This post is not a defense of Vinny Cerrato and it is not a critique of the drafting methods employed by Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen, who have added a franchise cornerstone left tackle to the defensive cornerstones they inherited from a prior regime.
This post is merely to point out that even though the Redskins were able to 'trim the fat' this offseason in ways we had not been able to imagine prior to this uncapped year, that the best players responsible for this 4-3 start were already on the roster and inherited by the current regime. Trent Williams is a lone exception to the rule.
Among the ShanAllen acquisitions that have played the most time this season: QB Donovan McNabb, RB Ryan Torain, WR Joey Galloway, LG Kory Lichtensteiger, RG Artis Hicks, RT Jammal Brown, NT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, DE Adam Carriker, DL Vonnie Holliday, and CB Phillip Buchanon. More or less every other significant piece of this team was here for at least the very end of Vinny Cerrato's tenure as executive VP of Football Operations. One more player, KR/PR Brandon Banks, is expected to make a significant contribution in the second half of the season.
If you asked a panel of national writers to name the acquisitions above that have had most to do with the team's 4-3 start, you'd probably get a lot of responses along the lines of "McNabb", "Torain", or "Jammal Brown". You probably wouldn't get a lot of answers at the other positions. In reality, the player who has been the most pleasant surprise amongst this group would have to be Buchanon, with Carriker as a close second. Vonnie Holliday has not exceeded nor failed to live up to expectations, and Kemoeatu has been a major disappointment.
Meanwhile, the offensive line doesn't appear to be improved at the guards or the RT position. Stephon Heyer has been (by far) the team's second most consistent lineman this year. Lichtensteigher and Hicks have, if nothing else, brought stability to their positions, but stability in the form of out-matched interior linemen is only an improvement when compared to last year. Derrick Dockery, who was one of the better performing pass blockers last year, has fallen out of favor because of his inability to assimilate to the man and zone blocking schemes favored by Kyle Shanahan. The best possible pass protection group would have both Lichtensteiger and Dockery on it, and then only one of Hicks and Rabach.
Ryan Torain is a popular answer as one of the biggest upgrades in the Redskins offense, but Torain produces fairly misleading yardage totals. 4.6 yards per carry is very good, but Torain's fumbles nearly match his TD total, he doesn't break long runs, and he loses yards too often. Still, when you have a guy who can take 6 yard gains and turn them into 14 yard gains, you want to feed him the rock as much as possible, and the Redskins run Torain a lot more than they would run Portis. But with Portis, you didn't have nearly as many wasted plays or fumbles, knew that neither was going to break the long run, and had a guy who could take the blocking that gets Torain stuck four yards behind the line of scrimmage, and tunnel for three yards.
I guess it comes down to asking what's more valuable: the difference between -3 yards and 2 yards or the difference between 6 yards and 12 yards. Torain will get you the latter on good blocking plays. Portis will get you the former on poor blocking plays. When you look at the struggles this offense has had since Portis got hurt, it's hard to argue that the ability to turn good plays into better plays is helping the offense succeed more than the ability to turn big losses into short gains. Portis helped this offense stay on track, where as Torain pretty much makes you live and die with the variations in his results. Both have value: I would take Portis.
Then there's McNabb. Quarterback production from last season to this season is down across the board with one notable exception: sacks. McNabb is getting sacked a perfectly league average 6.1% of his dropbacks. Jason Campbell was sacked on 7.8% of his dropbacks last year. This has effected the ever-critical fumble totals: Campbell had nine fumbles and aborted snaps all of last year. McNabb has just three and is on pace for seven total this year. Since not all fumbles are lost, the difference over the course of the season adds up to about six fewer sacks and one fewer turnover for McNabb than Campbell last year. A small improvement in ball security is worth a fraction of a win improvement at the QB position.
In the aggragate, McNabb may be holding the Redskins back. Certainly, it's not like the team has a better option, as neither Rex Grossman or John Beck can be trusted with a professional offense. But this offense could be executed to this level by many NFL quarterbacks. We're going to stick with McNabb because he is one of the many quarterbacks who could have lead this team to four wins in his first seven games here. Beck and Grossman do not qualify.
However, McNabb falls into a growing category of offseason acquisitions that look seemingly more pointless by the week. You'd have to think that with the new roles we've given Santana Moss and LaRon Landry, with the way that Albert Haynesworth has dominanted in two out of his three games this year, with the surprise that Trent Williams and Lorenzo Alexander have provided, with the steadyness of London Fletcher and Carlos Rogers, and the big play ability of DeAngelo Hall, and the quarterback killing mentality of Brian Orakpo, that pretty much any combination of offseason moves (or at least any where we drafted a tackle at no. 4 overall) could have had this team at 4-3. Add breakout WR Anthony Armstrong to that mix, and those (sans Williams) are all Cerrato acquisitions that are contributing to a team that has more wins than losses at the mid-season mark, and are being used correctly, finally.
The real question is: was there perhaps a combination of moves that could have gotten this team off to a much better start? You'd have to think that: yes, this group missed an offseason opportunity to really put together a true winner in 2010.