The Redskins have spent most of this offseason dismissing the idea that they're going to take a rebuilding year in the wake of a 4-12 finish in 2009. The team's leadership simply doesn't see a need to waste this year because, ultimately, their plan is to uphold the status quo of the last eight or nine years of Redskins football, and to execute it a lot better and to earn their respect not though copying a small market strategy, but to throw their weight around like a large market franchise is supposed to. In the future, the Redskins will be in on just as many big name free agents as they were in the past, but this offseason, we've established the hesitancy of the team to pay a second tier free agent like a top tier one. This restraint is most welcome in Washington.
If you remember back to the 2009 offseason, the Redskins were very close to a deal with then Cowboys DE Chris Canty, with the price tag at somewhere between $7 and $8 million per year. Then they unexpectedly agreed to terms with Haynesworth for the practical value of $12 million per season. As we're seeing today, there were obvious problems with the structure of the Haynesworth contract. It wasn't a particuarly uncommon Redskins-type contract: lots of guaranteed money, deferred over the first few years of the deal, incredibly front weighted from the players perspective, and incredibly back weighted from the perspective of "the books." The Redskins had avoided such problems by only investing in high character guys, and while I'm not one to assault Haynesworth's character without knowing him, he's certainly not a London Fletcher, a Marcus Washington, or a Phillip Daniels as a person. Those are the players who have gotten front loaded deals from Joe Gibbs and company in the past, but as one Mr. Vinny Cerrato took the same contract strategy and applied it to players like DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth...well, you can see the downside of taking the risk at this week's minicamp -- or at least see the absence.
Well, the Canty-deal-that-wasn't is exactly the kind of deal the Redskins (and other teams) should not be making. Canty might have been worth $7 million a year to remain a Cowboy, but he's certainly not going to be worth that much to the Giants, and wouldn't have been to the Redskins. Given the option, getting Haynesworth was by far the smarter use of financial resources. If anything, we're seeing the risk of entering the free agent market to improve your team: the Redskins got the on-field performance they paid for, as well as the very worst of the baggage they got when they invested in a self-centered player. That's really two of the three types of free agent contracts: bad contracts, high risk contracts, the other being short term bargain signings (4 years or less). The Redskins took a risk on Fletcher (a 5 yr long deal in the face of age) and won, and took a risk on Haynesworth (4 years with 2 expensive non-guaranteed years) and have been burned thus far -- in spite of performance.
Anyway, the Redskins are going to move forward without Haynesworth in the interim, because they more or less have no other choice. So will Hog Heaven, at least in this manner: the team thinks they'll be able to win without him, and I do like to talk about winning, so let's see if the current Redskins group can win, you know, that Championship thing that I hear so much about every February.
A model for sustained excellence
Throw your money around, but do it wisely. Draft well, and don't waste picks on mid-tier veterans. This is a work in progress.
A model for 2010 success
Recent super bowl champions such as the 2008 and 2005 Steelers, the 2006 Colts, and the 2004 and 2003 Patriots didn't become champions overnight. The 2001 Patriots and the 2007 Giants were plenty fortunate to get to the super bowl and win it before most of their talent matured. Those teams had better talent bases the following year, but the 08 Giants failed to win a playoff game and the 02 Patriots failed to make the playoffs. The Redskins really can't address either of those models because one would have required better decisions over the last four years, and the other isn't a plan so much as it is to take advantage of all fortunate breaks a team gets in a year (scheduling, playoff upsets, uncontested lower playoff seeds, tuck rules, Kordell Stewart, etc). However, the last two NFC Champions have come out of humble July beginnings, really dominated for a good chunk of the year, and then made sure to play their best football in the postseason. I'd throw the 06 Bears into the same category as a model that the Redskins, who have no prior history of sound decision making -- but plenty of building blocks regardless -- can adapt.
None of those teams went all the way to the super bowl without the help of both units. The 06 Bears are remembered as a defense-only plus some special teams group, but they had one of the best running games in football that year. Eli Manning went interception-less through the first three playoff games in January 2008. The Cardinals defense embarassed Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme in consecutive postseason games. The Saints D had to face Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning in their three playoff games. They won them all, and really frustrated Manning and Warner (though neither went without their moments).
But clearly, the formula used by the three "surprise" (at least by preseason standards) NFC winners is to have a single unit that can go out and dominante even the best competition, and then to have another unit with a contributing element: one that isn't an embarassment and can exploit matchups, but defers to the strength of the team in critical situations. If that's the model that the Redskins are going to copy this year, it's not going to be the offense that is going to lead that charge. It's going to have to start on defense where the big money and touted draft picks are.
In another article, I will examine the likelyhood that the Shanahan offense can hold competent against even the best teams in the NFC, in a playoff situation. The final section in today's piece will look at the defense, and how dominant it will need to be to make a difference in the 2010 Redskins season.
The Sky is the Limit?
Former DC Greg Blache fancied his defense as a boring, unflashy, slow-and-steady-race-winning, complement to an elite offense that the Redskins simply never had, and certainly, upheld this standard until the last few games when his unit sunk well into the realm of "underachieving." Blache has done the same thing with his units back since his days calling the shots in Chicago: it's a group that would have done great paired with a 40 point, explosive offense, and could have won a whole bunch of 35-21 games with Drew Brees or Philip Rivers doing Jason Campbell's job, and Norv Turner or Sean Payton doing Jim Zorn's (along with a bunch of other offensive personnel moves the team didn't make). This, of course, wasn't the reality of the situation: the Redskins hadn't spent a first round draft pick on an offensive lineman, wide receiver, tight end, or running back since Chris Samuels, and it's acquisitions of former first rounders at those positions were clearly aging prior to even the 2009 offseason.
The Redskins put all of their blue chippers on defense ever since Joe Gibbs took the head coaching job in 2004. That's: Sean Taylor, Carlos Rogers, Rocky McIntosh, LaRon Landry, and Brian Orakpo; replacing guys like LaVar Arrington, and Champ Bailey. It's pretty unreasonable to expect a unit to go out there and be the best at it's craft -- the very best units find success in the most unexpected places -- but to expect the Redskins defense to do more than it has over the last two years given the talent it thinks it has is just being a fan with winning standards.
So with Blache retired, it falls to Jim Haslett to create a unique defense that can really cause all sorts of problems for not just the poorly coached offenses, but the kind of offenses they might see in a postseason. To really get the kind of defense that just dominated teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland to come rise to the occasion against Indianapolis, Minnesota, and Green Bay. That's the kind of flying around 3-4 unit that will really take the Redskins deep into the playoffs, one that can be among the best 2 or 3 units in the game. But, for some perspective, how much better than the average were the units that led recent teams to the George Halas trophy for winning the NFC?
- According to DVOA, the Bears defense and the Saints offense both ranked second in the NFL those respective NFC-winning years, and neither trailed the team that led those categories by an amount of significance.
- More importantly, both flat out led their conferences in those categories of dominance. The Saints were further out in front of the field than the Bears were, but the Bears had no equals in the NFC where as the Saints offense could have been changed to the Dallas offense or the Green Bay offense and still would have won the championship.
- Dallas and Green Bay, of course, got absolutely torched on defense in their elimination games. The Saints lost a few battles on that side of the ball, but won every war.
- Kurt Warner tore apart all defenses in 2008, getting little meaningful contribution from his running game which made the Cards' offense look less dangerous than it really was. The Cards had the best aerial attack in every playoff matchup they had that season. You can contrast that with 2009, when the Cardinals offense trailed both Green Bay and New Orleans in passing effieciency.
The formula then, for winning with a single, dominant unit, appears to be two parts:
- Go through the regular season and really dominante your conference (and by extension, all opponents) on defense, and;
- Either drive through a conference playoff field that lacks compare to your unit's dominance, or be fortunate enough to not have to play a team that has a comparably dominant unit.
It's hard to say whether things would have been different for the Saints if Dallas or Green Bay had come to town, or different for the Cardinals if they had to face the Giants instead of the Eagles, or the Bears if they had to match up against the Eagles instead of the Saints. History does seem to feel that they were fortuante to not have to find out. Of course, I could probably spin that argument to fit my case no matter who wins the NFC this year, so you're going to have to take me with a grain of salt.
The expectations for the Redskins defense needs to be that they will challenge both of Dallas' top-looking units for the mark of the conference's best category, will challege the offense of the Giants in not one, but both matchups, and will have the fortune of missing either the Saints, or the Falcons, or the Packers in the postseason, should those units continue to produce as advertised. Because outsome of some fun passing attacks, the real competition for the Redskins lies within the division, at the three teams they currently look up at, and have the good fortune of seeing twice, each. For a unit that went very much missing against the Cowboys at home, and the Eagles at home, and the Giants...well, pretty much always, a shutout or two will go a long way towards showing that yes, the Redskins defense is an elite unit on par with those that win super bowls, and while I'm afraid to place such high expectations on this group, I do feel good about the level they can achieve coming off a disappointing year in 2009.