The Redskins' Unsung Catalysts For Success
By Ronald Guy
If the brass of the Washington Redskins stumbled upon a genie in a bottle and were granted just two wishes (not the fairytale three) for the 2013 season, they would likely be the health of their starting quarterback and an improved pass rush. Before obliging and granting the wishes, the genie, despite being freed from the confines of its lamp or bottle, would certainly express irritation at the predictability and lack of imagination in the team’s most desirous wants.
Despite the added variables of Robert Griffin III’s and Brian Orakpo’s return from injury, a healthy quarterback and a consistent pass rush are, after all, the humble wishes of just about every NFL team. For decades, but particularly in today’s forward pass-dominated game, success is predicated on a team’s ability to keep its quarterback vertical and comfortable and to ensure its opponent’s signal caller is horizontal and harassed.
Which is to say that if the ‘Skins hope to flirt with back-to-back NFC East titles, they need RGIII behind center and Orakpo, along with his fellow members of the defense’s front seven, to be the disruptive force their talent portends — but you already knew that. Not even three paragraphs in, I’ve managed to insult your football intelligence and leave you as irritated as that genie after granting those boring wishes. There is, of course, much more to the Redskins’ 2013 success equation. Two units, in particular, are poised to determine whether the team will take a leap forward or regress during the upcoming season.
Fortified Air Defenses
Here’s one last statement of the obvious: the ‘Skins pass defense was bad in 2012 … real bad. A series of injuries to Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson’s suspension subtracted the anticipated starting safeties from the lineup for practically the entire season. Continuing the karmic gloom, the team’s pass rush was foiled by season-ending injuries to Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker in Week 2. The combination of those unfortunate events dumped untenable responsibility on a crop of cornerbacks that were average at best. It was a perfect storm that resulted in the league’s 30th-ranked pass defense … but it felt even worse.
Help, though, has arrived.
At safety, there is a good chance that Madieu Williams and Reed Doughty, the primary starters last year, won’t even make the roster in 2013, let alone see significant action. Williams is currently a free agent, and with Meriweather’s return to health, the drafting of safeties Phillip Thomas (third round) and Bacarri Rambo (sixth round) and the possible return of Jackson from a year-long suspension, Doughty will be fighting for a job this preseason.
The most likely scenario, assuming Eeyore’s cloud doesn’t descend upon the secondary again, is that Meriweather and Thomas earn the starting strong and free safety jobs. When Meriweather was healthy last season, he flashed considerable talent, and while Thomas is an unknown NFL commodity, he simply has to be an upgrade over Williams. Together, it’s an intriguing combination that could make the safety position a defensive asset as opposed to a position opponents regularly and successfully attacked in 2012.
Last season’s starting cornerbacks, ho-hum island dwellers DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, figure to occupy the top two slots on the depth chart and supply the mediocre returns in 2013 ‘Skins fans have accepted as the ceiling for the uninspiring tandem. Cornerbacks three through five (or six depending on the final roster crunch), though, are likely to be significantly improved. E.J. Biggers is favored to initially fall into the 3-slot and, having reunited with former coach Raheem Morris, could prove to be a shrewd, below-the-radar free agent acquisition. David Amerson, a 2013 second-round pick, and Richard Crawford, a 2012 seventh-round pick that showed promise in limited duty last season, will likely round out the depth chart.
While the ‘Skins lack elite talent at corner, it’s hard to quibble with the depth offered by that cornerback stable. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Amerson or Crawford challenge for significant playing time as the year unfolds. Ideally, both will progress throughout the season and rise to the top of the depth chart in 2014.
When RGIII Gives, Who Will Receive?
One of the most significant and problematic factors contributing to RB Alfred Morris’ record-setting season (more on that later this week) and the offense’s over-reliance on RGIII’s athleticism was the largely unimpressive performance from the team’s wide receivers. Pierre Garcon was the best of the lot, but a Week 1 toe injury cost him several games and he never returned to full health. The venerable Santana Moss was the team’s most consistent receiver, and led the team with eight touchdown catches. The younger receivers, free agent signee Josh Morgan and 2011 draftees Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson, had their moments but failed, individually and as a group, to provide RGIII a reliable option. In all, not a single wide receiver managed to catch 50 balls or record 700 yards receiving. That would have been okay in 1962, but in 2012 it was wholly inadequate.
With RGIII’s injury and expected reduction of his legs’ role in the offense, the wide receivers are on notice. This unit simply must perform better in 2013. Garcon’s toe injury seems like it will be a chronic annoyance that will, at times, limit his performance and may threaten his availability. Santana Moss will be back, but at 34, the best the team can hope for is a repeat of his steady performance in 2012. So if the wide receiver corps is to realize the growth the team requires, much of the responsibility will fall in the laps of Morgan, Hankerson and Robinson.
There are a few legitimate reasons why the “Enigmatic 3” might answer the call. Wide receiver is a position that benefits from repetition, and 2013 will be Morgan’s second and Hankerson’s and Robinson’s third season in the offensive system — and all will obviously be in year two with RGIII. Further, Morgan, who had offseason tune-up surgery on an ankle he broke in 2011, and Hankerson, who had surgery for a torn labrum in his hip before the 2012 season, should be in better overall health.
However (rose colored glasses discarded), the reality is none of the three are going to suddenly morph into Calvin Johnson. So they aren’t All-Pro’s in the making, but each has the potential to be a solid contributor and that’s exactly how this collection of wide receivers can excel. Garcon, the most talented of the bunch, was only the No. 2 wide receiver in his previous gig in Indianapolis. Santana Moss, even in his prime, was an elite No. 2 or slot receiver disguised (out of necessity) as a No. 1. Where this unit can threaten defenses is when or if an evolved Morgan, Hankerson or Robinson is dancing one-on-one with an opponent’s No. 2, 3 or 4 cornerback. Individually this group under-whelms; collectively, they have the potential to be a weekly problem for defenses — particularly given the talents of the guy feeding them the ball and the ‘Skins’ established running game.
Frankly, if the ‘Skins are going to take a step forward offensively in 2013 and if RGIII is going to remain healthy during the upcoming season and long-term, the ancillary talents on offense — and specifically at wide receiver — have to be consistent playmakers. They — and I’m referring specifically to “The Enigmatic 3” — cannot continue to whimsically appear or disappear while relying on RGIII to mask their off-Sundays and accentuate the irregular moments when they happen to beat an opposing corner.
D.C.’s inescapable summer storylines will be RGIII’s recovery and, to a lesser extent, Orakpo’s fragile pectoral muscle. They will be as unavoidable as the endless dribble about Congressional gridlock, sequestration and the pending collapse of western civilization. If it’s possible to hate a ligament, there’s a good chance that by the start of the season the ad nauseam coverage of RGIII’s health will inspire ill feelings toward the quarterback’s innocent but over-publicized ACL. I can hear the jokes now, “John Boehner, Barack Obama and RGIII’s ACL walk into a Capitol Hill bar …”.
To break from the anticipated narrow coverage (for psychological reasons if nothing else), widen your personal view of the squad and keep an eye on the secondary and wide receivers. If the ‘Skins are going to be somebody in 2013, they will absolutely need RGIII and Brian Orakpo to be present and accounted for; but if they’re going to be a contender, they’ll need vastly improved play from the secondary and wide receivers.