In which the author unnecessarily and critically picks at the Redskins roster to find areas that can improve over the next three months leading up to the season.
1) The Redskins aren't well hedged against the career years they enjoyed in 2012
This is perhaps the most serious issue for the Redskins for this upcoming season. For the first time in at least four years, the concept of regression towards the mean will not be working in favor of the Redskins, it will be working against them. That means instead of getting to make the argument that "we're a lot closer to contention than a lot of people are giving us credit for," the team must be aware that the other teams in the NFC East (and the rest of the NFC) are the ones that get to establish that argument against the Redskins this year. And looking around the rest of the conference, a small step back could mean rock bottom.
A year ago, I pointed out that the Redskins beating the Giants in the regular season suggested that maybe there wasn't a huge talent gap between the 5-11 Redskins and the super bowl champion Giants. Two games is just that: two games, so there were no conclusive observations to be made, but simply being aware that the talent gap between the top five NFL teams and bottom five teams can typically be closed in a year and a half given the wise use of resources, it wasn't that shocking that the 2012 Redskins were able to enjoy a similar season to the 2011 Giants, minus of course the playoff success that they may have if Robert Griffin III was healthy at the end of the year. I think the Redskins closed that gap a lot quicker than many were anticipating, but they did it not by dark magic, they did it by loading future resources into 2012 by way of a massive trade for a top player. Landing Alfred Morris in the 6th round didn't hurt.
Now comes the challenging part. The best is yet to come for Griffin, who despite a sensational rookie year, has elements of the passing game where he can make major improvements still. But you can't say things about guys who had those once-in-a-career years, guys like Alfred Morris, Chris Chester, Will Montgomery, Rob Jackson, (maybe) Logan Paulsen, and a career half-season from Pierre Garcon (that seven game run is not possible without Garcon playing over his head, but he can provide that level of value over a healthy full season), and of course everyones personal favorite: a career single-game from Brandon Meriweather.
If you estimate the 2013 performance of these players at what they have been in their careers, not what they were for the Redskins in 2013, you're giving up a lot of good football plays despite putting the same players right back on the field. If we simply regress Alfred Morris' expectation to the average Mike Shanahan system running back (historically a very good player), we'd be giving up a lot of great plays he made down the stretch that helped the Redskins win games.
Maybe more significant to the Redskins, is that a number of players not on that list above played very well during the seven game stretch (which includes Griffin), and couldn't even sustain that level of performance for the whole 2012 season, much less will be able to repeat it in 2013.
Maybe Chester and Montgomery will stay healthy all year and the Redskins can repeat their level of play on the offensive line, keeping the interior three as a major team strength. I think I'd bet on that before I'd bet on Alfred Morris breaking his own team rushing record again. However, as they have had to in every other season ever, the Redskins are going to have to find creative ways to replace the performance of those who went above and beyond in 2012. After all: that's what going above and beyond is.
The big question what is the organizations plan to handle regression when it works against them, instead of for them? That is what I mean by 'hedging.'
2) The defense really picked up RG3 down the stretch
Which is a really good thing, but Griffin probably drops Rookie of the Year honors to Russell Wilson if his defense didn't really improve those last three games. The secondary in particular (without the benefit of any pass rush whatsoever) really held down some good passing games after the Thanksgiving near-debacle against the Cowboys. Particularly against the Giants on Monday Night: the offense didn't really even show up for that game, and the Redskins managed to keep the Giants out of the end zone for the most part. The pass defense kept that going into the playoffs against the Seahawks as well (although Lynch and Wilson scored the Skins on the ground).
None of this is a problem really, that the Redskins defense may be better than it showed in 2012. But the issue is that it's one less area where the Redskins can expect improvement in 2013. They didn't really improve the personnel at all in the offseason, they're just going to gamble on the guys who they missed because of injury last year. Speaking of which...
3) The best predictor of future injury is past injury
The Redskins have always been a team that trends towards the weaker end of the injury spectrum. This was one of the major downfalls of the Cerrato-Zorn era. But the Shanahan era was supposed to be different. And outside of a fluky 2011 year on the defensive side of the ball, it really hasn't been any different. The Redskins probably should have cleaned house on the medical staff at the point where they let Cerrato and Zorn go, but with the staff mostly the same, the results have been mostly the same. Furthermore, even the staunchest Mike Shanahan defenders would admit that the accomplished coach says really inane things regarding the health and injury status of his roster (even getting fined at times for misreporting), and his decision making with regard to Robert Griffin's situation and a number of others has come under fire.
The Redskins are clearly banking on having better injury luck in 2013 than they enjoyed in 2012, but the lines between injury luck and injury skill have never been more blurred than right now. What we do know is that: predicting injuries is nearly impossible, but if you were going to try to start such a fool's game, you'd probably begin with the players who were hurt in 2012 and 2011: Brandon Meriweather, Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker, Pierre Garcon, Josh Wilson, Jarvis Jenkins, London Fletcher, Tyler Polumbus, Robert Griffin, Keenan Robinson, Roy Helu, Leonard Hankerson, Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, DeAngelo Hall, Kory Lichtensteiger, Fred Davis, and Trent Williams have all missed snaps due to injuries in the last two years. Many of those players will be healthier in 2013. Others will not. When it comes to injuries, I prefer my predictions to be very generalized.
4) How deep is the team at critical positions?
Based on the scheme the Redskins run, they have been able to skimp a bit in the secondary over the years because it's not that important to have top talent at those corner and safety positions. But at linebacker? The Redskins are trying to get deeper at those positions. They have weathered the loss of Lorenzo Alexander fairly well this offseason, but Alexander was only a major player in the defense in 2010 because there was simply no one else. Rob Jackson had a great year in relief of Brian Orakpo, but I'd stop short of terming Jackson "quality depth". He is depth, but this team needs Orakpo for 13+ games this year. Same with Darryl Tapp and Brandon Jenkins. They represent depth, but quality depth (the kind you see in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Houston) is more elusive. Keenan Robinson could be quality depth for London Fletcher and Perry Riley, but we simply don't have a great feel there yet. We do know the run defense was not spectacular last season.
It's the same deal at the quarterback position. Kirk Cousins, Pat White, and Rex Grossman give the Redskins depth that can handle the position in case of a change of plans in RG3's timetable, but getting a quality performance from the position requires Griffin to be healthy. The Redskins have depth on the offensive line, but little by way of established performers. Tight end may be the exception, where the Redskins have quality players to go with their starters, but the uncertainty there is in Fred Davis' achillies.
The Redskins are a fairly deep team heading into year four of the Mike Shanahan Experience, but they are short on quality depth, which kind of comes with the territory when you gut the roster like our front office did two years ago, and then trade a lot of draft picks to get your quarterback. There's not a ton of waiting-in-the-wings talent from the draft. If those draft picks from 2012 and 2013 show traits that fit the Redskins scheme, they'll be in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
5) The roster cannot really carry Robert Griffin III, and the coaches will still need to work overtime to keep him effective
Which, I feel like the Redskins knew when they made the trade to draft RG3. If he's gone for a period of time or goes though an extended stretch of ineffective play, the Redskins kind of saw what would happen during the final three quarters of the playoff game against Seattle. The roster is still set up to be put on the back of RG3 as soon as he is healthy. My single biggest point of concern for the season is that the Redskins coaching staff -- having worked extremely hard to get to the playoffs last season -- rests on their laurels a bit while the roster really isn't better than last year's roster which started the season 3-6.
What the Redskins proved in 2012 is that they had a plan for Griffin from day one. They didn't just take him and hope for the best. They took him and used him very aggressively. I feel like the plan calls for more diversity from the offense in year two. The Redskins are out to score a lot of points and have a lot of fun in doing so. As soon as Griffin gets cleared to play, I think the Redskins can go right back to being much of the same team they were in 2012.
For all the warning signs we have on the roster that would suggest that the Redskins probably aren't ready to take the jump to Super Bowl Favorite this season (and I don't believe they are), there is also little reason to suggest that the performance from last season was unsustainable. If you take away only one piece of wisdom from this article, I hope to help everyone understand that the margin of error in the NFC East is just very slight. The Redskins can't just decide to take it on the chin for a month while they let Griffin get healthy, because they don't have another seven game winning streak waiting in the cards. The Redskins traded to get this quarterback because they believe he has special qualities. And when you get special players, you don't try to limit them, you need to give them the assistance they need to be special.
Another NFC East title is a very attainable goal for the Washington Redskins in 2013, and if they can address the five issues outlined above, it becomes a likelihood.