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Redskins team analysis: 8 wins should be expected, should not be enough to save the coaching staff

Whether it was officially expressed or not, the Redskins made a somewhat unexpected committment to the ways of the past two years when they allowed Mike Shanahan to pick the team’s 2012 quarterback, which he did by trading every first round pick the Redskins had while he was under contract to move up and select Robert Griffin III.  Observers around the trade were pretty convinced that this trade would tie the Redskins to Griffin a lot tighter than it would tie Shanahan to the Redskins (which owner Daniel Snyder should be happy with).  

As for Shanahan, the deal was a no brainer.  While it was in vogue to claim in the aftermath of the trade that this was the final critical move he would make towards building the Redskins — that he would sink or swim based on the quality of this one move and on the existing roster — the truth is that Shanahan wasn’t ever facing a reality where he would get five years to add talent to the Redskins.  With the Redskins badly underachieving in years one and two of the Shanahan era, Daniel Snyder’s toughest decision was made during the middle of the 2011 season.  Someone was going to pick the team’s next quarterback.  The controversial decision would be to let Mike Shanahan do it.

And although the Redskins have headed down that road with no regrets, I don’t think that having Griffin don the Burgundy and Gold in the preseason is going to make fans completely forget the last two seasons.

Let me lay out the facts.

-For the first time since about midway through the 2010 season (the Monday night Massacre), the Redskins are legitimate contenders for the NFC East title
-For the first time since oh, maybe 2009? 2006?  Probably before 2010…the Redskins actually have some reasonable level of expectation for the present.
-For the first time since 2004? (ever?), that expectation isn’t based heavily on recent success, but almost exclusively on a meaningful offseason acquisition.

I’m trying to think of the last time the Redskins acquired a player (at any position) with expectations on the level of Robert Griffin III.  I think you have to go back beyond the Zorn era, beyond the Gibbs era (Sean Taylor?), beyond the Spurrier era, and beyond the Schottenheimer era.  Jeff George maybe?  Lavar Arrington?  Champ Bailey?  Heath Shuler? Desmond Howard?  In the years of many of those acquisitions, the Redskins faced heightened expectations right out of the gate.  It’s possible (though unlikely) that Griffin is the exception here, but I think that dream will end when the reality of a player of that kind of skill taking the field at Ashburn for training camp.  The hype train might be delayed at the station, but it’s going to be full speed by week one.  And should the Redskins beat the Saints in the Superdome…hoo boy!

As far as an assessment where this team is at, I think 8 wins is a fair expectation.  As little sense as it makes, the Redskins are still likely to be led by their defense this season.  I don’t think that defense has anywhere near the talent and depth it did three years ago, but it is plenty younger and does a lot more stuff than it used to.  With LaRon Landry departed to the Jets, the Redskins can’t really handle an injury to Fletcher, Kerrigan, or Orakpo, but if all three stay healthy, then you’re pretty likely to see someone like Josh Wilson or DeJon Gomes or Tanard Jackson enjoy a big year in the secondary.  Futhermore, now in the third year of Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator, you are likely to see the Redskins play to their strengths a lot more in terms of coverage, as opposed to learning the zone coverages that are a staple of the defense.  The Redskins played a lot more man in 2011 than they did in 2010, and may play even more in 2012.  Haslett, speaking generally, really does a decent job using his personnel creatively.

And though the defense is far less talented, than it was three, two, or even a year ago, the Redskins can now count on a much greater contribution from their offense.  The Redskins upgraded at quarterback, on the offensive line, and perhaps at receiver as well, though the receiver position this year is quite a projection based on how the Redskins plan on using their new toys.

In fact, I’d say the pitfall most likely to hamper the Redskins this year isn’t their offensive line play or even their kicking game, but instead it’s how they use their receivers.  Will they be patient enough with Leonard Hankerson following a critical drop even though they are paying Josh Morgan a ton of money to compete with him?  Will they be quick enough to sit Pierre Garcon if he’s a liability in the offense?  How can burners Aldrick Robinson and Anthony Armstrong get enough reps to make an impact since neither will be in the regular four man receiver rotation barring injury.  In the past the Redskins have not enjoyed enough depth at receiver, now its possible we’ll see good players get blocked.  It’s a delicate line to balance for sure.

There’s certainly potential beyond 8 wins: this is a Redskins team that can run with the AFC powers on its schedule immediately (Baltimore and Pittsburgh), and has been running with everyone in its division except the Eagles for the past two years.  Beyond whatever Week 1 holds with the Saints, and whatever heights the Panthers reach by November, the Redskins play an entire schedule of winnable games.  8 wins is the baseline expectation for a team that won 4, 6, and 5 the last three years, but eight the year before that and acquired an impact player in the offseason.

My question regarding the front office and the coaching staff is this: say the Redskins meet expectations and win seven or eight games.  They play well against good teams, splitting against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  They go 2-4 against division opponents.  They make strides against the teams they are supposed to beat, putting a licking on the Rams and Vikings, and winning road games against the Bucs and Browns by a full touchdown.  Their losses come to the Eagles (twice), the Cowboys and Giants (split), the Bengals and Steelers, the Falcons, Panthers, and maybe Saints.  Do you keep the course looking for a potential payoff in 2013?

I would not, and here is why: to date, we’ve seen a lot of assumptions from the gameday personnel (coaches) that they could and would correct the issues with the current talent because as a team, Mike and Kyle Shanahan would never get outcoached.  Problem is, that this isn’t 1993 anymore, and most other teams (though not all) now employ coaches who study the game as hard and as smart as the Shanahan’s do, and call a game against Kyle Shanahan with just as much aptitude and more experience.  It’s possible (and we’ll see this year) that the Redskins’ entire plan during the Shanahan’s tenure was that they’ll just be able to outwork and outsmart every opponent.  If they get into trouble, the coaches will just work harder and smarter and they’ll turn it around.  The issue hasn’t been an unwillingness to make good on the work by the coaching staff.  I think it was a flawed assumption that the opponents can always be outworked/outsmarted.

If the Redskins change their approach that they’ll need to maximize their talent to be successful, there’s enough on the roster where 8 wins against a fourth place schedule should be a bare minimum expectation and the true potential of the team (again without assuming anything about Griffin’s aptitude to carry the team as a rookie) is more like nine or nine and a half wins.  That would not take a great deal of lucky breaks.  It also might not be enough to make the playoffs or win the division.  The Redskins would need to exceed expectations to make the playoffs in 2012.

If an influx in talent gets the Redskins to eight wins, but the coaches are still making the same mistakes that caused the Redskins to underachieve in 2010 and 2011, I would understand the argument that getting rid of the offensive coaching staff and reorganizing the front office would be detrimental to the development of Robert Griffin III and would be putting the Redskins down the same road they started on with Jason Campbell.  I would get the concern.  But with the goal being to win games, if the Redskins can conclude that after three years, they’ve won fewer games with the false assumptions of their coaching staff than they would have with an average staff that had done it by the book, then they need to use their ability to spend money on better coaches to improve the team.  It is simply not fair to the construction of the roster to get younger and have the development impeded by constant misevalution.

The other part with the argument that eight wins represents progress is it totally ignores how the Redskins have built the roster.  The Redskins have systematically gotten younger on the field over the last three years.  They’ve re-emphasized the draft, at least with late round picks.  Now they frontloaded their future draft value and addressed the quarterback position, finally.  All the pieces are on the roster now.  They are not all as good as they can be in their primes, but the Redskins don’t have additional first round picks the next two years so they won’t be able to add core pieces to the 2013 team and would have to get creative to get a pick high enough in 2014 to add a core piece.

The idea that the Redskins just need to be waited out in order to achieve their true potential is fallacious.  The Redskins will be required to make incremental improvements in 2013 and 2014 in order to sustain whatever they gain with all the pieces in place in 2012.

If the Redskins don’t make a gain in 2012 beyond the simple small gains caused by the improvement in offensive personnel, and win just 8 games or fewer, it must be determined why that would be.  The justification for trading so much for Griffin is that he opens up all levels of the offense to attack defenses with.  If the Redskins win 8 or fewer games because their defense collapsed from personnel neglect, that goes on the head coach.  If the special teams remains awful, that comes back to the personnel decisions.  If the offense runs up high turnover totals because they fail to balance the play action passing game with the rush attack, despite RG3’s ridiculously low turnover rate in college, that’s such a negative indicator that I would suggest changing systems might bring a better immediate result, not to mention future.

The Redskins should have everything going for them heading into 2012.  And while based on where they are versus where they have been the past two years, that means eight wins is a reasonable bettors expectation, the Redskins should be able to post a winning record in 2012.  If they simply cannot, then a lot of the stuff the team has fed us about progress and doing stuff the right way has been hot air.  And if you hold them accountable for the struggles of the team, then a non-winning record means that someone else needs to be in charge of the team in 2013.