September 28, 2012

Week 4 Storylines: RG3, Haslett and Redskins Embattled Defense

In Tampa Bay this week, where the Buccaneers are preparing to host the Washington Redskins on Sunday afternoon, the talk is about "containing RG3." As it should be. From the outside looking in, the most intriguing thing about the Redskins is their suddenly dangerous offense, led by dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.

The phrase "highest scoring offense in the NFL" has a certain cachet, after all. It gets attention. It's also a legitimate concern to opposing teams. The Redskins are scoring a crisp 33 points per game, which projects out over the course of the season to 528 points. Clearly, preparing to play Washington had better involve crafting a plan designed to keep the hotshot rookie from "going off" and dominating Sunday night's Sportscenter highlights.

What the Bucs are not saying publicly, however, but what Redskins fans and observers know all too well they are probably thinking, is that to beat the Redskins these days what you really need to do is throw the damn ball. Like, throw it a lot. All day, all over. Deep, short, left, right, middle, whatever--just throw it.

Because the Redskins defense, statistically sound enough against the run (9th overall), has been performing so abysmally against the pass (31st) that the team is giving up 33.7 points per game. To put that number in perspective, the Redskins are on pace to set the all-time NFL record for points allowed (539) in a 16-game regular season. That infamous distinction currently belongs to the 1981 Baltimore Colts, who rolled over to the tune of 533.  

So rather than reveling in the surprisingly prolific training-wheel phase of their young franchise quarterback's career, and enjoying realistic discussions about Washington competing for a playoff spot (rarely a realistic expectation behind a rookie quarterback), Redskins fans face each successive week more convinced that the defense is simply incapable of stopping anybody, or of holding any lead.

The Redskins face the first real crossroads game of 2012 on Sunday. With a win, they can finish the first quarter of the season 2-2, with both wins against NFC opponents. A 2-2 September would bring another few weeks of playoff relevance in a season that, in the long view, is more realistically the launching pad to a new era.

With a third consecutive loss, however, and a fall to 1-3 in the deeply competitive NFC East, the 2012 season almost certainly will become an extended test lab for 2013 and beyond. That would not be the end of the world, obviously--not in view of the dawning reality that this franchise fellow is the real deal--but still a huge disappointment given the unexpected early success of the offense.

At 1-2 the Redskins are on the edge. It didn't have to be that way. Consider:

September 13, 2012

1-0 Redskins Raise the Bar

Last week I predicted that the Redskins would make a game of it Sunday in New Orleans, but in the end their defense would not be able to control the quick-release and savvy of Saints QB Drew Brees. Nothing beats being loud wrong than being loud wrong about losing.

Mr. Haslett? Well done, sir.

Some Kid Named Bob

Millions of words have been written this week about the sparkling debut of Robert Griffin, III, the Redskins instant-star rookie quarterback. "Obviously," as head coach Mike Shanahan might say, "any time a rookie quarterback makes his first NFL start, on the road against a playoff contender, and plays smart and as well as Robert did and has the best debut of any rookie quarterback in league history, you have to be happy."

By and large, talk from the media and fans alike have reflected that fuzziness. And of course there were a few obligatory "yeah but" contributions. That's what we have writers like Sally Jenkins for. Hard to tell if she really believed the football world needed reminding it was just one game, or simply drew the short straw when they were handing out assignments Monday at the Washington Post.

So, rather than try to find a fresh way of saying "wow," let me simply single out a piece that stood out for me. The last paragrash, in particular, succinctly puts into words my own takeaway from week one, heading into the nascent RGIII era. From Chris Brown at Grantland:
Griffin’s advantage is that he adds an element to Shanahan's pro-style offense that can't be understated. It cannot be emphasized enough that all those supposedly "easy" passes Griffin threw early on were decisions he had to make based on how the defense played. That may be the most exciting thing about his debut. Unlike many NFL coaches whose egos and lack of creativity won't allow them to utilize their players’ strengths and weaknesses, Shanahan is evolving his offense into a reflection of his young quarterback. Robert Griffin III is not a "running quarterback," but rather a quarterback who can also run; Shanahan's Redskins offense is not a college-style spread offense, but a blend of a pro-style system that also incorporates some of college football’s newest and best ideas. Griffin certainly has a long way to go, but his development — and the development of this offense — will be fun to watch, unless, that is, you're the one trying to stop it.
Coaching – Gameplan Edition

Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett had months to prepare for New Orleans. And Shanahan's NFL opening day record (15-4) speaks for itself. Week two is different. Week two settles into the "normal" preparation cycle with current game tape to study for both his own team and the upcoming opponent. St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fischer is no slouch–you can rest assured he will have his team ready to play, fundamentally sound, and will throw looks at the Redskins that they will not have seen before.

This will be a good early test of the 2012 Redskins' brain trust. Will their game plans prove as on-target and effective with one week to prepare? Will they succeed in keeping the young Redskins from suffering a classic "letdown" game after the emotional upset win against the Saints?

One thing about the NFL–last week is always a long time ago.

Coaching – In-Game Edition

If the Redskins succeed in building a two- or even three-possession second half lead again, will they, unlike last week, feel comfortable enough to let their rookie quarterback step on the proverbial snake's neck and finish the Rams off? Because last week, it says here, they did not.

The Saints game should never have come down to a 40-yard Drew Brees lob into the endzone from possible overtime. It should never have been that close; not with as dominant as the Redskins had been in building a 16-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Saints hadn't stopped the Redskins all day, nor had much luck moving the ball againt them. It all seemed to change then, in a way that felt eerily foreboding.

Judge for yourself...

September 11, 2012

Remembrance and Celebration

Tuesday, September 11.

It is something I know, deep in my bones, yet only occasionally acknowledge. Let today be such a day.


... grants the unselfconscious, joyful gift of celebrating this:


September 7, 2012

Redskins New Era Faces Stern First Test

With the 2012 NFL season and dawn of a new era in Redskins football (make no mistake, boom or bust, history will record 2012 as the beginning of the Robert Griffin III Era) just two days away, let us take a last  lingering look at the Big Picture.

Because come Sunday, and then over the five months to follow, we will spend our time burrowing deep into into the delicious minutia of the games themselves.

* deep breath *

The preseason (3-1) was certainly satisfying. There were plenty of positives:
  • flashes of RG3 potential
  • surprisingly crisp rookie backup QB Kirk Cousins
  • powerful rookie RB Afred Morris
  • as deep and athletic a WR corps as we have seen since The Posse
  • something only veteran Redskins observers can recall--apparent depth. This is something the Redskins have NOT boasted in recent memory. The thorough dismantling and domination of Tampa Bay's backups by Washington's offered, at the very least, a comforting sense that the tide may indeed be rising.   
Did the preseason provide reason for optimism, even with the first-half egg the team laid up in Chicago? Absolutely. There were unmistakeable signs of emerging talent and a team coming together. If one squinted his/her eyes just a bit, one could even see the realistic possiblity that the first year of the new era could feature meaningful games in December.

Coins, of couse, have two sides. There were also reminders that this Redskins team is still very much a work in progress. One need only cue up the aforementioned first half in the Windy City as Exhibit A.

The preseason saw:
  • clear "rookie moments" from the young franchise quarterback
  • hold-your-breath, cover-your-eyes moments courtesy of the offensive line's pass protection
  • perhaps most saliently (heading into a week one matchup against New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and his high-flying passing circus), a defensive secondary that may test the metro area's Pepto and Advil reserves this fall.
Cause for concern? Of course there is. The team is not a finished product (assuming there is such a thing in today's NFL). In addition to starting a raw rookie at quarterback, the offensive line remains transitionary at best and the defensive secondary could wear question marks instead of numerals. Which would be better than targets, but still.

So just as it is possible to imagine meaningful games in December, it is also possible to imagine playing out the string by November. Damn coins.

The 2012 preseason in a nutshell? More good than bad.

* flush *

On to Game One...