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Projecting the Redskins Offense (qualitative version)

It’s mid-July, and training camps are between two and three weeks away.  It is time to take a best-look projection at the Washington Redskins 2012 season.  I do this a number of ways.  Today, I will take a pragmatic look at the Redskins offense.  The goal of this piece is not to throw a bottom line number out there, but to take a look at how many points and wins the Redskins were responsible for in 2011, and see how much better (or worse) they might be in 2012.

The 2011 Redskins Offense in Summary

The 2011 Redskins offense was better than most thought it would be.

There was a point in the middle of the season where that simply wasn’t true.  By the time the three and a half game John Beck era had run its course in Washington, the Redskins had been shut out, had been thouroughly dominanted by the future NFC West Champs (San Francisco) at home, and were in the middle of a season long losing streak that would eventually reach six games before being snapped in Week 12 at Seattle.

Even the Seattle win was kind of lackluster: the Redskins erased a 11 point fourth quarter deficit essentially with a nice performance from Roy Helu, and a single 45+ yard TD strike from the largely ineffective combination (at least for most of the season) of Rex Grossman to Anthony Armstrong.  Any time you snap a six game losing streak, you’ll take it, but the Redskins passing game was inept again the next week against the New York Jets, and for one final time, Kyle Shanahan wouldn’t stick with an effective running game long enough to beat a team that hadn’t beaten the Redskins in 18 years.  And at the conclusion of that game, the Redskins lost TE Fred Davis and LT Trent Williams to suspension for the rest of the season.

Questions about Kyle Shanahan’s ability to adjust his offense to his team’s strengths (or even to develop and modify strengths to his opponents weaknesses) remained unanswered because inexpliably, from that point forward, the Redskins passing game looked to be fixed.  They torched a zone-based, talent deficient New England secondary in a losing effort, then did it again to the New York Giants in a winning effort that would be New York’s last loss.

The Redskins offense finished with -43.52 expected points, or roughly the production of a 6.0-6.5 win offense.  However, if you break that down between the John Beck starts (-35.71 ExP in three games) and the Rex Grossman starts (-7.81 ExP in thirteen games), the numbers tell a very different story.  While you want to be careful about blaming failures on the departed Beck (who was legitimately good in relief of an ineffective Grossman in Week 6 against the Eagles) when Beck’s tenure covered the worst stretch of talent the Redskins dealt on offense until maybe the end of the season.

Qualitatively, the schedule the Redskins saw in 2011 will overall have been easier than the one they will see in 2012, but not by much.  Though if we examine the opponents purely from the perspective of the offense, the Redskins schedule of defenses in 2011 was actually more difficult than average.

The strength of the offense was consistent production from the running backs, a couple of good seasons by Fred Davis and Jabar Gaffney, and the left side of the offensive line.  The weaknesses of the offense included inconsistent (though rarely poor) play from the quarterbacks, consistently low catch rates from the receivers, and a sieve on the right side of the offensive line, combined with sub-NFL level depth on that OL.

Fixing the issues in the offseason

The Redskins targeted every issue on the offense in the offseason with the exception of right tackle, where they will rely on known weakness Jammal Brown once again in 2012.  The bad news is that the Redskins like to isolate their tackles one on one on the edge without giving a ton of help.  The good news is that the Redskins utilize a play action heavy, timing and rhythm passing game that focuses on striking between the numbers down the field, and tough, consistent quarterback play can compensate for weak play at the tackle position.  Furthermore, both Trent Williams and Jammal Brown excel at moving wide and downhill in the zone rushing game, and appear to be very well coached by Chris Forester.  This should mitigate the effect of defensive coordinators who want to take advantage of the Redskins tendency to isolate Brown and Williams on great pass rushers.

And while I still don’t believe in Kyle Shanahan’s ability to adjust on the fly and scheme back at a coordinator who excels at attacking weaknesses, the Redskins base offense already puts a high amount of pressure on defenses to cover every inch of the field and get pressure on the quarterback quickly.  When you add in some mobility in the QB position, it’s going to get tougher for the Rob Ryan’s of the world to consistently outscheme Kyle Shanahan — there are just too many bases to cover in the passing game.

The positions that are likely to do the Redskins offense in during the 2012 season is not the positions the Redskins knowingly opted not to address, but the ones they did.  You can check out Anthony Brown’s July 5th article on the Redskins receivers if you haven’t already, as it’s full of really good questions that we just can’t answer yet.  One thing we can know is that the current decision makers for the Redskins haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt, as they’ve struggled to make consistently good personnel pickups at every turn.

Furthermore, while we can point to the improvement of the offense under Grossman at the end of the year as a positive, it’s also critical to remember that because the Redskins switched quarterbacks in the offseason to hearlded rookie Robert Griffin III, there’s now a production minimum for Griffin to hit this year.  The Redskins can’t afford to regress on offense back to John Beck-levels in 2012: with multiple jobs on the line, that will almost certainly mean that Grossman will have to relieve Griffin at some point this year.  No, what the Redskins need from Griffin in year one is steady improvement on the benchmarks set by Grossman last year.  Griffin’s only goal this year is to establish himself as an NFL level player, and relegate Grossman to the bench for reasons of performance.  The Redskins need Griffin to be the clear number one option on their depth chart all year, to make fewer mistakes and more big plays than Grossman did last year.  If he can do that, the Redskins will be fine.

The Redskins should be in good shape at receiver, as they received a somewhat unexpected boost in OTA’s from Santana Moss, who is now on track to start at the Z receiver position opposite Pierre Garcon.  Leonard Hankerson should win the third receiver role, a role that will place him on the field with regularity, with Moss moving inside.  With the emergence of Hankerson and any sort of positive contribution from Moss, that should take the pressure off of Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan to come in and produce immediately.  The Redskins figure to run a strict four receiver rotation most of the season, where the reps get split pretty evenly among the four guys.  In case of an injury, the Redskins can turn it into a positive by getting Anthony Armstrong or Aldrick Robinson into the mix at receiver.  The Redskins rarely run any set that puts more than three wide receievers on the field at any given time, so even if that is their base package this year, there’s no real reason to have more than four receivers active for any game (reasons beyond special teams that is).

It’s not hard to see how the Redskins receivers could fall apart: any injury to Hankerson would both put his future as a 1,000 yard receiver for the Redskins in jeopardy as well as stretch the Redskins thin at receiver, too thin to rely on Santana Moss sustaining his form in OTA’s over, say, his last five years with the Redskins where he has been good in stretches (like a weekend of OTAs), but rarely impressive over a full season.  And if Hankerson is hurt and Moss is ineffective, then all concerns about the boatload of cash the Redskins gave to two FA receivers who haven’t proven a lot in the NFL come right to the forefront.  And then if you’re seeing a receiver rotation that pulls Josh Morgan off the field in third down because Terrence Austin or Brandon Banks needs to get his reps…well, yeah, the Redskins receiving corps is far from a sure thing this year.

The Redskins Offense in 2012

Lets take a position by position look at the Redskins and see if we can expect the point production to increase or decrease:

Quarterback position strength, NFL Average; depth strength, below average 

The Redskins didn’t really have anything at the quarterback position heading into this year, spent a ton just to get into the game (with about 20 other teams), and are actually in a pretty good position for the future.  A year from now, the Redskins could be looking at a productive Robert Griffin backed up by Kirk Cousins, which might be one of the better QB situations in the league.  On top of that, if this ends up being Rex Grossman’s final year with the Redskins or in the NFL, the Redskins can add a veteran to the mix next year for pennies because QB supply at the backup tier so vastly exceeds demand right now.  The trend is up here.

Running back position strength, NFL Average; depth strength, above average

There are certainly some concern here, as for all the talk about how the running back position is “devalued” (whatever the heck that means), and how you have to be careful about tying up guaranteed salary in the running back position (this is actually true), we’re still talking about the second or maybe third most important position on your football team.  Running backs are still a big deal: they just happen to be freely available for those teams that haven’t invested in one.  And anyway, there’s a difference between Peyton Hillis and Chris Johnson, and a reason why one got his money and the other didn’t.

The Redskins have a better contractual situation at running back than they have in terms of actual talent.  As a group, Tim Hightower, Evan Royster, and Roy Helu will easily exceed the less than $2 million of the Redskins salary cap they will occupy this year.  Mike and Kyle Shanahan will go with the hot hand, as they usually do.  They will keep close tabs on the production they are getting on a game to game basis, as they always do when Steve Slaton and Ryan Torain aren’t involved.

Helu is pretty clearly the top dog here right now, although the Redskins feel that Tim Hightower (even coming off an ACL tear) is a more complete player who will be worthy of more downs.  Hightower is overrated as a runner, but his high marks as a pass blocker and versatility as a receiver aren’t to be overstated.  Helu can do it all.  Royster might be the most natural runner of the three in terms of vision and system ability, but he doesn’t have breakaway ability that the Shanahan’s covet.  Willie Parker is just a call away if the Redskins need him though.  The trend here is stagnant, or down very slightly.

Wide Receiver position strength, below NFL average; depth strength, NFL average

For the first time in many, many years, since perhaps the Al Saunders days, the Redskins’ Plan A at wide receiver is not inadequate.  The Redskins, if everything goes perfect, can throw the ball to Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon eight times a game, and five more each to Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson, and still have enough balls to go around for multiple tight ends and running backs.  There is a pretty steep drop off after those four however, with Anthony Armstrong offering average fifth receiver production if he makes the team.

As shown above though, the Redskins receivers are still very much a work in progress, and everyone is a question mark.  Four question marks beats Santana Moss and Joey Galloway, so the three year trend is significantly up, but one or two of the four players in the receiver rotation will need to exceed expectations just to put the Redskins receivers on par with the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants.

Tight End position strength, above average; depth strength, excellent 

Last year for the first time in a while, the Redskins were weakened significantly at tight end.  Chris Cooley proved ineffective, then got hurt and landed on IR.  Fred Davis regressed significantly as a blocker in a starting role, then got suspended.  With no real reason to believe the Redskins could sustain their position among leaders for tight ends in the NFL, the Redskins moved Niles Paul inside.  Paul should be able to effectively block NFL edge players in the running game, although the Redskins usually ask their Y players to cut off the backside.  It is not a blocking-intensive position in the Shanahan offense.  When it will be, that will be Chris Cooley’s role this year.  A lot of goal-line looks and chances for TDs for no. 47, but the downfield yards will be handled almost exclusively by Paul and Davis, which should work out really well for Robert Griffin.

The three year trend here is stagnant, but with some upside.

Offensive tackle position strength, below average; depth strength, below average

The Redskins spent the very first draft pick of the Mike Shanahan era at this position to replace Chris Samuels.  Then they traded a mid-round pick for Jammal Brown that same offseason.  The Redskins locked in their tackle tandem early, and ultimately they still need better production from the position.

Trent Williams hasn’t disappointed really, as he’s at this point an above average NFL left tackle with considerable upside that the Redskins coaches love and feel like its only a matter of time before Silverback really takes his place among the best tackles in the NFL.  Being cautious about that benefit of the doubt deal, Williams can still absolutely get there, possibly as soon as this year.  He’s probably the Redskins single best bet for something like 4 out of 6 pro bowl nods over the next six seasons, simply because of the position he plays.  But where Williams is right now is a sobering reminder that fourth overall picks don’t always work out the way everyone dreamed.  Trent (and Fred Davis) were both very nearly suspended for the 2012 season for recreational drug use, and the left tackle position in the NFL is hard enough without having to consistently overcome oneself.

Jammal Brown has been largely ineffective since coming over from New Orleans in a trade that made a lot of sense at the time, but even then, careful observers were skeptical about what the Redskins were really receiving.  Thankfully, the Donovan McNabb trade failed so spectacularly that no one really remembers Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis picking up a mid-round selection for a player who they likely would have cut loose two months later.  The Redskins gave Brown a pretty nice five year contract after the lockout ended.  It’s not impossible to get out of it at the conclusion of the 2012 season, but we do know that Brown will be on the payroll as a starter one way or another in 2013.  Behind Brown there isn’t much.  Sixth round draft pick Tom Compton is really interesting, as is second year UDFA Willie Smith.  James Lee is a decent contingency plan to make the team if Brown were to end up on IR before the final cuts, he started for Tampa Bay at RT much of their 10-6 season in 2010.

The overall trend here is stagnant.  As Silverback becomes a better bet for the pro bowl, Brown becomes more of a liability each season.  If the Redskins can prove to the world they don’t need a right tackle now, well, even then they’ll still need one in a year.

Interior offensive line position strength, NFL average; depth strength, improved

Grading NFL interior offensive lines is pretty difficult for the average observer, as well as for the seasoned line coach.  At least with the offensive tackle position, those guys are isolated enough where Mike Shanahan can’t sit in a presser and claim that Jammal Brown actually looks good on the coaches tape.  Interior lines is a bit different.  The Redskins ignored Casey Rabach’s poor play for years for example, but that’s more defensible when you present a case like Chris Chester in 2011 at right guard.  The right side of the OL was overall pretty weak last year, but Chester himself had a number of really great games spliced in with some lackluster performances.  Clearly, Chester CAN perform the role of right guard in the system, but maybe we could say that he’s lacking in strength in order to perform the job consistently against all opponents?

And Will Montgomery, who has been totally lost at right guard in the past, looked more than adequate at the Center position last year, offering a huge upgrade on Casey Rabach.  But how do we perceive Montgomery going forward?  As a useful piece of a unit that performs at a level greater than the sum of it’s parts?  Or as a Center-only backup whose playing time is more a fuction of what the Redskins don’t have (a consistent RG who can move Chester inside to his more natural Center position) than his own abilities.  Montgomery was the 53rd guy Mike Shanahan kept during cutdown day back in 2010.  He is one of only three players on offense to receive a contract extension from Shanahan after orginially being signed by Vinny Cerrato (Santana Moss, Casey Rabach, Mike Williams).  The Redskins have not recieved a return on any of the other three contract extensions to date.

The three year trend here is up significantly

Schedule difficulty, above NFL average

The Redskins will play the AFC North this season, home of four tough defenses, although they will also play the NFC South, home of defenses that just aren’t all that good.  The difference as always is in the NFC East, where the Cowboys and Eagles look improved.  The schedule will play similar overall for Griffin as it did for Grossman last season.

Redskins 2012 Offense Prediction Summary 

So here’s the deal: the Redskins passing game is pretty much up or at least stagnant across the board.  This isn’t a guarantee of anything except the potential for disappointment, but only at the running back position would we look at the Redskins and say that they might have been better last year.  The schedule could easily play tougher this season as it is unlikely to play easier.  But we can be reasonably confident that there’s more talent here than there was last year, starting at the quarterback position.

I will predict that the Redskins offense, after careful qualitative breakdown, is capable of producing expected points in the positive this year, and possibly near the top of the league if Griffin hits the ground running.  The target here will be between +15.0 and +25.0 ExP for the regular season, which would make the Redskins offense between a 8.5-9.0 win offense (assuming net zero defense and special teams) over the course of a 16 game season.  That would represent a 2-3 win increase in offensive production for Washington on the offensive side of the ball alone, and would give a bit of buffer to the defense given that the Redskins weren’t able to upgrade that side of the ball too aggressively this offseason.  It would also set the Redskins up for great things in the future.