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.

Hail.


***

Addendum

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

beautiful. better than anything the front office could say. and you put it so well. I wish u wrote everyday. Its always my pleasure to read you articles

BigRedskinDaddy said...

Good work, brother. I must be an optimist as well, because I continue to believe (or is it hope?) that Vinny IS learning his job, or rather what it takes to make a winning squad. The big uglies, as Keith Jackson used to say.

HTTR

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Anon,

Too kind. Hopefully one day I'll learn to break up tomes like this into chapters, the better to blog every day. :)

BRD,

I hope you're right. We'll know come April. If they go *another* year w/o seriously targeting big men, I think we'll have our answer. No way anyone objective can look at this team today and suggest the lines are not both in need of serious attention.

Anonymous said...

i love our offseason acquisitions because we always have an interesting offseason and i can be sure to see us in the spotlight. but i guess fans like me have to get over free agent addiction and be patient as we build through the draft.So maybe we can have the spotlight the 1st week of Feb. HTTR.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Right on the money. And I'm as guilty as the next guy--there's an excitement attached to brining aboard "skill position" players. It promises Sportscenter highlight moments.

But when it comes right down to it ... if you can't hold your own down in the mud inside, you're going to end up watching the teams that can on TV over the holidays.

Sean said...

I'm less concerned about the overall play of the offensive line than I am about the defensive line.

I think the OL has done relatively well when it's just four down-lineman rushing the passer.

They've shown weakness when opposing defenses blitz. I'm not entirely sold that Campbell isn't to blame. There have been many articles lately that take most of the blame from Campbell. I have eyes also.

What Campbell seems to do is hang onto the football waiting for someone to get open instead of reading the defense, recognizing the blitz, locating the open man, and getting rid of the football. There will be openings when teams blitz. This must be done very quickly, of course. Maybe I'm expecting too much.

He needs to read the defense, not wait for people to get open.

Sunday should be interesting. The Ravens have the exact type of defense that should succeed against the Redskins. They pressure, they blitz, they confuse offenses.

It'll be interesting to see if the Redskins' offense can adapt.

As I've become sort of obsessed with Colt Brennan, I think that if he ever gets on the field, he'll either be very, very good or very, very bad. Boom or bust. Not in between.

It's interesting you bring up Brady. Could be something like that for Brennan. Both are 6th round picks. Not saying that Brennan will be Brady-good, but just saying he could be.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Sean,

The OL started off the year protecting well enough against four downs only, but I saw far too many instances against PIT, DAL and NYG when their defensive lines were getting too much heat, too fast, on Jason. Jansen in particular--the man has spent more time in the backfield this year than Ladell Betts.

( *rim shot* )

If nothing else, my take is that within the next couple of years, none of the current 5 starters are likely to be starters any more ... and I'm deeply concerned about who's going to take their places

With you on Campbell. No one's been a bigger fan than I, but I've seen and heard about enough times where he's missed key reads that to not worry at least a *little* about his ability in that area would be kidding myself.

Still love to see the man succeed, but I won't hesitate to call it like I see it if I become convinced he's just another guy.

I'll hold off on Colt for now, too. I'm intrigued by the (very) little I've seen, but without a whole lot more data--seeing him play with my own two eyes--I'm not falling into any love affairs just yet.