September 28, 2008

Game Day: Word to the Wise

Dear Dallas Cowboys,

About your encounter this afternoon with the Washington Redskins, two words:

Start fast.

Get out of the gate strong, ride the manic early crowd energy in that sterile Stadium of yours while the liquid tailgate cheer is still fresh, and take control. Because if you don't, and instead find yourselves heading into the 4th quarter with the visiting underdogs having matched your intensity, and answered your physicality, and it comes down to an actual football game ... all the love you have been receiving all year is going to start working against you. Restless crowd, tiniest unspoken but insidious seeds of doubt on the bench, emboldened and energized underdog arch-rival by all accounts NOT in awe of or cowering in fear from The Wonder That Is America's Team ...

Well, like I said. Do yourselves a favor.

Knock the Redskins out early.



PS. Washington 26, Dallas 24. And it was nowhere near that close.

I tried to tell you, Big D. I really did. But you wouldn't listen.

Deepest Sympathies.

September 25, 2008

A Rising Tide

With the Redskins facing back-to-back road games the next two weeks, against arguably the two hottest teams in football, it would be easy to shuffle past their last two games without pausing to smell the roses. The way I see it, football season—not to mention life—is too short for that. Those who forget to enjoy the journey ignore one key fact—none of us are getting out of here alive.

So … a midweek gift from life to you:


(Stop it. “Real men” eat quiche, smell flowers or do whatever the hell else they want.)

There an aphorism … “a rising tide lifts all boats” … that I have always associated professional football. Specifically, I have argued (‘til my fingertips bled) that what ultimately separates elite teams from the pack is the man they put behind center. That those teams able to land a true "Franchise QB"—you know one when you see one—quickly break from the pack. And those teams smart and/or lucky enough to then build a solid machine around that guy, contend for championships.

By the way, it’s come to my attention there are those out there who still dispute this Fundamental NFL Truth (shocking, I know), but we’ll let them slide this week. At 2-1, we can be magnanimous.

So for purposes of this discussion … while it’s far too early to say Redskins QB Jason Campbell has officially become That Guy, it is not too early to see the uplifting impact his play has had on the 2008 Redskins.

The Quarterback

Let’s face it, the opener in New York was a Campbellian catastrophe. And the first three quarters against the Saints weren’t much better. I’ll admit to entertaining some pretty dark thoughts about his ability to run the West Coast Offense as game two, and an 0-2 start, stared the Redskins in the face in the fourth quarter last Sunday.

But, late in that game, literally just as it seemed a lost cause, something changed. And since then, Jason Campbell has been money. It started with 10 minutes to go against the Saints.

You remember ... Skins trailing by nine. After a 12-yard sack backed the Skins up to their own 6 yard line, it was 2nd and 22. And then something happened:

Campbell found Cooley for 23 and a huge first down, then led the team on an 8-play, 82-yard touchdown drive (94, counting the sack), going 5-for-5 for 82 yards. A suddenly energized defense got the ball back, and his next play—a 67-yard highlight reel bomb to Santana Moss—lit up FedEx and gave Washington the lead. After the D held again (more thoughts on that below), Campbell did the ice-water-in-the-veins thing, killing the clock and sealing the win with an assassin's 4th-and-2 slant to Moss.

And just like that, what 10 minutes earlier felt like an 0-2 funeral march was a 1-1 last-minute stay of execution (with a "sorry" note and half a mil in nuisance money).

Against the Cardinals the following week, Campbell picked up where he left off. On the game's opening possession he led an 11-play, 60-yard touchdown drive, going 6-for-6 for 37 yards and scrambling 16 to convert a key third down. Before you knew it, the Skins were up 10-0 and looking confident. Later in the game, with Arizona having battled back and tied the game at 10, with momentum suddenly on their side, Campbell responded, leading the Skins on an 11-play, 80 yard touchdown drive, using 9:20 on the clock, going 6-for-6 for 30 yards and the score.

After a turnover by the defense (Carlos!) in the fourth quarter, he and Moss teamed up for the go-ahead score just two plays later. And with the game on the line and the Redskins needing just one more first down to run out the clock a short while later, he cooly executed a high-degree-of-difficulty, rolling-to-his-left jump pass, off a naked bootleg no less (strange language football has developed) to Chris "Finger Eleven" Cooley to seal the game.

Was Jason Campbell great throughout the game? Or on every series since the light appeared to suddenly blink on for him late in the game against New Orleans?

No. He’s just been great when he had to be. And that has made all the difference.

The Defense

The effects have filtered down too … though in the case of the defense, it’s not always been as easy to recognize.

It’s not always been easy watching Blache’s defense this year, particularly given the “oh my god” reaction every Redskins fan had to the first half of the opener in New York. Truth is, even about half the time since then I’ve found myself conjuring colorful metaphors in their honor because, dammit, they seem to be doing the exact same things that have driven us crazy for the last X number of years:

They can’t hold the point of attack against the run.
They can’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
They can't cover.
And worst of all, they can’t get off the field on third down.

So when Kurt Warner stood in the pocket picking daisies late in the third quarter against AZ, waiting for Larry Fitzgerald to skip merrily through the secondary, and hit him in stride for a playground touchdown to tie the game … well, I was convinced the defense—and the Redskins—were done. 1-2. Opportunity lost. Season on the brink.

But of course, they weren’t done. Not even close. In large part a credit to their own tenacity (and Leigh Torrence using his head), and on the rising tide of an offense capitalizing by scoring a quick touchdown after the Rogers turnover … they dug in and found a way to get Warner and Co. off the field on their each of their three final drives in deadly efficient fashion.

Arizona’s final possessions:

Two-and-out, -3 yards; ending with Rogers’ interception.
Four-and-out, 15 yards;one first down, ending with a sack on 3rd-and-ll.
Three-and-out, 6 yards; ending with a punt at 2:46 to go.

If you’re like me, that’s probably better than in-the-moment memory credit them for. In fact, I was surprised enough that I dug a little further into the defensive numbers for the season … and something became evident. These guys aren’t physically whipping people, a la ’85 Bears or ’00 Ravens, but they’ve been pretty damn effective.

Week One, at Giants. After three weeks, including the Skins game, the Giant offense is currently ranked 3rd in the NFL. In their two other games, they scored 41 (STL) and 26 (CIN) points. The Redskins, in a game in which their own offense provided no support at all, held them to 16. The Giants went for 441 yards against the Rams, and 406 against the Bengals. The Redskins allowed 354.

Week Two, Saints. New Orleans’ offense is currently ranked 4th. In their other two games, they scored 24 (TB) and 32 (DEN). The Redskins allowed 17 (Reggie Bush’s punt return accounted for the other 7). The Saints went for 438 yards against the Bucs, and racked up 502 against the Broncos in Denver. The Redskins held them to 250.

Week Three, Cardinals. Arizona’s offense is currently ranked 10th. In their other two games, they scored 23 (SF) and 31 (MIA). The Redskins held them to 17. The Cards went for 285 yards against the 49ers, and 445 against Miami. The Redskins allowed 313.

Point being … they aren’t overpowering anybody and don’t always look like they’re doing the job in that often maddening bend-but-don’t-break style of theirs, but when the final gun sounds and you look at the numbers … it ain’t all bad. Certainly not deserving of the nasty looks I suspect your humble scribe was not alone in casting their way from the comfort of his living room.

What’s the QB connection? Easy.

Campbell has kept drives alive, turning time of possession in Washington’s favor (34:14 vs. NO; 33:05 vs. AZ).

He’s put touchdowns on the board instead of field goals (6-for-10 in the red zone, all six scores TD’s).

He’s helped control field position. I haven’t run the field-position numbers, but I have an overwhelming sense of improvement in that area since last season (someone feel free to prove me wrong on that one). The Redskins D the past few years, have always seemed to be starting in their own end, defending a short field. This year, not so. Even when Cambell and the offense don’t score, they’re generating a couple of first downs and giving the special teams good enough field position to punt deep into the other team’s end. If my feeling on that isn’t supported by the numbers, I’ll gladly take it back, but for two weeks now I’ve found myself commenting several times that they’d “flipped the field,” and how key that was, and what a welcome change.

There are no stats to measure the frustration level of a defense whose counterparts on offense continuously go 3-and-out and cannot score … but you can definitely see it in the body language on the field and sidelines. The rising tide of the Redskins offense has allowed the defense to stay fresh, play with confidence and, despite appearances sometimes, do far more than carry their weight.

The Zornian Cojones

It’s official. The man has them.

True, sometimes it’s hard to tell—like in the Giants game, and again at the end of the first half against Arizona (up 10-7 with 2:43 to go, three straight Portis runs net 9 yards, one short of avoiding colorful metaphors). But, for two weeks in a row, with tight games on the line and needing one monster first down to put them away, he's made the kind of hero-if-it-works, goat-if-it-doesn’t call to put the game on ice.

The kind we haven’t seen around here lately.

Redskins fans for years have watched games slip away in similar circumstances. Faced with a chance to try the high-risk, high-reward play to seal the win, the Redskins have opted for the safe route. No one’s a bigger Joe Gibbs fan than I, but I know full well he would have punted on 4th-and-2 against New Orleans, and we’d have watched between our fingers as the defense tried to keep Drew Brees from breaking our hearts.

And against Arizona, Gibbs would have run on 2nd-and-7, and almost certainly 3rd-and 7, played the percentages and punted with less than a minute to go. And again we’d have been holding our breaths as the D tried to hold on.

Instead, Zorn elected to take the risk, and twice reaped the reward. Partly because as a rookie head coach he’s playing with house money (it's a lot easier to make those calls as a young coach trying to make your way, than as an entrenched one trying not to lose it), but also because he had enough confidence in his young quarterback to deliver in crunch time. He doesn’t call the 4th down game-clinching slant to Moss, or the 2nd-and-7 naked boot to Cooley, if he doesn’t believe in his QB. No coach does.

You simply cannot overestimate that as a factor in team’s 2-1 record.

No, the Redskins have not been dominant, but they have answered the bell at crucial times, and overcame enough bad breaks, to make the plays when the game was on the line. For those of us who have lived and died with this team for the last fifteen years in the desert, the significance of that has not been lost.

Regardless of what happens the next two weeks, what we're seeing is the foundation being laid for a new Redskins team. And the single biggest factor, by far, has been the timely, deadly effective play of the most important man on any football field--the quarterback.

Oh, I know what some of you are saying. “Let’s see Campbell keep bringing in the tide against Dallas and Philly.” That’s fair—he could have two awful games and the team could get mauled. But it would be just as unfair to fail to acknowledge the fundamental change in the way the Redskins have won their last two games, or acknowledge the impact of the play of Jason Campbell in achieving them.

If he keeps playing at this level--and as of today there is no sound reason to suggest that more often than not he won't--the Redskins ship is headed to smoother waters that it has sailed in a very long time.



NFL Rankings

Offense: Yards - 14th (329); Scoring - 18th (20)
Defense: Yards - 13th (305.7); Scoring - 9th (19)


Turnover Differential
(Caused / Committed)
Game 1 (L) – 1/0 (+1)
Game 2 (W) – 3/1 (+2)
Game 3 (W) - 2/0 (+2)
Season (2-1) – 6/1 (+5)


3rd down Efficiency
Game 1 (L) – Off. 3/13 (23%); Def. 7/14 (50%)
Game 2 (W) – Off. 3/11 (27%); Def. 3/10 (30%)
Game 3 (W) - Off. 5/11 (45%); Def. 5/11 (45)
Season – Off. 11/35 (%); Def. 15/35 (42.8%)


Red Zone Efficiency
Game 1 (L) – Off. 1/1 (100%, TD); Def. 1/3 (33%, TD)
Game 2 (W) – Off. 2/6 (33%, 2TD); Def. 2/2 (100%, TD)
Game 3 (W) - Off. 3/3 (100%, 3TD); Def. 1/2 (50%, TD)
Season – Off. 6/10 (60%, 6TD); Def. 4/7 (57%, 3TD)


Time of Possession
(Redskins / Opp.)
Game 1 (L) – 24:17 / 35:43
Game 2 (W) – 34:14 / 25:46
Game 3 (W) - 33:05 / 26:55


Wow, that was really long.

September 19, 2008

Opportunity Game

If last Sunday against the Saints was about confidence, this Sunday against Arizona is about opportunity. In all shapes and sizes.

Opportunity to slap down the nagging voice in the back of every single Redskins fan's mind, and probably in the minds of some of its players, reminding them that over past decade-and-a-half, the Washington Redskins have far too infrequently dealt well with success. How many times in recent years have the Redskins won a game in inspiring fashion, run off the field aglow with success and primed to build on that success ... only to slip on the proverbial banana peel the following week and fall right back on their collective keester?

Answer: too many.

Opportunity for Jason Campbell to build on his dramatic turn as a clutch, big-play finisher. He doesn’t have to go 300+ again to consolidate his confidence gains, but he does have to turn in another competent, professional effort of decision-making, field generalship, converting key third downs ... and most of all, leading his team in the end zone rather than settling for field goals. After last week, his teammates know he’s capable of doing it. If he can deliver again while that good buzz is fresh ... well, you do the math.

My gut over/under on points needed to win this week: 24

Opportunity for Jim Zorn to continue to show what appears after 2 weeks to be a pretty quick learning curve. Game-management; clock management, keeping the other defense off balance, continuing the process of syncing up with his quarterback ... Zorn made big strides in those areas from week one to week two. He too doesn’t have to be a genius on Sunday, just turn in another competent, professional sideline performance. After the tumult his rookie-ness caused in game one, he has the chance in week 3 to silence the “in over his head” altogether by simply showing he belongs.

Okay, not really--some will continue to say it no matter what. But he sure would make it easier to ignore them.

Opportunity for Greg Blatche and his defense to show they can contain a veteran, accurate QB with a dangerously quick release for a third straight week ... preferably without having to rely on the blitz to generate pressure. One thing about a guy like Kurt Warner–if you’re going to blitz him, you dams well better get there ... because he WILL hit the open man. Forget sacks–if the Redskins front four can simply generate enough consistent pressure to force Warner move his feet and throw before he wants to more often than he wants to, they’ll have a good chance at keeping the Cardinals in check.

The defense got to Eli Manning in the second half in the opener, and they got to Drew Brees enough to keep him in check last week. With the likes of Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb coming up, containing a cagey pro like Warner would be a great sign that the Redskins defense might be a unit capable of keeping the team in even the toughest games.

Opportunity for the Washington offense to finally, after many years, begin to earn enough respect from opposing defenses to get them to play the Redskins honestly. Clinton Portis alluded to it the other day in the comments that got him into so much heat this week. In the four years he has been here (and going back well before), defenses have flooded the line of scrimmage against the Redskins to stop the run. Why? Because they don’t fear the Redskins passing game.

It’s a simple formula, really. Stack the box to take away the run and short pass, force 3rd and longs, and dare the quarterback to make you pay. It’s why the NFL axiom about “balanced” offense exists in the first place. Until you can punish teams for cheating the line of scrimmage, they aren’t going to stop.

Rest assured that what Jason and the offense did in the 4th quarter against New Orleans did not go unnoticed. Cardinals DC Clancy Pendergast (due respect, but, someone screwed up in Central Casting) and his staff will probably start the game the same way teams have against the Redskins forever–crowding the box and daring them to go downfield. I know I would after all these years. But my guess is that having watched what Campbell did late against the Saints, they’ll be prepared to start backing off if he burns them once or twice early.

Doesn’t have to be bombs away--though one or two of those wouldn’t hurt. But successfully attacking the deep sidelines with Moss or Randle El, or isolating Cooley on a linebacker intermediate middle a couple times, could send the loud, clear message that you’d better not sleep on the Washington passing game any longer. You don’t need me, Portis or anyone else to tell you what the effect of at long last facing an honest defensive front to run against could have on this team.

Opportunity for the Redskins–once again in search of an identity, under yet another new head coach, running yet another new offensive system–to show themselves, the league and the football world that the NFC East isn’t just the best division in the league, but legitimately a four-team division.

The difference between heading off to Dallas and Philadelphia in two weeks at 2-1 coming off two consecutive wins, and 1-2 and having lost a winnable game at home, is monumental. At 2-1, all the Redskins have to do is steal one of two on the road, a not impossible task in a division scenario, to emerge 3-2 and feeling pretty damn good about themselves. Worst case, even at 2-3 if they lose but are competitive in both those games, they'd know they’re on the right track and have a chance to make a run down the stretch.

But heading off to Dallas and Philly at 1-2 would be a very different deal. They’d be looking at almost having to steal one just to stay afloat, trying to keep the demons and voices of doom–internal and external–from rearing their foul heads yet again. A 1-4 start in this year’s NFC East would be nothing short of a death sentence to any realistic playoff hopes, and worse, could turn the rest of the season into more of a proving ground for 2009 than a competitive season in 2008. Of turning 2008 into the kind of up-and-down, week-to-week, feast-or-famine rollercoaster that has bedeviled this team seemingly without a break since Joe Gibbs first retired after the 1992 season.

So ... is this a “must win?” Not really. Must wins are reserved for teams with serious, objective playoff expectations. I don’t believe the 2008 Redskins came into the season with that kind of label. They came in with hopes, but too many major questions to label them with "expectations." But coming off a stirring comeback win over the Saints to even their record at .500, with an eminently winnable home game on tap, the Redskins have definitely crafted themselves a clear opportunity to create some.

The Redskins have had a lot of similar games over the past 15 years. Dozens of them. And all too often, they have allowed those opportunities to slip through their fingers. All too often they have headed into this kind of game saying all the right things, then hitting the field inexplicably, infuriatingly flat, then sounding mystified as to why in the losing locker room afterwards.

Opportunity is definitely knocking on the Washington Redskins’ door this week. Question is, are they up, dressed, fed and ready to rock ... or did they hit the snooze button one time too many again, and find themselves with bed-head, one pant leg on and a surprised look on their face?

You can do without the extra nine minutes, gentlemen.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises." - Demosthenes


Happy Birthday, Kelsey.

September 17, 2008

Stat Tracker: Week 2

As in preseason, I’m going to keep running tabs this year of some of the key stats I've always felt tend to get overlooked in the Sportcenter highlight era we live in. At some point I’m planning create a nice clean table to throw all this stuff in, both for the sake of my brain and your eyes, but for this week at least I’ll stick with the format I used in preseason.

A thumbnail of what I plan to track and why:

I’ve been a big believer that turnover differential is perhaps THE key stat in today’s NFL, given how close the level of competition is and how many games are decided by one or two key plays a game. Nothing changes a game more quickly, or more dramatically, than the big turnover--ask Antwaan Randle El. Or Donovan McNabb.

Third down efficiency is another one that tends to get devalued, at least as compared to the sexier stats (passing yards, QB rating, rushing yards, etc.). While it doesn’t always translate directly to points, converting a few more 3rd downs a game offensively can have a dramatic effect on a game; affecting field position, keeping the defense fresh, keeping fans from pulling their little remaining hair out. Same for the defense; forcing 3-and-outs, making that big stuff on a key 3rd-and-1, they energize the team, the crowd, and gives those watching from home time to hit the head and grab another beer during the change-of-possession commercial. That's important.

Another key stat that can be deceiving is red zone efficiency. For one thing, “the red zone” is an arbitrary division of the field from the 20 yard line in—or the 25 depending on who’s doing the tracking. Why not the 30? The 10? Just saying. Plus it doesn’t account for how many times you might get down there to begin with. Is scoring a TD the one time all game you manage to drive down there, and getting a 100% efficiency rating, “better” than driving up and down the field all day but screwing it up once you get close and going 1-5 for 20%? Still … it's obvious you want your team scoring touchdowns, or at least bagging FG's, when they get inside the opponents 20. So we’re going to keep an eye on how the Skins do. Because we can.

Time of possession may or may not even belong on the "key stat" list, primarily because you can read almost anything you want into it. And it can end up having zero to do with how a game turns out. If you score 56 points but only hold the ball 20 minutes because you throw five 80-yard TD passes and break three 50-yard runs, all on first down … TOP is meaningless. Still, as a general pattern over many weeks, common sense does suggest that as a general rule you’d rather have your offense on the field more than your defense. So I'm going to track this one in the hope that at some point over the course of a long season it might provide insight into something. If nothing else, if we find ourselves at 3-10 and the band is playing on, maybe we can at least look at TOP and say, “Yeah, but we’re owning the hell out of the ball.”

So that's it. As mentioned above, I fully expect this feature to evolve over the course of the season, both in presentation and content, so don't hesitate to ask questions or make suggestions. Also, please feel free to point out mistakes. I studied English, History and Philosophy in college.


Week Two NFL Rankings

Offense: Yards 11th (332); Scoring 20th (18)
Defense: Yards 14th (302); Scoring 13th (20)


Turnover Differential
(Caused / Committed)
Game 1 (L) – 1/0 (+1)
Game 2 (W) – 3/1 (+2)
Season (1-1) – 4/1 (+3)


3rd down Efficiency
Game 1 (L) – Off. 3/13 (23%); Def. 7/14 (50%)
Game 2 (W) – Off. 3/11 (27%); Def. 3/10 (30%)
Season – Off. 6/24 (25%); Def. 10/24 (41.6%)


Red Zone Efficiency
Game 1 (L) – Off. 1/1 (100%, TD); Def. 1/3 (33%, TD)
Game 2 (W) – Off. 2/6 (33%, 2TD); Def. 2/2 (100%, 1TD)
Season – Off. 3/7 (42.8%, 3TD); Def. 3/5 (60%, 2TD)


Time of Possession
(Redskins / Opp.)
Game 1 (L) – 24:17 / 35:43
Game 2 (W) – 34:14 / 25:46
Season – 29:15 / 30:45

September 16, 2008

Confidence Game

Ouch … has it really been 8 days since the last update? Apologies. Time flies when the mierda hits life's ventilador.

Forgive me for cheating, but given what happened Sunday against the Saints, and that I may not be able to update again this week … here’s a draft of the piece I was working on last week I didn’t get to finish.

I think you’ll understand why I’m posting it now.

Confidence Game

Not to be all dramatic, but on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, Redskins QB Jason Campbell may well play the biggest football game of life.

It’s not so much the game itself (although given the angst suffered by Redskins fans in the wake of the ugly opening night loss to New York, it’s a big one). No, this feels like a bellwether game for the young quarterback because it could define the rest of career.

Hyperbole? You decide.

In high school, Jason Campbell was the BMOC—the local stud. His high school bio reads like a Marvel comic book. At Auburn, in his senior year—his second as full time starter—he quarterbacked that storied SEC program to an undefeated season and share of the NCAA’s water-cooler championship. All of which translated into becoming a first-round NFL draft pick in 2004, by none other than returning Hall of Fame legend Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins.

The point? That up until the last couple of weeks, Jason Campbell has lived his athletic life as The Man … and suddenly finds that precious commodity in jeopardy.

You know The Man … you've met him in your own school or community. He’s the one standing tall in middle of the huddle, locker room, auditorium, awards ceremony, whatever, even at tender age, with every other face staring attentively back. He’s the one whose success transcends the local scene and catapults him onto the national stage. He’s the one who exudes a natural, calm assuredness, no matter the circumstance, as if born to it.

We’ve all been around The Man at some point in our lives. And I’d wager most us have recognized, watching him, that much of what made him special was Confidence—in himself, and, every bit as importantly, as reflected back in him by those following his lead.

It’s that confidence, that calm assuredness, that got my attention the first time I saw Campbell in a Redskins uniform. He just looked like a guy who knew he belonged. That it was just a matter of time before he synced up with the pro game, teammates and latest system he was being asked to run, and he and the franchise would take off together.

Except that at some point, for some reason, he stumbled. And today—on the heels of a very tough opener to the regular season, shaky showings in the last three preseason games and less-than-stellar outings in his last few starts last season—he suddenly resembles the guy who just tripped over the rug and is falling, in slow motion, all flailing arms and legs, trying to regain his balance while maintaining some dignity.

If you’ve ever tripped over a rug, you know that’s a rough assignment. And you didn’t have super-slo-mo cameras zooming in on your facial expressions, either. Just saying.

I don’t think he’s lost his own confidence—not entirely. I think it’s shaken, but still there. What I am far more concerned about at this point is where he stands in the eyes of his teammates. Because that’s a much harder fall to overcome.

They all say the right things, of course, in public. But as anyone who has ever competed on a team or been in a locker room knows, there’s a fine line between belief and confidence in the leader, and nagging doubt, half-heard whispers and the first cancerous signs of resentment or frustration.

I can’t prove any of that’s happening in the Redskins locker room, of course. No player would confide it to someone who might write about anyway. But I feel it. And I think I’ve seen hints of it in some of the body language and the tone in some of the voices. And it feels like it's all coming to a head this weekend.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

From where I sit, Sunday is about far more than one game early in yet another season of muted expectations and calls for patience. It’s about watching a strong-armed young quarterback’s every move—from his own body language to his demeanor to the way he actually plays the game—for signs that the guy I thought I was looking at all along, and have seen in flashes on and off for three years now, has not maxed out.

Because few franchises have ever been in greater need of The Man than the Washington Redskins are heading into just the second game of a season. If Jason Campbell is going to be that guy, says here if he doesn’t show up and take the job by the horns this week, it will likely be the beginning of a long, slow descent; the beginning of an erosion of confidence in himself, and far more damagingly, among his teammates.

A great performance won’t mean he’s “arrived”—not saying that. I’m saying that if he’s going to be The Man his team so desperately needs, this is the week he needs to show it. Something tells me this is the game history will look back on, one way or the other, and say “That’s when we knew about Jason Campbell.”

All eyes on #17.


With 9:57 to go in the game, trailing 24-15, backed up 2nd-and-22 on his own 6 yard line … I was thinking the Redskins were in trouble. Big trouble. Not just in terms of the 2008 season, but because they were once again back at square one at the single most important position in the sport—quarterback.

The name Colt Brennan was uttered in the room (not by me, though I admit I’d thought it), and I found myself mumbling, “Yeah maybe, but it’s a good couple of years before he’s ready.”

What happened next shut me up. Which ain't no mean feat. And it put a smile on my face that even life’s mierda hasn’t been able to completely erase since. Why? Because we may not be out of the woods into sunlight yet, but suddenly, damned if we can't see it from here.

A sincere tip of one man's cap to young Jason Campbell.

September 8, 2008

Upon Further Review, Pt. 1 (Game 1)

As noted in the previous entry, I didn't get to watch the opener live. Studied it on tape over the weekend and made contemporaneous notes, however, and will be posting a few thoughts and observations on stuff I haven't already seen super-analyzed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a couple quickies.

Telegraphing Snap Count?

I noticed on several occasions that NY, the defensive tackles in particular, seemed to be anticipating the snap. Having gone back and looked at several sequences multiple times, I’m about 75% convinced the Giants were reading something, and using the advantage to consistently get a jump on the snap.

The most telling and damaging instance:

3rd and 1, WAS 45 – down 16-0 with 9:16 left in the half, the Skins face short yardage near midfield. The defense has been on the field for all but five of nearly 21 minutes played (Redskins two drives went 2:23 and 2:37). A split second before ball is snapped, Giant tackle Cofield (96) and linebacker Pierce (58) are both already moving toward the line, and the other tackle, Robbins (98), explodes the instant ball starts to move. NY gets enough movement/penetration to stack up the right side of the Skins line, clog up any lanes that might have been there and stone Portis.

Don’t take my word for it (pay particular attention to the second view--watch the ball):

That was probably the most obvious and impactful example, but not the only one. And it's the one that first really caught my attention and got me looking at the issue. The more I did, the more I got the impression the interior of the NY line was off the ball with the snap all night long.

It's not conclusive evidence, obviously. It could be they were simply guessing right all night. But having seen the Giants beat the Skins OL off the ball enough times, I have to wonder at what point there might start to be something more to it.

I know many will say it’s simply that New York's guys are young and studly and ours are old and decrepit--I’m not so sure. Maybe Campbell’s not varying the snap count … maybe his cadence is predictable. Maybe Rabach’s ring finger twitches right before he snaps the ball … or he’s rocks back on a heel. Maybe he talks to himself ("And a one, and a two, and a three ... ").

Or I could just be dreaming.

I did walk away with the nagging feeling the Skins were telegraphing their punches, though. Which means I have yet more thing to watch closely this Sunday.

Zorn’s Demeanor

Heard a couple of the usual suspect radio heads ripping Coach Zorn for being too laid-back, suggesting maybe that was the reason the Skins looked so overmatched at times.

I dunno.

Sorry ‘bout the vid quality. Spent a good part of my day off learning how to capture, convert, edit and upload clips today. As you surely do with any rookie making his debut, I hope you’ll grant me your patience.

Back later tonight or tomorrow with Part II.

September 5, 2008

One Giant Disappointment

Strange night.

As I’m getting ready to head home from work for the game late yesterday afternoon, I get a call from my daughter in college. Seems the school is being evacuated due to the approach of Hurricane Hanna, and how would I feel about taking a little drive?


The good news, as it turns out (other than getting to see my daughter of course) was that I didn't get to watch the game.

What I did do was listen to the first two possessions on the car radio before arriving at her school. Which as it turned out was more than enough to stir bile and summon demons.

Before the game even starts, we get our first injury, as Khary Campbell manages to hurt himself on the coin toss. I’m not an “omen” kinda guy, but that one has me muttering.

Special teams starts out great, though, as Mike Sellers pins the Giants at their own 14, and I’m thinking “oh yeah.” The defense is solid on 1st and 2nd downs, but that doesn’t excite me, as that’s not our problem. On the first 3rd down opportunity—our Achilles Heel for as long as I can remember—the Giants convert easily.

In a non-descript car rolling down Route 64 somewhere in SE Virgina, a lone driver takes a long swig from his water bottle, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and says, “shit.”

And as he already kind of expects, the Giants waltz down the field with little resistance. Along the way, they expose Carlos Rogers, Kedrick Golston gets hurt, the Skins can’t get to Manning ... and the NY crowd gets to celebrate way, way too early.

I’m slowly shaking my head. Not exactly what you wait eight months for.

Then it’s our first offensive series, and again it’s hold-your-breath time. So much on the line here, getting the first read on what kind of offense we’re going to have early on.

And, as if scripted, Jason Campbell gets sacked on first down. Stephon Heyer and Randy Thomas apparently get their signals crossed. Two predictable give-up runs, and we punt. Beautiful.

So now I’m at the school, shutting down the car. I sit there for a minute or two listening to a very staticky Larry Michaels, Sam Huff and Sonny already sounding the alarms, and I make the decision not to listen to another play. I’m thinking this one has 35-7 written all over it ... and, worse, the demons the past 15 years of Redskins football have created are already breakdancing in my brain.

Same ones you entertained, I suspect:

We're fatally weak up front on both sides of the ball.

We still don’t have a QB—or if we do, he’s sitting on the bench and won’t be ready to compete at this level for at least a couple of years.

Our coaching is average at best, incapable at worst.

Our skill players never play up to their reps.

It’s going to be another long year.

I click off the radio, take a deep breath, screw on a smile and head off to collect my child.


Home at midnight, I semi-reluctantly flip on the tube. I’m hoping that, by some miracle, the Skins came to life during the game and managed to squeak one out. I’m fully expecting to see they got trampled 35-7.

The ESPN crawl shows 16-7, and god help me, I’m relieved. At least the defense was competitive. I catch a couple highlights of Brandon Jacobs trucking people in our secondary, and kill the TV as Stu Jackson starts in on the Redskins—can’t deal with that guy.

And I hit the sack thinking, "At least we know."

We know the 2008 Redskins are going to be a work in progress, and it ain’t always going to be pretty.


I'll watch the tape tonight and weigh on on the specifics. Maybe even try to put some of them into some kind of short-term perspective.

Meanwhile, I'm definitely not going to partake of or give credence to the invevitable overreaction orgy this one has already triggered ... like from the knuckleheads on the radio this morning (in this case, Legend Riggins, Sheehan and Pollin) spending long, solemn segments discussing why the Redskins didn't play their first string offense more in preseason ... and what a mistake it was to hire Zorn. After one game. His first.

I mean, seriously.

As disappointing as the Redskins clearly were last night, and as natural as it was have an emotional reaction in the heat of the moment, the predictable rush-to-judgment after a night to sleep on it is worse.

September 3, 2008

Setting the Stage

Listen … do you smell something?

I do. And I’d be rich beyond the dreams of Avarice if I could bottle pebbled leather, icy beer, sizzling brats, cool breeze, manicured grass, spicy wings, pungent cigars, nervous pre-game sweat … and some other stuff. I’d call it NFL Chanel and live out my days managing my fortune and cruising the seas in tasteful luxury.

Meanwhile … we’re just a few hours from kickoff of the Redskins 2008 season. Time for a last quick look around before the rollercoaster finally crests the long offseason climb and plunges into the regular season fray.

What can we expect from Jim Zorn’s team? To answer that, first we need to place them somewhere on the Expectation Scale. For me, the NFL boils down into three basic groups of teams. Not everyone will agree on my categorization of each specific team, of course, but it’s a solid jumping-off point.

1) At the top of the ladder are those few teams coming into the season having already proven they can win, and, assuming nothing too unexpected happens (Tom Brady breaks his throwing arm, Peyton Manning gets amnesia, Norv Turner remembers he’s Norv Turner), we reasonably expect to be there at the end.

The short list of teams that belong in this category heading into 2008 includes New England and Indianapolis at the top, followed one step below by teams like Jacksonville, NY Giants, Pittsburgh, San Diego … Dallas (sorry). You can finish/fine tune/flesh out the list yourself, but chances are our lists will be very similar.

2) At the other end of the spectrum are the expected also-rans—teams not on the realistic playoff radar at all. I’m talking Detroit, Atlanta, the Raiders, Arizona, San Francisco … again, not offering an exclusive list, just an example of teams I think most would agree don’t figure to be players when the snow flies.

3) And then there’s the rest—the majority—of the NFL. Teams for whom a casual thumbs up or down from the football gods can spell the difference between working weekends in January and top ten draft picks in April. Teams with enough positives on paper to merit attention, but enough questions to keep your smart money neatly folded in your pocket.

Unlike popular opinion, the gridiron gods aren’t punitive, just fickle. They manifest themselves in key injuries (or lack thereof), scheduling breaks, the unpredictable bounce of an odd-shaped ball, in a few “That one could have gone either way, Bob” whistles … the cumulative weight of which can ultimately make the difference between 6-10 and 10-6.

The Washington Redskins are such a team.

There are enough cards seemingly stacked against the 2008 Redskins that a couple bad bumps in the road could lead to 6-10 and no one would be all that shocked. Rookie head coach, new offense, unproven young quarterback, aging and brittle offensive line, injury-prone receivers, new defensive coordinator, pass-rush challenged defensive line, safeties in diapers, challenging schedule in the toughest division in football … you get the idea.

On the Bright Side, with their fair share of good breaks, the Redskins are also a team that could roll into January looking for a meal. It’s hardly a stretch—they did just that eight months ago.

They have the storied franchise’s all-time single-season record holding rusher and receiver healthy and in the primes of their careers. They have a young, strong-armed quarterback long on potential (more on that below). They have a line that, at the very least, has shown it can be effective when healthy.

Hell, they even have Cooooley.

They head into the season with the last season’s eight-ranked defense (fourth against the run), a unit that has since added the NFL’s leading active sack leader. They have a young beast-in-training roaming the secondary in sophomore lottery pick Laron Landry. All this on a defense that has new DC Greg Blache—not a man given to platitudes—saying his 2008 squad might be special.

So it’s not like this is a team without weapons. If they can keep their head above water early, they could be dangerous down the stretch as the parts begin to mesh.

The preseason wasn’t much help in forecasting any of this, of course. Early on they showed flashes of offensive brilliance, but that ended abruptly in game three. Which means either the Jets, Panthers and Jags “figured out” Zorn’s offense in a hurry, or the Redskins pulled in their horns and are planning to unveil the “real” offense again up in New York. Which would be nice.

Defensively, they looked solid in a bend-but-don’t-break way right up until Jason Taylor’s knee bent sideways against Carolina. After that … not. Which also could mean it only took a couple preseason games for the league to “figure out” the Skins on defense as well ... or it could just be that preseason means squat.

We’ll start getting answers in (checks watch) about 30 hours.

One more thing, if I may. Unlike many of the league’s middle class teams, the Redskins do have one possible, major advantage—they seem to think they have themselves a Quarterback.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no one player, at any one position in any team sport, can have a greater impact on his team’s fortunes than an NFL quarterback. Don’t take my word for it … look at just about any team that has had sustained success in the modern era (with one notable, local exception), and you’ll find one common denominator—a Franchise Quarterback.

Should Jason Campbell emerge as that most precious of NFL commodities in DC, the Redskins have enough around him, on both sides of the ball, to be a legitimate playoff contender—perhaps for a while.

I hate putting numbers on something like this, but if pressed, I’m suggesting Campbell alone could make a 3-4 game difference this year … which could translate into more next year, which in turn could lead to the kind of organizational momentum you see when a team finally finds “the guy,” and suddenly the whole franchise starts to look faster, stronger, smarter. Franchise QB’s do that for teams … it’s what separates most of the perennial top-rung franchises from those that stumble on a formula for a year or two, then fade back into the pack (see Baltimore, Trent Dilfer; Chicago, Rex Grossman.

But there will be plenty of time to track (and argue) that. To the moment at hand:

Tomorrow night we get our first look at the Jim Zorn Redskins … and we are without any real compelling objective criteria upon which to base predictions. They could get trampled ... they could go toe-to-toe and win or lose on the final possession ... or, they could be most unwelcome guests and thump the Giants in their own house, even as Gotham basks in the warm, fuzzy glow of pregame championship festivities.

That’s the thing about life in the middle class—it’s not that far between the outhouse and the penthouse. In a football context, that's a little scary … and a lot exciting.

May the winds be favorable.


STAT TRACKER (Preseason Final)

Turnover Differential

(Caused / Committed)

Game 1 (W) – 1/0 (+1)
Game 2 (W) – 2/2 (=)
Game 3 (W) – 0/1 (-1)
Game 4 (L) – 1/3 (-2)
Game 5 (L) – 1/1 (=)
Season (3-1) – 5/7 (-2)


3rd down Efficiency:

Game 1 – Off. 5/10 (50%); Def. 6/14 (42%)
Game 2 – Off. 7/14 (50%); Def. 4/12 (33%)
Game 3 – Off. 2/11 (18.2%); Def. 5/15 (33%)
Game 4 – Off. 4/15 (27%); Def. 2/12 (17%)
Game 5 – Off. 1/10 (10%); Def. 10/17 (58%)
Season – Off. 19/60 (31.6%); Def. 27/70 (38.5%)


Red Zone Efficiency:

Game 1 – Off. 2/3 (66%, 2TD); Def. 0/0 (n/a)
Game 2 – Off. 2/3 (66%, 2TD); Def. 1/4 (25%, 1 TD)
Game 3 – Off. 0/3 (oops); Def. 1/2 (50%, 1 TD)
Game 4 – Off. 0/1 (ouch); Def. 0/3 (0%)
Game 5 – Off. 0/0 (ugh); Def. 2/3 (66% 2TD)
Season – Off. 4/10 (40%, 4TD); Def. 4/12 (33%, 4 TD)


Since I don’t think I can get away with not doing this …

Washington 23, New York 20 (corazon)
New York 24, Washington 17 (cabeza)