” Ramsey by allowing him to get pummeled in Steve Spurrier’s un-lamented gimmick offense, but I have never subscribed to that theory. Even at his best, Ramsey never looked to me like anything more than a solid NFL backup. Joe Gibbs, apparently, agreed, benching Ramsey in favor of a geriatric Mark Brunnell at the very first opportunity.

2003—Taylor Jacobs. Whiff.

2004—Sean Taylor. Please don’t be the one to comment that the Redskins would not have re-signed this once-in-a-generation player.

2005—Carlos Rogers. Retained one year beyond his rookie contract, then not re-signed. Because he went on to find success elsewhere (49ers), this one can arguably be considered a mistake by the Redskins. That said, few Redskins fans will have forgotten the level of frustration they felt during his time in Washington (read: Hands of Stone).  The feeling then, almost universally, was “good riddance.” That the team felt the same should not be surprising, nor held against them for purposes of this discussion.

2006—no pick.

2007—LaRon Landry. At best a maybe. Great physique, lack of technique. A great physical specimen who was (and is) simply not a great football player. Certainly not one that the team’s decision not to retain should be considered a mistake.

2008—no pick.

2009—Brian Orakpo. Retained under the franchise tag. But dare we say it? Yes. At best a maybe; great physique, lack of … you know. If he ends up getting paid top dollar elsewhere, will the team be criticized for the decision not to retain him? Probably—but only because the Redskins have made themselves an easy target. Would it be fair in this particular instance? No.

2010—Trent Williams. No-brainer. The Redskins will almost certainly re-sign him.

2011—Ryan Kerrigan. No-brainer. The Redskins will almost certainly re-sign him.

2012—Robert Griffin III. The jury is out. It is not unreasonable to suggest at this point, however, that should he end up not signing another contract in Washington, it will likely be because he fits squarely into a category Redskins fans are quite familiar with: Great physique, lack of technique.

Let’s wrap this up.

Four of the 20 players the Redskins selected in the 31 NFL drafts between 1984 and 2014 (Brian Orakpo, Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan, Robert Griffin) are still under contract. As such, while germaine to the greater conversation going forward, they are not fair fodder for criticism of the team in terms of free agent retention at this point.

Breaking down the first-round selections the team either did not or could not re-sign to date:

One (Champ Bailey) was inarguably worth resigning. While it is true that the underlying reasons for his non-retention were not related to on-field ability, and also true that it may or may not have been the team's prerogative anyway, it is hard to look back and wish they had not found a way.

One (Sean Taylor) was going to be re-signed. Book it.

One, (Rogers) was retained by restricted free agency, then allowed to depart. Maybe a case could be made they should have fought harder to keep him, but in no way can he be classified as a no-brainer for retention. 

Two (Patrick Ramsey, LaRon Landry) were at best “maybes.” Again, neither close to being no-brainers.

Nine (Bobby Wilson, Desmond Howard, Tom Carter, Heath Shuler, Michael Westbrook, Andre Johnson, Kennard Lang, Rod Gardner, Taylor Jacobs) were “just guys, whiffs or double whiffs.”

Over the past 31 years the Redskins stepped to the plate 20 times.

They hit home runs in Champ Bailey, Chris Samuels and Sean Taylor—only of whom "got away."

They went extra bases on a couple of guys they will re-sign in Trent Williams and Ryan Kerrigan.

They arguably squeezed out singles in LaVar Arrington, Patrick Ramsey, Carlos Rogers and LaRon Landry.

And they went down swinging eleven times.

The Redskins problem has not been re-signing young talent. Their real failure has been an inability to consistently identify talent worth fighting to keep at all.