December 26, 2008

2008 Redskins - Exit, Stage Left

The Washington Redskins will play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 28, 2008, in their final game of this NFL season.

After the final gun–win, lose or draw (Memo to DM: it happens)–53 men will trot off the field, make their way up the ramp to the visiting locker room, and peel off their burgundy and gold accoutrements for the last time.

Said uniforms will then be whisked away, laundered, neatly folded ... and put in storage.

The next time those hallowed threads take the field in earnest will be some seven-and-a-half-months hence, in early August 2009, when Washington plays its first preseason game of the new season. That actual date is not yet set in stone, but if past serves as prologue it will be on or about Friday, August 7, 2009.

For those keeping score at home, that means:

Three remaining days in December 2008, plus
Thirty-one days in January 2009, plus
Twenty-eight days in February 2009, plus
Thirty-one days in March 2009, plus

(hold on, punching numbers)

... and seven days in August 2009.

Your total?

Two hundred and twenty-two days.

So forget dashed expectations. Be in the moment Sunday. Watch every last minute. Commit the rhythms and feel of the game to memory–hard drive, not RAM. Savor the immediate gut reaction to each and every play, should it fall anywhere along the spectrum from pigskin agony (Sellers fumbling at the goal line) to gridiron ecstasy (Campbell-to-Moss to beat the Saints).

Because somewhere around mid-March, reality is going to hit. It will seem like forever since you last saw your colors on the field of play, and there will remain almost five months before you see them again.

True, you have the first Philadelphia and Dallas games on DVR. Not the same. Recorded games--even the best--are like memories of lovemaking. Treasures to be sure, but lesser by degrees of magnitude than those magical moments when she glances over her shoulder, starts up the stairs, and her eyes suggest delights yet unknown.


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.


December 25, 2008

A Christmas Wish

For me life has always been about Moments.

You can’t plan them, can’t anticipate them. And if you are too caught up on your way somewhere to be where you are, it’s easy to miss them.

The Om Field begins with a reprint of the first “serious” piece of Redskins writing I ever did. In it, I refer to the threads of my “inner burgundy and gold tapestry.”

A little over a year ago, an event happened that served as stark reminder that not all threads are silken, and not all Moments bright.

Last night, at the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at my parents’ house, my son said he was looking forward to today because there were going to be “good moments.”

When he handed me my present this morning, it was with a little smile. First thing I saw was the burgundy … the second, “Taylor.”

He’d pinned a little note to it.

"Is it Jason?"

I pulled my jersey from the box, held it up. Turned it around to look at the back. Underneath the nameplate and “21,” he’d pinned another note.

"I didn’t think so either."

It’s all about the Moments.

My Christmas wish is that yours has one too.


December 23, 2008

WAS 10, PHI 3 (A Defensive Parting Gift)

Tempting as it is to weigh in on the big picture—the front office, the quarterback position, Jim Zorn’s pass offense, part two of Breaking Down the Lines, etc.—the cold reality is there is only one game left in the Washington Redskins 2008 season.

Don’t know about you, but I’m feeling that.

So, for at least one more week I’m sticking with the immediate. Which works out well, because there is one particular stone I don’t want to leave unturned.

I have been trying to recall the last time a Redskins defense has worked harder, surprised me more or, when all is said done, made me prouder than Greg Blache’s undermanned unit has this season. And Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, they drove the point home in a way I believe will burn the the '08 defense in memory.

Yes the Eagles dropped some passes. So did the Redskins—it happens. Yes, Donovan McNabb may have beheaded a handful of worms. Given the way Redskins defenders swarmed to the ball and pounded green people all day, however, perhaps that wasn’t all just happenstance.

Lest we forget, the Eagles came in hot. All week long, this was a team the talking heads were solemnly pronouncing “the one team no one wants to face in the playoffs.”

Philadelphia had won three straight. They had just hung 30 on the Cleveland Browns, and dominated the defending champion Giants in New York the week before. In that game, against one of the best defenses in football, long-time Redskins-killer Brian Westbrook had rushed for 131 yards and caught a 40-yard TD pass from a resurgent Donovan McNabb.

It is easy to discount all that in retrospect, but heading into the game, I suspect most Redskins fans, and just about all neutral observers, expected something pretty similar. I’ll admit it—I did.

The Eagles were playing for everything. The Redskins (having somnambulated through most of their own for-everything game the week before in Cincinnati), were playing for next year. Nobody—nobody—expected the Redskins defense to turn in the kind of performance it did Sunday afternoon.

For fans who allow themselves to enjoy moments of excellence within the context of a season—even a disappointing one—what Greg Blache, London Fletcher, Cornelius Griffin and the entire back seven did on Sunday, playing not for the playoffs but for pride and professionalism, was an early Christmas present. One that will help ease the transition into what could well turn into another long, eventful offseason.

Know how many NFL games have been won this season by teams scoring 10 points or less? Out of 240 games played to date ... four. Besides the Redskins 10-3 win over Philadelphia, the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers both shut down the crushingly disappointing Cleveland Browns 10-6, and San Francisco throttled Buffalo 10-3 two weeks ago.

It is worth noting that the Cleveland offense (for lack of a better term) is tied with the Oakland Raiders for 30th in the league in scoring at 15.5 ppg., and the Bills are 19th at 22.4. The Eagles are 10th, at 24.8.

24.8. These days that’s more than the Redskins offense scores in two.

And it's not like the Redskins offense was much help in this game. Truth is, it gave the defense almost no support at all. In eleven possessions, the offense managed yards 249 yards and 10 points. Seven of those points came courtesy of a short field (18 yards) provided by the defense; Jason Taylor’s strip-sack of McNabb. The other three came in the Redskins only drive of the day that netted more than 26 yards—a 16-play, 72-yard second quarter affair that ended in a 33-yard Shaun Suisham field goal.

The last three Redskins possessions of the day—starting at the Eagles 44, their own 46 and the Eagles 45, courtesy of stellar punting by embattled Ryan Plackemeier and stifling defense that forced four consecutive Eagles three-and-outs—resulted in 16 total yards, no first downs and, of course, zero points.

What that did, of course, was set up the highlight-reel, last-play-of-the-game, mid-air goal-line stop on Eagles wide receiver Reggie Brown by Fred Smoot and LaRon Landry. A play that put the exclamation point on a memorable game-long defensive effort and will, perhaps, stand up over the course of time.

The image of Brown, high above the frozen FedEx turf, being turned back inches from paydirt may not live on in Redskins lore quite like Ken Houston stoning the Cowboys’ Walt Garrison in 1972, or Darrell Green breaking up Wade Wilson’s pass to Darrin Nelson at the goal line to seal the 1987 NFC Championship, or even former replacement-player Dennis Woodberry’s one-on-one, open-field stop of the Giants’ Tony Galbreath to preserve a key win earlier that year (that’s for my Friend, Tom) … but still. It was big.

And I for one don’t think I’ll forget it any time soon.

So I thought I’d take a look at when a Redskins defense last held an opponent to three points or less … and once I got into it, ended up going back ten years (don’t ask).

Before Sunday, the last time was in week four of last season, in that hide-the-women-and-children, 34-3 beat-down of the Detroit Lions. In that game they held Detroit to 144 total yards, had six sacks, recorded a safety and forced two turnovers (including a pick-six interception return by Carlos Rogers to ice the cake late in the game—yes, really). The defense didn’t stand alone that day, however; the Redskins offense ran up 366 yards of their own, scored three touchdowns and held the ball for 34:35.

You have to go back to 2002 to find the next one. They held the Seattle Seahawks to three points in week eight, but gave up 324 yards (264 passing) to Matt Hasselbeck along the way. Considering Washington’s quarterback that day, one Shane Matthews, went 10-for-27 for 114 yards (2 TD, 1 INT), at first blush that looks pretty impressive. Fortunately, the running back tandem of Kenny Watson (110 yards) and Ladell Betts (37) allowed the Redskins to escape Seattle with the win despite losing the time of possession battle 35:58 to 25:02.

I’ll be honest though—I have zero recollection of that day. Do you?

I do remember Marty Schottenheimer’s Redskins going into Philadelphia and stoning the Eagles, 13-3, in 2001, to win their fifth consecutive game after starting the year 0-5. Given that the Redskins offense was led that day by QB Tony Banks (12-for-18, 96 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT), saw RB Stephen Davis held mostly in check (22 carries, 79 yards) and featured a receiving corps led by Rod Gardner (4 catches, 33 yards) and Michael “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” Westbrook (3 catches, 22 yards), perhaps the defensive gem turned in by Redskins DC Kurt Schottenheimer’s crew (186 total yards against the eternal, infernal D. McNabb and company) that day deserves a place in Redskins lore.

Who knows, if Schottenheimer's Redskins hadn’t subsequently folded their tent down the stretch that year, once the games actually meant something, recent Redskins history would have played out very different. Perhaps Coach Marty would still be here, the Redskins would be strong in the trenches and we would be fully expecting to lose again in the playoffs this year.

But that's another story.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Norv Turner’s last Redskins team—for those of you either too young or too numb to remember, those were the Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Terry Robiskie and Dan Turk (RIP) Redskins—actually held two opponents to three points. In a slugfest at FedEx, they beat the Baltimore Ravens 10-3 to bring their record to 5-2, then shut down a hapless Arizona Cardinals team 20-3 in a meaningless finale to salvage 8-8.

Hmm ... 6-2 start, 8-8 finish. Maybe we shouldn’t go there.

A year earlier, Turner’s NFC East title and lone playoff Redskins again laid the lumber, 28-3, to the hapless Cardinals (I should put that in a macro).

And finally, in 1998, the Redskins turned in a three-point, 28-3 woodshed job over the Eagles.

Why the long litany? My own curiosity, mostly, once I started looking. In 159 games over ten years, the Redskins have put together seven three-point-or-less defensive efforts (you have to go back to 1991 to find their last shutout). And because, for whatever reason, I cannot recall any single defensive game that caught my attention as much as this last one.

[Incidentally, over the same ten-year period, the two standards for defense in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, have turned in 21 (including nine shutouts) and 15 (six shutouts) respectively.]

I am not suggesting that only three-point-or-less defensive games are worthy of note, by the way. For instance ...

The Redskins held the Cowboys to six points and 147 total yards (including what at first blush looks like a typo—one yard rushing on 16 carries) in last years' season-ending 27-6 romp at FedEx. But the context of that game—Dallas having already clinched the top playoff seed and mentally if not physically already sunning in Cancun—has to be considered. Plus the Redskins offense more than held its own, putting up 27 points, racking up 354 yards and owning time of possession, 37:08 to 22:52.

And there was that ugly 9-7 win over the Bears to open the 2005 season, when the defense held Chicago to 166 total yards and hung on despite the Redskins offense turning the ball over three times. Even then, the box score shows the Redskins offense contributed 323 yards that day; 164 rushing, and 175 passing from the two-headed QB tandem of Patrick Ramsey and Mark Brunell.

And who can forget the 35-7 whooping the Redskins laid on Bill Parcells’ Cowboys in December ‘05 (I know we're not going to let them forget), sacking Drew Bledsoe seven times, limiting him to 153 passing yards and picking him off three times. Again, though, the defense was hardly on its own that day. The offense spotted them a 28-0 halftime lead, allowing them to spend the second pawing dirt, flaring nostrils and hunting quarterback.

In 2004, Greg Williams’ first year, the Redskins shut down the NY Giants to the tune of 145 total yards in a 31-7 shellacking at FedEx Field. They had help that day as well, though, as the Redskins offense showed up big time, Clinton Portis rambling for 148 and Patrick Ramsey throwing three TD passes.

The point of this longish stroll down memory lane? Simply to pause and give due credit to Greg Blache and his 2008 defense.

Like many, I have been hard on them for their inability to pressure the quarterback. I've fumed at their inability to stand their ground on several crucial game-ending drives down the stretch, and I have ragged on them for letting more balls slip through their fingers than an arthritic Chicken Ranch trainee.

But when the bile has finally settled this offseason, and the immediacy of watching a 6-2 team fail to close the deal no longer clouds my objectivity, I believe I am going to remember the 2008 Washington Redskins defense rather fondly.

It is easy to celebrate a defense studded with Pro Bowl talent and a nasty, disruptive reputation in the trenches that forces opposing offenses to proceed with cautioun. It’s another thing entriely to recognize a defense that has arguably done more with less up front than any top five defense in memory.

I don’t think they give out Defensive Coordinator of the Year hardware, but if they did, says here in 2008 it goes hands down to Greg Blache. In a year that started with such promise, and is ending with such bittersweet “what ifs,” the Redskins defense has left precious little on the field and carried the burgundy and gold banner proud.

I hope we are not all so focused on the Lombardi destination that we cannot appreciate, and even enjoy, the inner successes and happy surprises along the journey.

December 18, 2008

Sammy Baugh (1914 - 2008)


There was never better.
Godspeed, Sammy Baugh.


December 14, 2008

"God help me, I do love it so."

Meanwhile, back in the Redskins 2008 season ... 

Will Head Coach Jim Zorn--who woke up this week somewhere between Honeymoon and Seven-Year Itch--rally the troops and extend the realistically competitive portion of his rookie season one more week?

Will QB Jason Campbell--who woke up this week walking the fine line between Future Franchise QB and Latest Pretender to the Throne--light up the Bengals and earn the luxury of not looking over his shoulder one more week?

Will mercurial RB Clinton Portis--a strange brew of Leather-Helmet Throwback and Post-Modern Diva--be on sportsradio next week bragging on his teammates for "diggin' down and doin' it" ... or throwing them under the bus?

Will the Redskins' offensive line ... oh, never mind.

Will defensive coordinator Greg Blache scheme and will his defense to another dominant 50-minute performance ... or throw another Greg Maddux-like, how-does-he-do-it complete game gem?

Will Redskins Nation--fiercely loyal and wildly reactionary in an instant--spend the next week breaking down playoff scenarios ... or just breaking down?

Beats the hell out of me.  But I'll be there, edge of my seat, heart thumping, drinking deep every wonderful, torturous moment.

General Patton understood.

"I love it. God help me, I do love it so." 

December 10, 2008

Breaking Down the Lines (Pt. 1)

I have been beating the drum recently about the woeful state of the Washington Redskins offensive and defensive lines.

More specifically, I have taken the front office to task over what I believe is the complete and ultimately disastrous failure to establish a functional pipeline of qualified young linemen to replace their rapidly aging (and based on the evidence in 2008, no longer adequate) starting corps.

Rather than basing that criticism solely on what I see with my own two eyes on game days, I have begun to research the nuts and bolts of how the Redskins have gone about constructing their lines over the past decade, and how they arrived where they are today.

Over the coming days and weeks I will be posting the results of that research for reference, discussion and, depending on what we find, perhaps drawing supported conclusions as to whether the Redskins' current struggles to compete with solid opponents at the line of scrimmage are the result of a fundamentally flawed approach, or simply the vagaries of trying to stay competitive in the 21st century NFL.

Let's get to it.

To begin, I broke down the Redskins' college drafts over the past ten years. I limited it to ten years on the premise that beyond that period of time, the data has increasingly little practical relevance to the present, given the number of major external factors (ownership changes, front office changes, coaching changes, player aging and injury, etc.) that come into play.

Here are the raw numbers, broken down by year, total picks, number of linemen selected, player and round selected:

1999 – 6 overall picks, 2 linemen
OT Jon Jansen (2), OG Derek Smith (5)

2000 – 8 picks, 3 linemen
OT C. Samuels (1), OG M. Moore (4), DT D. Cowsette (7)

2001 – 5 picks, 1 lineman
DT Mario Monds (6)

2002 – 10 picks, 2 linemen
OT Reggie Coleman (6), DE Greg Scott (7)

2003 – 3 picks, 1 lineman
OG Derrick Dockery (3)

2004 – 4 picks, 2 linemen
OT Mark Wilson (5), OT Jim Molinaro (6)

2005 – 6 picks, 0 linemen

2006 – 6 picks, 3 linemen
DT A. Montgomery (5), DT K. Golston (6), OG K. Lefotu (7)

2007 – 5 picks, 0 linemen

2008 – 10 picks, 2 linemen
OG Chad Rinehart (3), DE Rob Jackson (7)

Total Picks 63, linemen 16 (25%)

... and broken down by round:

1st Round: 1 (’00)
2nd Round: 1 (’99)
3rd Round: 2 (’03, ’08)
4th Round: 1 (’00)
5th Round: 3 (’99, ’04, ’06)
6th Round: 4 (‘01, ’02, ’04, ’06)
7th Round: 4 (’00, ’02, ’07, ’08)

Of note:

- Over their past five drafts Washington selected 7 linemen (1 third, 2 fifths, 2 sixths, 2 sevenths).

- Dating back to 1992, when the NFL reduced the number of draft rounds from 12 to 7, in those six additional drafts the Redskins selected 12 linemen out of 45 total picks (1 first, 2 seconds, 3 thirds, 1 fourth, 4 fifths and 3 sixths).

Moving on …

Recognizing that numbers in a vacuum are of little practical use, I went on to compare and contrast the Redskins’ last ten drafts against those of their primary opponents, the three other NFC East teams.

I chose to start with that comparison because,

1) the six games (37.5% of each regular season) the Redskins play against those three teams every year have such a significant impact on their success or failure, and

2) the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants have provided a baseline of consistently solid programs over that time against which to measure the Redskins’ success.

This is where it starts to get interesting.

Here are the past ten drafts for the NFCE by total picks, rounds in which linemen were selected and year:

Dallas Cowboys
76 total picks; 28 linemen (37%)
1st round: 3 - '99, ‘05 (2)
2nd round: 4 - '99, '02, '03, '04
3rd round: 4 - '01, '04, '06, '07
4th round: 3 - '99, '05, '07
5th round: 1 - '01
6th round: 5 - '01, '02, '05, '06, '08
7th round: 8 - '99, '01, '03, '05, '06 (2)

Philadelphia Eagles
84 picks, 33 linemen (39%)
1st round: 5 – '00, '03, '04, '05, '06
2nd round: 4 – '00, '06, '07, '08
3rd round: 2 – '99, '01
4th round: 7 – '99, '02, '03, '04, '05, '06, '08
5th round: 2 – '05(2)
6th round: 6 – '00(2), '03, '05, '06, '08
7th round: 7 – '99(2), '02, '04(2), '05, '08

New York Giants
72 total picks, 24 linemen (33%)
1st round: 3 – '99, '03, '06
2nd round: 2 – '02, '03, '04
3rd round: 3 – '02, '05, '07
4th round: 4 – '01, '04, '06(2)
5th round: 2 – '99, '03
6th round: 3 – '05, '07, '08
7th round: 6 – '99, '00, '01, '03, '04(2)

Washington Redskins
63 total picks, 16 linemen (25%)
1st round: 1 – '00
2nd round: 1 – '99
3rd round: 2 – '03, '08
4th round: 1 – '00
5th round: 3 – '99, '04, '06
6th round: 4 - '01, '02, '04
7th round: 4 – '00, '02, '07, '08

For side-by-side tables breaking down linemen drafted by NFCE teams, by round and year, click here. I will also be posting a list identifying each of the players referenced.

The Redskins have had 63 total draft picks over the past ten years. The other three teams have had 84 (Eagles), 76 (Cowboys) and 72 (Giants). The disparity speaks loudly to the Redskins philosophy under owner Dan Snyder of using draft picks as currency in the free agency market.

For the record, I have supported the use of free agency, but always as a complement to the draft, not a replacement, which it became overall for several seasons early in Mr. Snyder's tenure and has largely continued to date insofar as the acquisition of linemen.

Which leads to the next obvious element.

Any meaningful analysis of the Redskins overall personnel strategy has to include those players acquired through free agency as well as the draft. To that end, I am currently researching the free agent linemen acquisitions of each of the four NFCE teams over the past ten years. Those results will be published separately in the coming days.

So what does all this mean?

One thing is obvious—compared to their division rivals, the Redskins are far less active drafting linemen—both in terms of total number of picks used (25% versus an average of 36%), and in terms of how high in each draft they select linemen (see tables).

Another obvious thing is that given the lack of quality young depth ready to step in and take over for aging and/or ineffective starters, the Redskins have been unable to bridge the gap between the number of linemen drafted and those acquired through free agency. Given my intial look at the free agency names and numbers, I suspect that message will be driven home convincingly.

For me at least, though, the case for that statement has already been made. It begins and ends with the fact that this past Sunday night in Baltimore, the Redskins top two reserve offensive tackles were,

1) a second-year undrafted free agent with nine so-so (that’s a technical term) career starts, who lost his starting job at the beginning of the season, and

2) a 2005 6th-round draft pick C/G, already on his third team, who has never started an NFL game.

To be clear—that is not an indictment of the players. It is instead your humble scribe experiencing something bordering on shock after watching a wealthy team, with serious playoff ambitions, find itself in a defining December game with so precious little in the cupboard that it simply had no better pedigreed, qualified or prepared options.

But we'll let the facts to the talking.

Up next, a breakdown of the current lineman depth charts for the Redskins and rest of the NFC East, broken down in terms of how acquired, when, and whatever else of interest springs from the research.

After that, time and interest permitting, we'll move on to look at a representative sample of other NFL teams, focusing on the perennial contenders, to see how the Redskins approach to building the foundation of any football team stacks up.

Until then, I leave you to contemplate the numbers and their significance.


Note: edited to include previously omitted NYG '04 2nd-round pick OG Chris Snee.

December 8, 2008

T. Suggs: "You've got a mistake."

Just a quickie I can't let go without mention. I mean, why not--we're all big boys and girls here.

Regarding the accumulating stream of injuries that finally flooded its banks and became a rampaging river last night in Baltimore, as both starting offensive tackles, Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, went down to injury and the Redskins were left scrambling for warm bodies ...

It’s so bad that even the opposition feels obligated to weigh in. After blowing past offensive lineman Justin Geisinger, who was in the game after Samuels’ injury, Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs crushed Campbell for a 12-yard loss and then turned to the Redskins sideline with some words for the coaching staff.

“I actually pointed at Jim Zorn and said, ‘You can’t do this, you’re going to get your quarterback hurt,’” Suggs told Jason la Canfora of the Washington Post after the game. “I was like, ‘I don’t think this guy is supposed to be here. You’ve got a mistake.’"

[From the one and only Brian Murphy at Homer McFanboy]

I'll say it again. Ouch.

Coach Zorn has a job to do this week, making sure the whispers don't start in his own locker room.


The rest of the story:

Finally checked out the Redskins Insider entry that was the basis for the above. Fairness to all parties concerned dictates that the rest of Suggs' quote be appended:

Suggs praised Geisinger for surviving the mismatch. "He did good," Suggs said. "I only got one sack on him. He did a good job for what he was. As a center he shouldn't have to play tackle."

Fair enough.

Doesn't change the Truth underpinning the reason for the post, however. That the Redskins' were without game- or even position-ready options to man a spot as crucial as left tackle, stands as further evidence of their inadequate attention to the bedrock of any professional football team--the line of srimmage.

Overstating the case? I don't think so.

Some drums need beating.

Ravens Morning After: Assessing the Damage

I wrote last week that for the rest of the 2008 season, I would be studying the Redskins for certain indicators—both in terms of their chances of qualifying for a wildcard spot, and more importantly, with a critical eye toward the future.

What I saw last night only served to confirm the feeling I've had since the Pittsburgh game a month ago. These Redskins are just good enough to break your heart.

Breaking from convention by writing on the day after a game, here's a quick point-by-point look at the specific areas on which I said I’d focus:

"I’ll be watching for signs that Jason Campbell is progressing as Coach Zorn says he is, and as my intellect, if not my gut, still believes."

Jason Campbell continued to look pretty good when he had time to throw, and out of his depth when he did not.

He continued to look like a seven-step-drop, play-action square peg being hammered, with limited success, into a quick-read, quick-release west-coast-offense round hole.

He continued to peel himself off the turf, dust himself off and go back for more, playing the silent lead-by-example field general on a team desperately lacking offensive fire—literally and figuratively.

In short, his stock neither rose nor fell. In light of how vital progress at the quarterback position is to this teams’ immediate and long-term success, however, the fact he stayed even is cause for little rejoicing.

Coach Zorn’s biggest offseason priority—beyond filibustering Vinny Cerrato to finally, mercifully, draft some big people—will be deciding if Campbell is his long-term solution at QB. If so, my own inner clock tells me Jason has until about midseason of next year to prove him right. By that point I suspect I will know … and Zorn will as well.

Based on what I’ve seen to this point, I’d put it about 50-50 that Jason Campbell will be the presumptive starter heading into 2010.

"I’ll be watching for signs that the receiving corps can threaten defenses with anything other than a double-covered Santana Moss downfield and Chris Cooley underneath."


With a passing game as dysfunctional as the Redskins are fielding these days, it’s not just the receivers, the quarterback, the line or the playcalling. It’s all of them. But the receivers certainly didn’t help the cause much last night.

It’s not so much they did bad things, they just didn’t do enough good ones. Antwaan Randle El’s late touchdown was definitely big, and it might have proven a whole lot bigger if the defense hadn’t immediately collapsed afterwards. But beyond that, the 13 catches for 133 yards turned in by the wideouts and tight ends had little impact in the flow of the game.

As has been the case for several weeks, there were no jump-out-of-your-chair big plays—the kind that flip the field and get an entire team going. The day a Redskins receiver goes up and takes a deep ball away from a defender again, or simply blows by someone and hauls one in for seven, I promise to jump out of my chair again.

Until then … fingers tapping.

"I’ll be watching for signs that Zorn has answers to the answers that other teams have come up with for his offense."

One ouch:

When the head coach tells the press after the game that the chief problem offensively early was “communication,” i.e, players knowing protection schemes and being able to adjust them at the line of scrimmage, there’s a problem.

By game 13 of an NFL season, you pretty much need to have figured out who is supposed to block who and how to get them the word. If you haven’t, and you can’t, it doesn’t particularly matter how good or bad your offensive line is in one-on-one matchups. Going none-on-one is going to lose you games and quarterbacks.

And one “yeah but” plus:

For the first time in several weeks, the Redskins made a concerted effort to get the ball downfield. They gave their quarterback a chance to drop, set and throw deep a handful of times, which was a good sign physically and philosophically. That they were unable to connect on any was a major factor in the game, but it was a damn sight better than not trying at all.

Perhaps we have come out the other side of Coach Zorn’s recent head-scratching affair with Marty Ball.

"I’ll be watching for signs that defensive coordinator Greg Blache can squeeze blood from a stone and get a hit on the opposing quarterback once in a while."

Ravens QB Joe Flacco woke up this morning, swung his feet to the floor, stretched, yawned, scratched himself and said, “Damn—I feel great.”

The Redskins defense reprised its performance from the Dallas game two weeks ago. They played solid football for 50 minutes, more than making up for the disastrous first series allowing an easy touchdown drive after Ravens safety Ed Reed’s interception, with two late turnovers of their own that gave the Redskins a chance to steal a game they really had no business winning.

But as happened against Dallas, they couldn’t close.

Between the first backpedalling series that gave Baltimore a quick 7-0 lead and the last touchdown drive they allowed after Campbell hit Randle El to cut it to 17-10, the defense did this:

3 plays, 9 yards, punt
3 plays, 4 yards, punt
3 plays, 2 yards, punt
3 plays, 1 yard, punt
4 plays, 35 yards, punt
3 plays, 9 yards, punt
14 plays, 65 yards, FG
3 plays, -3 yards, INT
2 plays, 10 yards, fumble

For those scoring at home, that’s 38 plays for 132 yards (3.47 avg.), 6 punts, 3 points allowed and 2 turnovers.

But then, with their team suddnely back in the game with 11:27 left, they were not up to the task, unable to stop the basic running plays everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew were coming.

12 plays, 83 yards, 7:52 time of possession, TD
(11 runs for 55 yards, 1 pass for 28)

Game over.

Just good enough to break your heart.

"And, agonizingly, I’ll be watching the Redskins linemen, on both sides of the ball, continue to get pushed around against the NFL’s big boys.That last part, in my view, is easily the Redskins biggest problem going forward."

Later this week I’ll post the results of research comparing how the Redskins have approached building their lines of scrimmage as compared to the other NFC East teams, and time permitting, against a few other teams known for physicality as the foundation of sustained success. Pittsburgh and Baltimore spring quickly to mind.

Based on what the numbers have shown so far, my early sense is it will be painfully obvious how and why we have arrived at a point in time where the Washington Redskins are simply not competitive in the trenches against the NFL’s better teams.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

More when the bile settles, the head clears and I can assure myself I’m writing from the latter.

December 4, 2008

Lambs and Bulls (A Redskins Story)

Only one good thing came out of the butt-kicking the NY Giants laid on the Redskins last Sunday:

Clarity. We know who the 2008 Redskins are.

What this Redskins team has shown is the ability to win the games it “should.” Against teams coming in with losing records, they have gone 3-1 (Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, St. Louis). That’s a good thing—and something that was not a given coming into 2008 given the coaching and systemic changes.

When the season is over and the immediacy of the letdown that appears to be at hand from following a 6-2 start with scratching, clawing and scoreboard-watching down the stretch just to make the playoffs, overall I think most fans will be pleased with what the team was able to establish in Jim Zorn’s rookie year.

Unfortunately, what the 2008 Redskins have also shown is that they are not ready to compete with the NFL’s big boys.

Washington has chalked up four “quality” wins this season (all in the four-week stretch after losing the opener in New York)—New Orleans, Arizona, Dallas and Philadelphia. Since then, as the season has moved from the first-half appetizer to second-half main course, they have faced three tests against some of the NFL’s best teams—Pittsburgh, Dallas (much as it pains me to say it) and the Giants again. In each, the Redskins were overmatched physically and beaten convincingly.

Even in the 4-point home loss (to a Dallas team starting a quarterback coming back from a throwing hand injury wearing a cast) the Redskins were pushed around up front, on both sides of the ball, and never really seemed a threat to win the game. Those four points might as well have been 14.

So … now we know. The 2008 Redskins are the quintessential middle-class team—good enough to take down the lambs, not good enough to run with the bulls.

In my view there are two basic ways NFL teams can bridge that chasm.

The first is to land a Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Allow me to point out that the Redskins don’t have one. Jason Campbell could still become one, but at this point, like me, you probably aren’t betting your hard-earned dollars on it (at least not in a West Coast offense). And rookie Colt Brennan, as intriguing as he might be, at this point is just a live lottery ticket.

Unfortunately, landing that franchise quarterbacks is a bit like actually hitting the lottery—a whole lot more luck than skill. A franchise can either, 1) be awful enough for long enough, like the Indianapolis Colts, to happen to hold the number one draft pick in a year a Peyton Manning comes out, or 2) luck into one, like New England did in taking a flier on a project named Tom Brady with their second 6th-round pick (#199 overall) in 2000.

Of the two options, the second is preferable. Mainly becuase your team doesn’t have to be awful enough sit at the top of the draft waiting around for a Peyton Manning. And because luck does in fact happen:

The 49ers got Joe Montana in the 3rd round. Green Bay ended up with Brett Favre only after Atlanta decided it didn’t see anything special there and let him walk. The Dallas Cowboys seem to have gotten a boatload of it when they signed some kid named Romo as an undrafted free agent and sat him on the bench for four years to ripen.

Who knows, maybe the Redskins already have The Man on their roster. Maybe the proverbial light will click on for Jason Campbell one of these weeks and he’ll soar, taking the team with him. Or maybe they lucked into Him in taking a flier on Colt Brennan in last April’s draft.

But they don’t have one today, and unless something magical happens between now and then, they won’t have one on the field against another elite team—defensively, anyway—this coming Sunday night in Baltimore.

Which brings us to the other way to build an elite team.

Control the line of scrimmage. On offense, run well enough make the defense respect it, and protect your quarterback well enough to allow him to threaten them down the field. And on defense, contain the run and get after the other quarterback enough to force him from his comfort zone. Simple in theory, a bitch in practice.

The Redskins can do it against average teams. They can’t against the elite.

Which is where the clarity thing finally comes in. For the rest of this year I’ll be watching this Redskins team on two distinct levels.

First, I have not forgotten that they are 7-5 and very much alive in the playoff hunt. One doesn’t have to look back far to find under-the-radar wildcard teams getting hot in the playoffs and making serious January noise. If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to point them out.

Which means I’ll absolutely be riding the rollercoaster the rest of the way, play-by-play, series-by-series, game-by-game. Clarity or not, when this team is on the field I’m living and dying with it.

But I’ll also be watching with one dispassionate, critical eye toward the future.

I’ll be watching for signs that Jason Campbell is progressing as Coach Zorn says he is, and as my intellect, if not my gut, still believes.

I’ll be watching for signs that the receiving corps can threaten defenses with anything other than a double-covered Santana Moss downfield and Chris Cooley underneath.

I’ll be watching for signs that Zorn has answers to the answers that other teams have come up with for his offense.

I’ll be watching for signs that defensive coordinator Greg Blache can squeeze blood from a stone and get a hit on the opposing quarterback once in a while.

And, agonizingly, I’ll be watching the Redskins linemen, on both sides of the ball, continue to get pushed around against the NFL’s big boys.

That last part, in my view, is easily the Redskins biggest problem going forward.

If the quarterback were to somehow explode and start lighting it up, the offensive line could still get the job done this year, and at least make the transition to next a far less pressing concern. But as of right now, with zero credible downfield passing threat, they cannot consistently move 7- and 8-man fronts off the ball in the run game, nor keep teams fielding NFL-caliber pass rushers off their quarterback.

Defensively, things are even less comfortable. This Redskins team simply cannot generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. They can’t do it with the down linemen alone, and they can’t seem to do it with scheme either, as game after game we watch Blache send the house on key downs, only to see every rusher stick to a blocker, and the QB find time and a clear lane to throw to an uncovered receiver.

That is what has me most concerned long-term. I’m convinced we’ll get adequate QB play in the next year or two. Campbell, Brennan or someone not even on the radar today will solidify that position; at least enough to make the offense competitive. Functional West Coast quarterbacks are out there, and if a team is solid at the line of scrimmage, you can win with one. See Tampa Bay, 2008.

But the lines are another matter. For so many years I’ve lost count, fans and media have questioned the Redskins philosophy of focusing on skill position players in the draft and free agency, relegating the line of scrimmage to later-round picks and free agent fill-ins.

Personally, I’d like to see them devote all of their early-round 2009 and 2010 draft picks, and any priority free agent targets, to assembling a class of athletic, relentless, slightly sociopathic (between the lines anyway) big men. The kind teams like the Giants, Cowboys, Steelers and Ravens have and will throw at the Redskins, making their lines look old, slow and overmatched by comparison.

I just don’t have a lot of confidence that's going to happen. I don’t recall if he has actually come out and said or just intimated it, but my clear sense is that personnel honcho Vinny Cerrato’s philosophy is that big men are easier to pick up in the later rounds and secondary free agent market than great skill players.

For the record … Vinny Cerrato is an NFL personnel man. I am guy who writes about NFL personnel men from the comfort of a desk chair. I understand I’m not “qualified” to pass judgment on Cerrato.

But I have eyes ... and what I see a team with a nice complement of skill players. A team that can generally beat bad and average teams. But a team that gets physically overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage against the NFL’s best.

A precious few teams reach that level by having great quarterbacks who elevate everyone around them, masking other deficiencies. Other teams, those not fortunate enough to land The Man, follow the old standard philosophy that football, even in this highlight-driven age, is still a fundamental game won and lost in the trenches.

Own the line of scrimmage, you win. Get pushed around, you lose.

Unless the Redskins develop or find The Man behind center, my strong sense is that they have hit a plateau. They’re pretty good—and they’re going to get better as they learn Zorn’s passing game. But they’re not going to be great. Not without a serious infusion of youth, size, hunger and power in the trenches.

Watch closely Sunday night. The story of the game—and ultimately, I suspect, the season—won’t be told by guys wearing numbers in the teens, 20’s and 80’s. As it almost always is when December rolls around and the league gets nasty, in a game not involving one of the small handful of superstar quarterbacks, it will be decided by guys wearing numbers in the 60’s, 70’s and 90’s.

I’d like to think Messrs. Cerrato and Dan Snyder will be watching as well ... though as the years go by, I’m less and less hopeful of that. If I was a pessimist, I’d probably suggest that means I will writing this same column again at this time next year.

Fortunately, I’m an optimist, so I’ll leave you with this:

Scenario 1. Jason Campbell, Colt Brennan or someone not on the radar today will walk onto the field one of these days, clad in burgundy and gold, become an elite quarterback, and remove any doubt still lingering out there about exactly what that means in today’s NFL.

Scenario 2. Between now and next September, there will be at least a half-dozen new large, powerful and borderline crazy young behemoths in burgundy and gold putting their hands in the dirt looking to kick someone’s ass.

Scenario 3. Both of the above will happen, and you and I will spend the next ten years being completely insufferable to fans of merely mortal teams.




In the event you’ve come this far and your eyes aren’t bleeding already …

On the Redskins recent record of drafting linemen, my comments were not just idle speculation. History does not lie. Since drafting Chris Samuels #3 overall in 2000, the Redskins have drafted two lineman higher than the 5th round—tackle Chad Rinehart, with their 3rd round pick (#96 overall) in ’08, and Derrick Dockery with their third-rounder (#81) in 2003.

Beyond that, of the 49 total picks they have made in the eight drafts since grabbing Samuels in 2000, a total of nine more have been for linemen—2 fifths, 4 sixths and 3 sevenths.

There’s a reason the Redskins get pushed around up front.

And I haven’t forgotten free agency. The Redskins did pick up Cornelius Griffin, Andre Carter and Jason Taylor. As I’m sure you recall, none were highly sought-after by the rest of the league. As solid a run-stuffer and good guy as Griffin has been, and despite the brief sack-flash in 2007 from Carter … turns out there was a reason for that.


Late note: apologies for all the edits on this one. I should know better than to rush a post by now. Making it a New Year's resolution to clean up my act.