November 29, 2011

Sean's Gone

There was no good way to say it when it happened.
There is no good way to say it now.
But this is how Sean Taylor's death struck me then,  
so I will continue to make this silent tribute
for as long as the feelings remain.
(Reprinted from November 28, 2007)

It’s not a long drive to my son’s high school, maybe 15 minutes.

Most mornings, we share sleepy wise cracks—which of us looks worse; whose day projects out the bigger pain; the lameness of a certain radio commercial.

Sometimes we talk daily routine—remembering to turn in an order form; calling if he needs to be picked up; the logistics of an upcoming outing with friends.

Sometimes we talk a little sports. Redskins, mostly.

Once in a while, as events dictate, we talk real life—there will be other girls; they just discovered an Earth-like planet 20 light-years away; it’s junior year partner, these grades count.

Tuesday morning, we rode in silence.

He’d had a strange look on his face as he came down the hall from the living room, where the morning news was playing, when we readied to leave the house. His voice had a flatness to it when he spoke.

“Sean’s gone.”

I wasn’t fully awake—I didn’t understand. Then I saw the look in his eyes, the awful news story I had fallen asleep thinking about came flooding back, and I understood only too well. I don’t remember now if it was raining as we headed out into the dark, but it always will be in my memory.

As we were pulling out into the road a minute later, a voice on the car radio confirmed the reality.

“Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died this morning from a gunshot wound suffered in his home …”

We drove in silence, staring straight ahead.

I don’t really know if the time it took to get to the school took forever, or if it flashed by in an instant. Time has a strange quality to it in times of stress. What I do recall is the unsettling jumble of disjointed thoughts, feelings and impressions...

October 6, 2011

Synaptic Shotgun: 3-1 Washington Redskins

I don't get to write very often these days. But there's so much to write it's driving me crazy keeping it bottled up. So I'm going to try the shotgun-style thing for a while. Again.

In no particular order, and definitely not exhaustively ...

DC Jim Haslett

Few doubted Haslett earlier or more pointedly than I when the Redskins brought him in to implement the transition from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense last year. And, through the end of last season I had seen little to change my mind. But fair is fair, and credit where it's due:

Mr. Haslett, the product you have put on the field so far in 2011 has been a revelation. I am happy with the game-planning, happy with the rotation, happy with the halftime adjustments, happy even with almost all the playcalling. My only nitpick is with still too-often telegraphed blitzes that don't get there. Even then, I understand that kind of second-guessing is easy for armchair coordinators. And I recognize that the view from the living room is a little different than the view from the sidelines. In the same way, for instance, as planning to get in shape, and actually getting in shape, are a little different.*

Hell of a job so far. For the record, I would like nothing more than to see you continue to rub it in the faces of doubters like me for a long time to come.

QB Rex Grossman

... is perhaps the only 3-1 quarterback in NFL history to garner a lower approval rating in his own home town than the sitting President. Well, there is nothing like raising the bar on preseason team expectations to make everyone forget that the current trigger man was never going to be more than a placeholder to begin with. Crawl a couple games above .500 and suddenly it's not "rebuilding year," we're talking Super Bowl.


But back to Rex...

September 26, 2011

2-0 Redskins Stare Opportunity in Face

Two short weeks ago, the 2-0 Washington Redskins were viewed by the football-watching world as an afterthought. Heading into tonight's Monday Night Football showdown with their arch-rival Dallas Cowboys, however, the burgundy and gold are suddenly a sexy story.

Like the emerging 3-0 Detroit Lions and Buffalo "Really?" Bills, the Redskins quick start has forced people to sit up and take notice.

It started in week one with their surprisingly convincing, 28-14 home win over divisional nemesis the New York Giants. In that game, the Redskins were, quite simply, the better team. Forget the "Giants were injured" angle. If you watched the NFL at all this week, you know about "any given Sunday." The Giants had owned the Redskins, for a very long time, and no one would have been surprised had said ownage continued. 

It did not. Emphatically.

And it was more than "just" starting 1-0, by the way.  In that game the Redskins re-vitalized defense came up with a play that, it says here, will be recorded in unofficial lore as the Turning Point. Rookie draft pick. Blue collar. Deflected pass, returned for stadium-rocking touchdown. Shades of  Hogeboom and Grant (Wham! Bam! It's the Redskins!).

Oh, I know...very different stages. Just planting that flag in the ground here and now.

Then, in week two, the Redskins won a game that they would have lost in recent years—a game they dominated in every way except on the scoreboard. How many times have we seen it over the past generation ... the Redskins domintate time of possession, yardage, the run of play in general ... only to come up short on the one stat that, at the end of the day, anyone really cares about—the scoreboard.

In the NFL it's about finishing, and for 20 years that has been the one thing the Redksins have not been able to do. But last week, in crunch time, it was the Redskins who made the big stop. It was the Redskins who converted the big third down (and fourth for that matter).

And last week, for a refereshing change, it was the other team feeling they "let one slip away."

Redskins 22, Cardinals 21. 

Think there isn't a big difference between 2-0 and 1-1? Just ask Dallas.

August 31, 2011

Redskins vs Buccaneers - To Your Health

Just one week of pretend games to go. Gracias al cielo.

The first three weeks of the 2011 preseason have been a bit of a revelation. Ever since that first opening offensive drive against the Steelers three short weeks ago, these young(er) 2011 Washington Redskins have done nothing but surprise, impress, excite and even begin to alter expectations.

I admit it—I've been as surprised as anyone. I hoped that Year Two of the Shanahan/Allen Era would bring the kind of synergistic upswell that we've gotten hints of the past three weeks ... but there's a difference between hoping and seeing.

Forget the stats, the record, all that. To me it's been the un-scientific stuff—about the "look" and "feel" of this team so far in 2011—that stands out. The attitude, the body language, the confidence, the execution, the crispness. Preseason or not, there's a "feel" you get for a football team after a few of these gloriried scrimmage, and through three weeks of preseason, these Redskins feel a whole lot different than anything we've seen from them in quite a while.

Yes, I know, self-described "realist" fan. It's just preseason. I get that, really. But they've looked pretty good. Far better than anyone really dared hope. It's all right, no one's keeping track. You can admit it.

Now on to what I really care about heading into this last preseason "game"...

August 25, 2011

Redskins vs Ravens Spotlight: Beck and the Big Men

Time to get out front on the whole Beck vs Grossman thing. Seems only fair to do it before tonight's meeting with the Baltimore Ravens.

I will not denigrate Rex Grossman. He has more than earned respect in this town—or should have—for both his on- and off- field performance as a Redskin. But the truth is, if I’m coaching against the Redskins offense this season, my preference is to defend Rex Grossman over John Beck.

Why? Because I know where Rex is going to be. Because I feel confident that if I can take away his first option more often than not, and force him to move, re-load, improvise, I stand a pretty good chance of forcing errors. Of creating that one key errant pass, logging that one key sack, and, given his proven penchant for losing control of the ball when hit, creating that game-altering turnover.

Yes, Rex Grossman is going to challenge me down the field. Particularly if his first option comes open. But over the course of a game, I like my chances of keeping him generally under control, and more importantly,  generating that crucial turnover if I can take away his first option and apply consistent pressure.

Beck, meanwhile, is the kind of opposing quarterback that drives me to distraction.

You can have the perfect defense called. You can break a pass rusher clean. You can have the man dead to rights and in the cross-hairs for a crunching sack ... only to see him whip a siderarm dart out of traffic with that quick-trigger release. Or sidestep a pass rusher, drift into open space and go downfield quickly and accurately.

A guy like Beck will throw off his back foot, drifting sideways, at full gallop—from any platform—and find a receiver operating outside the confines of the initial play call and improvising on the run as well.

It's a morale-killer.

If the John Beck we saw against the Indianapolis Colts last week is any indication, he is the kind of quarterback that will turn opposing defensive coordinators (and fans) hair gray, set their teeth to grinding and have their backsides puckering, every time a play breaks down and he starts moving.

It's been 25 years since the Redskins had a guy like that.

August 19, 2011

Tablesettings: Game 2, Redskins vs Colts

Last week's game setup was easy. Football was back. Even an ugly loss would have been borderline okay (it's just preseason, right?). Point was, we were watching live Redskins football again.

But something unexpected happened. Not only didn't the Redskins lose, but they won.  And looked damn good doing it.  Aainst none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The AFC Champions. "Those" Steelers.

Preseason or not, the Redskins went toe-to-toe with one of the NFL's big boys and came out on top. Forget the score; Friday night's pleasant surprise was about the young "rebuilding" Redskins showing  organization, speed, cohesion, efficiency ... things that have been all-too wanting around here for a long time.

There were also noteworthy individual performances:

QB Rex Grossman—maligned and subject of more undeserved scorn from his home town fans than any player I can  recall—was sharp.  Don't take my word for it, see for yourself.

Newcomer RB Tim Hightower flashed big time.  One half of preseason football doesn't automatically project into a Pro Bowl season, no, but few Redskins fans could watch Hightower burst around left end, one-cut and slash decisively, and for good measure truck former Redskins safety (and Steeler lightning-rod du-jour) Ryan Clark, and not get just a little bit juiced.

WR Santana Moss shined.  Sharp routes, sure hands.  7 catches, 64 yards and a TD in a half. 

The new defensive line—Carriker, Cofield & Bowen ("The Firm")—was stout, and even provided something Redskins fans barely recognize ... consistent pass rush from the down linemen.

Oh, there were concerns to be sure ...

August 11, 2011

2011 Redskins: Preseason Eve

And just like that, the endless offseason ... does.

It is never hard to do the traditional "Preseason Game One" scene-setter post.  This year it's even easier than usual. 

● It's hard to imagine ever completely losing the childlike expectation and anticipation that comes with the preseason opener. When the Washington Redskins take to the field tomorrow night to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will have been 223 days since we last saw our team storm the field. That moment alone is worth tuning in for. The emerald gridiron, the thunderous crowd, the thudding flash and smoke of fireworks, the leaping, woofing warriors in full battle gear ...

If none of that gets you amped after nearly eight months of enforced abstinence, I daresay your inner child needs a hug.

● The lockout turned what is usually an interminable offseason player acquisition phase into a breathless, whirlwind two-week game of musical chairs. The music hasn't even stopped echoing yet.  As as result, a large part of tomorrow night will simply be matching jersey numbers and body types to names we've so far only read about for a few short days. 

There is nothing quite like seeing an intriguing new player in burgundy and gold for the first time. It's not unlike a first date--first impressions come 'round but once.

● Oh yeah, we get our actual first look at said new players tomorrow night. This year's preseason opener brings a bonanza like few in recent memory. In no particular order, and not exclusively, we are about to get those all-important first impressions of ...

August 2, 2011

2011 Redskins: Winds of Change or Just More Hot Air?

The most overlooked factor surrounding the 2011 Washington Redskins is the fact it is a new regime's second season.

If that simple statement does not resonate, perhaps it should.

The team that head coach Mike Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen inherited in 2010 was, in the most generous terms, adrift. Twenty years of regime changes and organizational about-faces take a cumulative toll.

The Redskins brand, on and off the field, had faded from bold light to indistinct shadow. Beyond a wildly successful marketing machine, the franchise lacked competitive direction, identity, philosophy and any other team-oriented facet you might care to name.

Well, that may ... may ... be about to change. What we are going to see in 2011 is whether or not the new regime's unmistakable establishment of a clear guiding philosophy has begun to "take."

More excitingly, we are going to get an indication if that grossly undervalued team-sport commodity, synergy, translates into results on the field.

You remember synergy, right? Redskins fans should. They should remember, appreciate and yearn for its return more than any.

The most wildly successful teams this city has ever seen, those under Joe Gibbs I between 1981 and 1992, were less about talent on the field than they were about team. About the whole being more than the sum of the parts. About that unquantifiable collective spark true teams take on.

We have talked this entire offseason about the current roster. About offensive linemen, inside linebackers, and, naturally, the quarterback roulette wheel we have suffered here for a generation, to the point of exhaustion. It's time to step back and see the big picture.

June 17, 2011

The Clinton Portis Legacy

When the Washington Redskins released running back Clinton Portis on March 1, 2011, the curtain came down on one of the most mercurial, memorable careers in team history.

His was truly a shooting starsometimes brilliant, often frustrating, never ordinary.

Yes, there have been colorful characters in burgundy and gold before. Troubled defensive end Dexter Manley springs to mind; as does legendary Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. But none have ever outshone Clinton Portis.

Redskins fans will definitely remember his presence on the field; perhaps more so in time, as his career settles slowly into the rear view mirror and historical perspective.

Few running backs of his era have been more adept at finding small seams in defenses arrayed to stop him—the byproduct of an often inept passing game during Portis’ seven years in Washington—and bursting into the defensive secondary.

Few have also been as frustrating once arriving there. In recent years Portis was increasingly, frustratingly, unable to make that one final, open-field move and beat that one remaining defender between him and the goal line. The money move—the move that turns big gains into a game-breaking scoring plays.

Few running backs in league history, let alone Redskins history, have ever been more physical. Portis introduced a generation of local fans to the concept and value of a reliable, sometimes brutish, backfield pass blocker.

Of course, at the end of the day, what history truly measures running backs by are numbers. Cold statistics. In that light, Clinton Portis shines...

June 16, 2011

Beck Fires Up Snark Machine

You kinda expect it from the Washington Post. It's what they do.
With the Shanahans apparently determined to promote the former third-stringer, one thought comes to mind: For their sake, this had better work.
And it's predictable catch-a-wave content for the average blog:
The man who is certain to take over as the team’s starting quarterback by sheer force of positive will has enlisted the help of a friend whose job it is to record the proceedings. Because John Beck is a LEADER OF MEN, and filming fake practices screams of leadership and other intangible qualities that will make the Shanahan duo swoon.
You'd be shocked at anything BUT from the standard-issue know-it-all element on sportstalk radio and the web (no quotes necessary—if you're a Skins fan you've heard 'em,  made 'em or both).

Hell, even Dan Steinberg can't help himself:
Someone joked about how it must be nice to have film sessions without coaches barking out corrections, but the Leader of Men disagreed.
Although, being a consummate pro, Big Dan caveats it just in case:
And while I’m mostly joking about all this, there’s probably something to what the Redskins and Beck are doing...
No, John Beck probably won't turn out to be Montana or Manning. Maybe not even Bolger or Brees. But given the state of Redskins quarterbacking over the past generation, and the snarky, reactionary lemming-fest of criticism that has materialized around his sudden summer spotlight as he takes his shot, should Beck turn out to be even competent—say Gannon or Green—it sure would warm ye old cockles to watch the Snark Machine's mad moonwalk claiming to have seen it coming all along.

Yeah. It's been a long offseason.

June 15, 2011

Is This Thing On?

Don't mind me ... just kicking the tires in case these gentlemen ever extricate their rectally inverted collective crania and give us back our game.
NFL lockout talks progressing, but...

And on the seventh day of "secret" talks there was still no immediate agreement between the NFL and NFLPA to end the lockout, but sources on both sides maintained they're getting close.

Just how close is a matter of opinion, but everyone around the league seemed to continue their cautious optimism that a new and lengthy collective bargaining agreement is on the horizon after generally positive discussions at the talks which are still going Wednesday afternoon in Maryland. The general feeling remained that there's a good chance a deal can be reached in time to preserve all of training camp and the full preseason and regular-season schedules.

Many, in fact, continue to expect a deal to be reached by early July.

That said, many sources took a more cautious tone Wednesday, one day after many reports suggesting a deal was "almost done" or even "80-85 percent complete". Those sources characterized those reports as overly optimistic and said crafting a long-term CBA with so many moving parts is a complicated process and there were still chances for future snags or delays
Not holding my breath though. Life's too short for this shit.

April 28, 2011

Redskins 2011 Draft Tracker

It's not like I'm going to ignore this completely, you know.

And away we go ...

Round 1 (16) - Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
With their first pick in 2011, the Redskins make news by not making news. They trade down from 10 to 16 (JAX) and grab a potential impact bookend to Pro Bowl OLB Brian Orakpo for their still-in-transition 3-4 defense. This pick may not be fully appreciated for 2-3 seasons; Karrigan is unlikely to be a regular on weekly highlight reels early on as he adapts both to the pro game and the shift from DE to OLB. But if the Purdue All American's quickness, instincts and high motor are what the Redskins hope they are, and Karrigan can integrate himself into the starting lineup by midseason, defensive coordinator Jim Hazlett should enjoy devising gameplans considerably more in 2011 and beyond than he was able to in his highwire-act Washington debut in 2010.
Round 2 (41) - Jarvis Jenkins, DT, Clemson
The Redskins continue to give every indication that the Shanahan/Allen Era signifies a sea change in how the team does personnel business. Again eschewing sexy in Round 2, they opt for size (when is the last time a high-round lineman pick was not a shock in Washington?), consistency, production and character over flash and attempts at instant gratification. The steady Jenkins almost surely becomes a regular rotation from opening day, and barring injury or developmental hiccups adjusting from a 4-3 DT at Clemson to a projected 3-4 DE, takes ownership of a starting DE slot by midseason and never looks back. The Redskins will hope that access to an NFL training table and regimen will quiet any concerns over stamina, and that he will develop enough as a pass rushing threat to obviate the need to spell him on passing downs.
Round 3 (79) - Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami
Is it too early to say it? Not at all. You have to hand it to the Redskins. It's all about the hands on this pick. On the one hand, scouting reports say the lanky, 6'2" 210 lb. wideout's hands are inconsistent. On the other hand, he has "massive hands, once compared by a former coach to Godzilla's, measure 105/8 inches from the tip of his pinky to the tip of his thumb - the largest of any player at the combine this year." On the one hand, reports say he lacks explosion off the line and doesn't get great separation. On the other hand, he runs a 4.43 and, oh by the way, broke Miami's "single-season receiving yards record on a team-high 72 receptions in 2010, his 13 receiving touchdowns broke Michael Irvin's mark of 11 set in 1986. His career numbers: 2,160 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns on 134 receptions." Hard for Redskins fans not to be pleased with the idea of a tall, athletic, productive and by all reports solid citizen wide receiver to come in and compete for a starting slot as a rookie. He may not turn out to be Jerry Rice, or even Larry Fitzgerald, but he doesn't have to be. He just has to be a productive professional and give the Redskins the big red zone and possession receiver they have lacked for so long. Another solid foundation-building pick, a developing pattern in year two of the Shanahan Era
Round 4 (105) - Roy Helu, RB, Nebraska
The Redskins trade back up in the 4th to grab Helu, a decisive, determined, downhill runner who seems to fit the "Shanahan mold" to a tee. But don't take anyone else's word for it. Sometimes, pictures really are worth a thousand words.
Round 5 (146) - Dejon Gomes, DB, Nebraska
The first "huh" pick of 2011. The Redskins grab an apparent nickle-depth DB and special teams player arguably a round or two earlier than his projections. Not known for coverage or open field skills, Gomes will have to earn his playing time on teams and ability to show coaches he can handle a role on defensive "packages" that ask him to support the run and clog passing lanes near the line of scrimmage. Will have to turn some heads in camp to earn his way onto the active roster. Best bet to stick around may be the developmental squad for a year.
Round 5 (155) - Niles Paul, WR, Nebraska
Round 6 (177) - Evan Royster, RB, Penn St
Round 6 (178) - Aldrick Robinson, WR, SMU
Round 7 (213) - Brandyn Thompson, DB, Boise St.
Round 7 (217) - Maurice Hurt, OG, Florida
Round 7 (224) - Markus White, DE, Florida St.
Round 7 (253) - Chris Nield, NT, West Virginia

April 25, 2011

NFL Draft - History of 10th Overall Pick

Thursday night, the Washington Redskins will have the option of making the 10th overall selection of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Should they use the pick instead of trading it away or abdicating (obligatory royal wedding reference), the young man selected could turn out to be a Hall of Famer. The great DB Rod Woodson was drafted tenth overall in 1987 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the immortal Redskins-killing RB Marcus Allen drafted tenth by the Oakland Raiders in 1982.

Of course, as with any pick, the gentleman selected could also turn into a future "who?" There's no need to embarrass anyone by naming names. Just look at the list below--you'll find plenty of examples.

As I like to do every year, I have assembled a list of the players selected at the Redskins' specific pick(s) in a given draft. For the record, this is not intended as a predictor of success or failure, or a suggestion of where I think the team could or should go.

It is simply a self-indulgent exercise in fandom. I'm always intrigued by what the history shows.

Perhaps you are as well.

I went back to 1970, the year of the NFL/AFL merger. I figure that encompasses a couple of generations of players and fans, and covers what most of us deem the "modern era" of the game. Plus, forty years seemed like a good round number (okay, so it's actually 41, but you get the drift).  And let's face it, 1970-2010 just looks better.

So on to the stuff...

February 6, 2011

Super Bowl XLV - Perspective

There are precious few slices of cyberspace out there today that do not contain sincere, in-depth X and O breakdowns of the who, what, how and why of what's going to happen in Super Bowl XLV.

You found one.

Let's get right to it.

Who I Want to Win

Green Bay. 

Why? I like 'em better. 

I like QB Aaron Rogers--the man looks like someone we all played pick-up ball with as kids, both in appearance and the semi-awkward (but damn effective) body language on the field.

I like the fact no one has the slightest idea who head coach Mike McCarthy is or where the hell he came from.

I like the traditional, almost quaint uniforms. For NFL fans of a certain age they just look right.

I even like the stupid cheesehead thing now that Brett Favre's gone. Don't ask me why they correlate. They just do.

I do not like the term "Dynasty" getting bandied about before a team has earned it. More on that below.

And because, like the (Damn) Yankees have to win the World Series, the Canadiens have to win the Stanley Cup and the Boston Celtics have to win the NBA Championship, every once in a while the Green Bay Packers simply have to win the Lombardi Trophy.

It's in the fine print of the universal fabric.

Who I Think Will Win


Why?  It's what they do, dammit.  They win the big game once they get there ... even if they're not always the best team that day. 

To be clear, I'm not talking about the four-title, Dynasty Steelers of the '70's. Those Steelers won four titles in six years and put half their team in the Hall of Fame. They practically defined the NFL 70's.

No, I'm talking about the two-title (and counting?) Big Ben Steelers of the '00's. Today's Steelers have so far defined something too--I'm just not sure quite what yet.