This weekend's playoff games have put me in a mood to ponder such a question like the one in this headline. When will the Redskins be ready to compete? When will they be back in the wild card round?
In the NFL, seasons represent generations of time. Teams that go any three consecutive years without a playoff berth are on the wrong track. I firmly believe the Redskins were in a good spot at the conclusion of the 2008 season, and then went for it all in 2009 -- failing spectacularly. They didn't have the right defensive coaches, and they didn't have the right offensive coaches. They had some talent, but the talent was flawed. It didn't have to be that way: they could have gone for a small step forward into the postseason instead of a large leap forward with big money contracts to DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth and spending a high pick on Brian Orakpo, not to mention that they tried to replace the quarterback with two guys who have proven to be, at best, lateral moves. Once they did that, this team needed to win with a flawed roster and deeply flawed coaching staff, and could not.
That was year one. A teardown of the roster and coaching staff ensued, but neither got any more talented. The least the Redskins could have done - holding onto their draft picks in 2011 - they failed at. One year later, the Redskins are not in a better place than they were at the end of 2009. How far is that away from contention?
The roster is in a poor situation, but it is not dire. There are holes at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, center, right guard, and right tackle. Some of those will be easy to fix, others not so much. Quarterback will be costly. Right tackle might be costly if they don't stay in house. Pass rushers and nose tackles are also very costly. Wide receivers and running backs who fit the scheme will come a lot cheaper as will interior linemen. The offensive line is...pretty close. It's not good yet, but it's a lot closer to good than we would have assumed in either 2008 or 2009. It needs a quality right guard to complete the OL, and Tampa Bay's Davin Joseph would be the best fit. Because sometimes I think our team might not have enough Oklahoma Sooners on it.
With a complete offensive line, the running game would come shortly there after. You get the feeling though that the Redskins have never been further from a competent passing game. You know you have three quality targets in Chris Cooley, Fred Davis, and Anthony Armstrong. Santana Moss can still play a little bit, but he's going to be a free agent at the start of the next league year. Even with some nice passing targets who can block for the backs, they're still not much of a passing attack because you have at least two non-receivers in the rotation, and the Redskins do not have a quarterback better than Donovan McNabb on the roster. This passing game is really far away from being competitive, probably 20 games at the very, very least.
That means if the Redskins want to be relevant before the end of the 2012 season, they'll either need to learn to compete without a strong passing game, or all their moves must be future oriented. As a fan, I really do not want to sit through two more non-playoff seasons while the passing game develops. I would much rather build while competing.
Keep this in mind: if we are talking about trying to develop a quarterback in the hopes of finding an elite passer, the average elite quarterback season (think Steve McNair in 2003, Daunte Culpepper in 2004, or Carson Palmer in 2005) happens in a quarterbacks in his sixth year in the league and fifth year as a starter. Though, you'll almost certainly get production before that from the passing game. It doesn't take long to find a passing game: consider that the Redskins made an overnight improvement from 2004 to 2005 through the air with pretty much the same roster: just a year of developement from Chris Cooley, and a trade for Santana Moss. The key to that passing game was strong offensive line play, which the Redskins enjoyed from 2005 into the 2008 season. They got good quarterback play from Mark Brunell, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell, and Todd Collins in that timeframe, but quarterback play was not the main component of the Redskins success over that time (except, perhaps in 2008 with Campbell).
It also means that if the Redskins land Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett, or Cam Newton in the draft this year, they could expect to see above average quarterback production as soon as 2013, but could not expect an all-pro season, within reason, until about 2016. That's a long time. It would be far quicker to load the offense independent of the quarterback, and then go find a quality veteran to lead the offense. This would be more along the lines of signing and then sitting Vince Young, with an eye towards 2012. Or more aggressively: signing Byron Leftwich to a two year deal. Leftwich may appearently be done, but with the seasons Vinny Testaverde and Randall Cunningham had back in 1998, a top season from a retread first rounder would certainly not be unprecidented. The point here is that how quick this can happen might not be the best measure of success. The offense could turn around in just over a year, but it might be a lot wiser to build towards the middle of the decade and not ignore the defense entirely.
Whether the Redskins are ready to compete for the NFC East title in 2012 or 2013 is mostly a matter of philosophy. A division champion 2012 team is not unobtainable, but it would require a lot of win now free agent signings and some key value acquisitions through trade, and unlike the past would require these moves to be all hits and no misses. If this was the path chosen by the Shanahans, I certainly have specific recommendations as to how this could be accomplished. Pushing towards 2013 might require some discipline in the free agency market: there will be some very big names out there this year: Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes amongst receivers alone, with Haloti Ngata, Tamba Hali, and Lamarr Woodley the big name defenders. Building for 2013 gives three drafts, and the necessity to pass on such big names.
This may seem like an easy decision. And it would be, if the Redskins were to fire the Shanahan's and start over. But with a veteran coaching staff in place, delayed gratification is never easy. While a competitive 2011 team would be a minor miracle (all bets are off in a strike shortened season), you'd have to think with some improvement, Mike Shanahan would return in 2012 in a do-or-die type situation -- around age 60. Absolutely, if the Redskins are building to something, having the Shanahan's on staff is counter-productive to that building: your coaching staff has interests divergent with the long-term focus of the franchise.
In my opinion, the Redskins would best start over right now with younger coaches and build towards middle of the decade dominance. I just don't think this is the vision of the franchise at the current moment, or really, at any point in the history of the franchise. I think they'll probably spend much of 2011 improving and evaluating, and really go for it all in 2012, as we've seen that this is a team that will try tirelessly to win in the short term. I also think winning in the short term is Mike Shanahan's specialty: he's never been one for long rebuilding projects. I don't think we're getting one now. The Redskins will combine available free agent talent with their draft picks, and hold onto their picks as they try to build a team.
The team is at least a year away, but under Mike Shanahan, there will be no timetable for a competing Redskins team. As long as the Redskins improve every year from here on out, there may be playoffs in 2012 and a division champion in 2014. I don't see a whole lot of other reason for optimism, but if this is rock bottom, perhaps the improvement can start immediately, and two years from now, the Redskins will be back on wild card weekend.