January 1, 2009

What Went Wrong: The Experts Weigh In

So that's that.

With their loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the 2008 Washington Redskins (8-8) capped off a rollercoaster season—one that began with tumultuous regime change, had their fans breathing the rarified air of contenders in October, and saw them brought precipitously back to earth as pretenders in December.

Along the way, there were great moments we won’t soon forget—like the brilliant Campbell-to-Moss bomb against New Orleans that gave the Redskins life in week two, and the back-to-back road wins in Dallas and Philadelphia to reach 4-1 and ignite January dreams.

There were crushing moments we’d like to forget—like the Pittsburgh Steelers coming to town and systematically throttling the 6-2 Redskins under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, exposing the chasm between the Redskins and the NFL elite ... and the crushing Mike Sellers’ goal-line fumble in Cincinnati that effectively ended the 2008 season.  

And so now we head into Expert Season, the eight month odyssey between this season and next that everyone—from the highly-paid talking heads on TV to the office know-it-all in the next cubicle—will spend telling you What Went Wrong.

It was the Quarterback.  Jason Campbell couldn't read defenses, stared down receivers and took too long to windup and deliver. Defenses didn't respect him so they stacked the line of scrimmage, took away the run and short passing game and voila—offensive suckitude. 

Can't win without solid QB play.

It was the Offensive Line. Every starter was over 30—no wonder they wore down around midseason and became a sieve. They were a drive-blocking, smashmouth group assembled under a previous regime suddenly being asked to tap dance the delicate rhythms of the west coast offense. And there was no depth. 

Can't win without solid OL play.

It was the Play Calling. Coach Zorn was awesome early—beautifully timed gadget plays, running when they expected pass, passing when they expected run. But once the league got some film on him, they caught up, and Zorn had no answers. Or maybe once he got to 6-2, he got complacent and thought all he had to do was line up, run off tackle, rely on his defense and simply "not lose the game."  

Either way, can't win without innovative, aggressive playcalling.   

It was the Receivers. Santana Moss was a number two receiver masquerading as a number one, and Antwaan Randle El a number three passing himself off as a number two. The rookies weren't good enough to get on the field, much less contribute. And as a group they didn’t know that making pretty catches on crisp, six-yard routes, on third-and-seven, does nothing but sell Maalox. 

Can’t win without a solid receiving corps.

It was the Defense. Yes they finished statistically in the top five, but they couldn't rush the passer, and as a result didn’t force the turnovers that set up the short fields that lead to the easy touchdowns that win games. And when push came to shove they couldn't get that one last stop when they absolutely, positively had to, and it cost the Redskins, at the very least, the St. Louis, second Dallas and San Francisco games. 

Can't win without a pass rush.

It was Vinny Cerrato. He doesn't believe in drafting linemen, wastes time doing radio shows instead of scouting and has a demented laugh.   

Can’t win without a solid General Manager.

It was Dan Snyder.  As has been the case since he bought the team in 1999, all he was really interested in was 1) making money, and 2) getting to play Fantasy GM in the offseason. That's why he continued to charge a fortune for stadium parking and beer and kept Vinny Cerrato around.

Can’t win without an owner willing to spend gobs of money but otherwise keep his mitts off the team.

It was [fill in the blank].

Here's the good news—you and I know better.  We know it wasn't any one of those things, it was a combination of some or all of them. 

We know that debating which of those areas was most responsible is great fun, but also understand that doing so is like trying to break down, in cold percentages, which part of sipping champagne at sunset off Oahu, having just made love to a special someone on the deck of the yacht you bought with the $250 million you won in the lottery, is what makes the moment the most special. 

And, of course (sorry, back to reality), we know that no one—not Dan Snyder, Vinny Cerrato, Jason LaCanfora, Mike Wilbon, Doc Walker, Brian Mitchell, Steve Czaben, Chris Mortensen, Peter King, Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis, little old me, the guy in front of you at the checkout or your chatty co-worker—has their finger on "The Truth of The Matter." 

Only Jim Zorn, Greg Blache (and maybe one or two other top assistants who sat in on enough meetings, were on the field for enough practices and in enough film sessions over the course of the season to know who did and did not do what in any given situation, and what if anything they as coaches could or should have done about it) are even remotely qualified to speak on the specifics, or offer what would pass in a court of law as expert opinion on What Went Wrong—and they ain't talkin'.  

But for the rest of us, acting like we do know is irresistible. And the offseason is long.  And nature abhors a vacuum.  

So we're going to do it anyway.

Of course, as any clear-thinking observer already knows, the REAL problem with the 2008 Redskins was the clear disconnect that developed over the course of the season between what was in Jim Zorn's head as he drew up game plans and called plays from the sidelines, and what the players actually executed on the field.

The trick of course is determining the reason for that disconnect. 

Could be Zorn lost confidence in his quarterback, offensive live, receivers or running back somewhere along the way, and with it, the freedom to call the kinds of plays he really wanted to.

Could be he hit his head around midseason and simply forgot how to call plays.

Could be Campbell either could not (rushed/nobody open) or would not (hesitant/confused) throw the passes Zorn called.

Could be Jason Campbell changed too many plays at the line ... into bad ones.

Could be that one player here or there simply got beat, on enough key plays, for said key plays to not work the way they were designed, even while the other ten players were kicking ass.

Could be the head coach was a rookie, going through rookie growing pains, implementing a new system, working with 8-8 talent assembled under a different regime with a different system in mind.

Could be some combination of all those things.  Could be something else entirely.

Fortunately, we have eight long months—and no shortage of experts—to sort it all out.

Welcome to the offseason.


Anonymous said...

very good sir

Anonymous said...

Amen, enough said
Where to buy the lottery ticket?

Anonymous said...

could it be we lost our best player to a murder RIP 21

Anonymous said...

Good assessment. I wish it made me feel better.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that while our OLINE started the season good, that there AGE caught up with them in the second half of the season contributing to all of the above problems with our offense, I BELIEVE THIS to be the case, and our defense did a HELL of a job when you take a look at how long THEY LIVED ON THE FEILD..

Anonymous said...

it was Colonel Burgundy-Gold in the Owner's Box with the Checkbook.

Anonymous said...

why so long?

Mark "Om" Steven said...

"could it be we lost our best player to a murder RIP 21" - Anonymous

I'd say there's little doubt ST was the best athlete the Redskins put on the field. Maybe the best in the league. And he was on his way to becoming a great *player* as well.

It's impossible to assess the impact his loss had on the team in '08 and will have for the next decade. As it turns out, they were incredibly lucky to have been able to get a LaRon Landry to step in. No one may ever have ST's physical gifts at that position again, but LL has proven to be a fine player in his own right. Enough so I'm comfortable saying safety was probably not high on the list of problem areas in 2008.


"Why so long?" - Anonymous

They used to accuse Mozart of using too many notes, you know. His answer? "I used just as many as I needed. Not one more, not one less."

So there.

Anonymous said...

Well said - good analysis to 2008. Best line: Zorn, Blache, etal are the ones to know and they ain't talkin'

Eight months is a long time to figure out the probs and corrective actions......and for the office water cooler advisors

TANGLER said...

I understand that if you called out a single component to be faulty in this blog that you would likely get reamed in the comments section no matter what you said. With that in mind, this is a nice, reflective entry that opens the forum for discussion.

However, I lean in the direction of specific blame. It is very clear in my mind that the root of the offensive issues are a result of the OL ineptness.

JC looked great when he had a little extra time to survey and was making better decisions than we've ever seen... even strongly scrambling very successfully in clutch moments.

CP ran like a champ when he had even the slimmest of holes as always. -- When there was no hole... splat.

Santana was burning fools on the deep route, like usual, when the play had enough time to formulate. His speed was very apparent during his punt returning opportunities. -- We saw his frustration in Cinci with the uncharacteristic "shoe shining" incident.

Zorn was more impressive than I ever could have hoped for. I loved his play calling (except for the excessive use of Sellers near the end which was exciting, but felt doomed, and was).

I don't really understand why the OL was so solid and then just seemed to break down mid season (before injury put the nail in the coffin). Age? Overconfidence/complacency?

All I do know is that I want to see some personnel coming in to the OL in the off season.


Mark "Om" Steven said...


Thanks for the considered reply. The OL's struggles were certainly a key factor--arguably THE key factor, as covered in the "Breaking Down the Lines" piece a couple weeks back. But I'm not willing to put the blame squarely on their shoulders.

Early in the year, when the passing game was threatening defenses downfield, the OL wasn't being asked to clear out 7, 8 or 9 nine guys in the box for Portis to run. Or being asked to block seven guys coming after the QB on every obvious passing down.

Zorn, Campbell and the receivers all contributed to the ineptness of the downfield passing game in my opinion, when they were unable to adjust to what defenses did to slow down Moss early and find another downfield alternative.

I strongly believe it's all inter-related, to a degree I think most fans and observers tend to overlook. If it was as easy to field a consistent winner in the NFL as identifying just one particular problem area and fixing it, no one would ever start 6-2 and finish 2-6 again. :)

End of the day, yes, I agree with you 100% that addressing the OL (and DL) has to be this franchise's Mission One this offseason, and probably the next one as well. They dropped the ball big time in that regard in my opinion, and have no choice.

Anonymous said...

Vinny has always had "unusually strong resistance" (for lack of a more inappropriate term about where his head is at) to drafting OL in the first two rounds. I have lost all hope that he ever will. Do you have any insight as to why he feels that way? Do you have any inside information that make you feel Vinny might actually draft 2 or more OL this year in the first two rounds?

Anonymous said...

#1 reason on offense - play calling/poor coaching

The line play was poor at times, but effective play calling could have mitigated the poor protection and disarmed some of the better pass rushes they faced. Zorn could have moved the pocket around more(roll outs, etc.), perfected screen plays, gone no huddle a few times each game, made gadget plays a staple (Wildcat anyone?), gotten the running backs involved in the passing game, used a multi-back system like most of the best running teams do (Ravens, Giants, Titans), so everything isn't riding on any single player (Portis), better utilized the tight ends, gotten the rookies involved early and often (seemingly every other team found a way to coach up the rooks).

The receivers aren't great and they're small, but the Chiefs had one of the best offenses in the league a few years back, and their top receivers were Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez. And we once had a receiving corps nicknamed "The Smurfs".

Zorn was an abject failure as a play caller. With basically the same personnel as last year, he failed to outscore even the 0-16 Lions. If the players weren't suited to the West Coast Offense or the O line started to break down, then adjustments should have been made. The offense didn't need to be world class... just equal to or better than last year's production. Last year, everyone was calling for Saunder's head. If Zorn was just the Offensive Coordinator, everyone would be calling for his as well.

#1 Reason on Defense - Lack of big plays

Hall is the only one who can catch. "Brick Hand Syndrome" has been a problem with the Redskin's defense for years, so I blame the coaches. The Patriots had issues with line backers dropping passes, so they instituted a drill where, at the end of every practice, a coach would drill passes at their faces from 5 yards away. They learned to catch in a hurry.

As for sacks, the play from the DEs was atrocious, but the linebackers failed miserably as well. 3 of the 4 league leaders in sacks are linebackers. In my opinion, Blache should have been more willing to blitz cornerbacks and safeties. With the secondary being our strength, why not? As it was, Blache's defensive scheme was designed to 1) stop the run and 2) prevent big plays. Can't really argue with their results. Holding every opponenent in every meaningful game to 25 points or less was impressive.

In short, Improve the O line, innovate on offense, use Portis, Betts and Cartwright like the Ravens use their backs and get Thomas, Kelly and Davis on the field.

As for Defense, acquire a stud Defensive Tackle who can move the line (the DEs will play better), teach the secondary to catch (try hypnosis if necessary) and get better linebacker play by whatever means available.

The Skins aren't that far off. If they had just taken care of business against the Rams, Bengals and 49ers, they'd be playing this weekend.