Redskins Up Against It In Rough NFC East Division
Shanahan must be feeling comfortable in his job.
Why, you say?
Three seasons into his job as coach of the Washington Redskins, working for a noted tempestuous owner (Dan Snyder), and yet to secure a playoff berth, “The Shan” is entrusting his 2012 fortunes to a rookie quarterback.
Perhaps Shanahan believes that Snyder will permit one more mulligan at FedEx Field after last year’s 5-11 disappointment that was fueled by...quarterback shortcomings. Maybe The Shan gets himself an extra year of grace by simply going with the rookie.
Of course, we’re not talking about an ordinary rookie quarterback. Baylor’s Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy last year and was the No. 2 pick in April’s NFL Draft. But he’s still a rookie quarterback, and precious few of those hit the ground running.
Maybe Shanahan knows something we don’t. Oddsmakers and the wagering public, however, don’t seem to be buying what he is peddling.
Las Vegas sports books aren’t expecting an miracles at FedEx Field, with the majority of them posting a season total of 6½ wins on the 'Skins. Washington is also a consensus pick to once again bring up the rear in the NFC East, with division odds quoted at 10/1 at many Vegas wagering outlets.
For those wanting to talk a walk on the wild side, the Redskins are being offered as high as 30/1 to win the NFC and 60/1 to win the Super Bowl.
Intriguingly, the 'Skins will be opening the regular season against an angry New Orleans side that will be proceeding minus suspended head coach Sean Payton after the “Bounty-gate” scandal erupted in the offseason. Prices have already been posted on that September 9 clash at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; the Don Best odds screen notes that the Saints are priced from 9½-10 point favorites, with the total bouncing between 50 to 50½.
Shanahan, however, is no fool, and must believe that putting his eggs in RG III’s basket is a worthwhile risk. Of course, he also thought that it was a good idea to go to war with journeymen Rex Grossman and John Beck as his quarterback alternatives. That backfired like so much legislation on nearby Capitol Hill as neither provided consistent leadership last fall when the Washington ranked near the bottom of NFC stats, placing 14th among 16 conference entries in total offense.
Shan’s quarterbacks were also turnover machines last season, particularly the error-prone Grossman, who accounted for 20 of the team’s 24 interceptions.
RG III can’t be any worse, can he?
Griffin cost the 'Skins dearly, too, as they traded first round picks not only last April but in both 2013 and 2014, plus their second-round pick three months ago, to the Rams simply to move up four sports to get the Heisman winner. Griffin is likely to be close to a one-man draft for the Redskins, unless SMU G Josh LeRibeus or Texas LB Keenan Robinson make an impact. They drafted another QB in the later rounds as well, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, although he is unlikely to see the field this fall unless Griffin is hurt.
RG III had already been named the starter before a late-May OTA in which he more resembled an undrafted rookie than a Heisman winner. Griffin’s humble attitude, however, seems to have already won over most of his teammates, although the hype and the nickname have already become targets for opponents who can’t wait to put the Heisman winner in his place this fall.
Griffin, however, already is being compared favorably to Michael Vick, the king of the pass-run quarterbacks, by none other than Redskins DE London Fletcher.
"The speed will definitely shock you," said Fletcher to the Washington Post. "He has a rocket of an arm. He has the right mentality in terms of his preparation. When you have a quarterback who can make plays when it doesn't go exactly as it's designed to go, who can buy time and is a threat to run the football and make plays outside the pocket, defensively you're kind of always on your heels."
Still, even in a best-case scenario, expect RG III to be a work in progress throughout the fall. Although a handful of recent rookie QBs – Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton immediately come to mind – have led their teams into the playoffs, all were doing so in somewhat bulletproof offensive systems which didn’t begin to expand until those QBs were beyond their rookie year. The track record for rookie QBs making that sort of immediate impact remains spotty at best.
As Griffin tries to master The Shan’s version of the West Coast (coordinated by the coach’s son Kyle), the Redskins attempted to provide some help in the offseason by adding a couple of new receiving targets, in particular ex-Colt Pierre Garcon, who cost Washington $42.5 million in a multi-year deal and figures, at least according to Shanahan, as an upgrade from vet returnee Santana Moss or the departed Jabar Gaffney. Ex-49er Joshua Morgan was also brought in as a new receiving target.
Garcon could be a revelation, however, hinting at bigger things to come when routinely torching CB DeAngelo Hall in early camp drills.
Griffin should also have reliable targets at tight end if the Redskins can keep Fred Davis (back in the fold after a substance-related four-game league suspension at the end of last season) and Chris Cooley (felled by injuries again last year).
Shanahan also has higher hopes for his ground game that suffered a negative blow last October when versatile Tim Hightower, who had started five of the first six games last season, went down with a torn ACL. Ex-Nebraska slammer Roy Helu and Evan Royster ran with occasional flair in the second half of the season (each recording multiple 100-yard rushing games) and provide serviceable, if not spectacular, backfield options.
The Shan additionally expects the forward wall to be more cohesive this fall if LG Kory Lichtensteiger is fully recovered from a torn right ACL suffered last October. Lichtensteiger, however, is being brought around slowly in training camp, and lingering hip issues have put the availability of LG Jamaal Brown into some doubt for the opener vs. the Saints. Such injury concerns in the earliest days of training camp are rarely harbingers of good things to come.
The 'Skins played playoff-quality defense for much of last season, when the stop unit was often forced into uncomfortable situations by the mistake-prone tendencies of Grossman and the offense. Jim Haslett’s platoon will again deploy in 3-4 alignments and addressed a possible shortcoming during the free-agency period when inking ex-Bears strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who fills a gap created by LaRon Landry’s departure to the Jets.
Last year provided a coming-out party of sorts for OLB Brian Orapko, the former Texas star who blossomed into a big-play threat when recording a team-high nine sacks. It was also much the same for Nebraska rookie DT Adam Carriker, who played all 988 snaps in 2011 and recorded 7½ sacks along with forcing four fumbles.
Indeed, a robust front seven returns intact, with aforementioned LB London Fletcher having re-signed in the offseason. Fletcher led Washington in tackles last season.
The secondary, however, remains a bit unsettled. The previously-mentioned DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson were somewhat inconsistent on the corners last season. Besides Meriweather, free agents Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson have been signed to compete for jobs at the safety positions that were thinned by Landry’s free-agent departure.
Special teams-wise, Shanahan is hoping that vet PK Neil Rackers, who hit on 32-of-38 FG attempts for the Texans last season, proves an upgrade over Graham Gano, who saw five of his FG attempts blocked.
Pointspread-wise, Shanahan has historically been a solid underdog recommendation back to his days in Denver, although the 'Skins were only 6-6 as the “short” in 2011; Shan is 14-11 in that role since arriving two years ago.
One positive pointspread note from the past two seasons has been success vs. Dallas, against whom the Redskins have covered all four meetings. Washington also swept both meetings straight up against the Super Bowl champion Giants a year ago.
Washington has trended ‘under’ (19-13) during Shanahan’s first two seasons.
Summary: The Redskins live in a pretty tough neighborhood in the NFC East, and making a breakthrough with a rookie QB is not usually recommended. Perhaps, however, RG III is simply the exception to the rule, and if anything he is used to challenges after helping put the moribund Baylor program on the map. But if Griffin can limit his mistakes (something Rex Grossman couldn’t do a year ago), and the supporting cast on offense can stay healthy, the Redskins will hardly be cannon-fodder, especially with that playoff-level defense.
If Griffin proves serviceable, it would be no surprise to see the 'Skins emerge as an interesting underdog play (as has been the case often in Shanahan’s career). But unless Washington moves to the NFC West, we doubt the playoff drought (which extends to 2007) will end this season.