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The Redskins Will Live And Die By RGIII

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The Washington Redskins' fate in the NFC East will be determined by the health and play of Robert Griffin III. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.
The Washington Redskins' fate in the NFC East will be determined by the health and play of Robert Griffin III. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.

To illustrate the contrast between religion and the non-secular aspects of life, Jimmy Buffett proclaimed in his song “Fruitcakes” that “there’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning" (how true indeed). Similarly (sort of), just a few bounces of the ball, key injuries or big plays can explain the difference between 10-6 and 4-12 seasons in the NFL. Prior to the 2012 season, had you stolen a couple bucks from a friend and bet them on the Philadelphia Eagles or Washington Redskins to notch 10-win or 4-win seasons, the birds would have been the play for the former and the D.C. football club with the controversial nickname would have been the gamble on the latter. 

The final results would have cost you lunch off McDonald’s dollar menu or a couple of big bite dogs at 7-Eleven but, hey, at least it wasn’t your money. It was, however, your NFL reputation. It was the surprise ‘Skins who won 10 games and the division behind the transformational talents of Robert Griffin III. He revived a fan base, made a locker room believe and resuscitated Mike Shanahan’s coaching career.

Meanwhile (as Chuck Berry said in “Little Queenie”), the Eagles imploded behind the underwhelming exploits of overpaid free agents and a rash of injuries. The final tally — a 4-12 debacle — cost head coach Andy Reid his job, justified the normally insufferable state of Philly sports fans and launched a franchise reboot. Sandwiched between the NFC East’s surprise North Pole (Washington) and bitter South Pole (Philly), was the 9-7 New York Giants and (forever it seems) 8-8 Dallas Cowboys. 

The Great Wide Open

So what exactly does 2013 hold for the NFC East? And how do the Redskins, with star players rehabbing, a scant few free agents acquired and a decent draft class inbound match up against their division foes? Can the ‘Skins go 5-1 in the division again?  Will they resemble the team that was 3-6 through the first nine games or the one that won the last seven? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Few divisions are as wide open as the NFC East. A legitimate argument can be made for all four teams finishing first or dead last. I don’t know if that’s a compliment on the division’s depth or an acknowledgement of its mediocrity. Regardless, it’s hard to see the 2013 NFC East champ winning more than 10 games or any of the four — or the Giants, Cowboys, Eagles and Rams, I suppose, seeing as they hold the Redskins’ No. 1 pick next year — barring a debilitating number of injuries, being in the Jadeveon Clowney sweepstakes at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft.

The Giants, a year removed from hoisting the Lombardi trophy, figure to be over their Super Bowl hangover; Dallas, in a move both ripe for criticism and admirable for its nerve, double-downed on Tony Romo and inked the ever-embattled quarterback to a new nine-figure contract extension; and Philly, similar to Washington with RGIII in 2012, has the art of surprise with new head coach and offensive mad scientist Chip Kelly. 

Keeping It Simple, Stupid

Ignoring the real and manufactured complexities of professional football — the dozens of roster decisions yet to be made, depth charts that are, for now, written in pencil, OTAs and pending training camps — the Redskins’ 2013 prospects against their familiar and hated divisional rivals can be reduced to a single but very complex variable: RGIII’s health at the beginning of and throughout the upcoming season. If RGIII answers the bell for the 2013 season and manages to start at least 14 games, the ‘Skins will be afforded every opportunity to duplicate 2012’s success and repeat as division champs. Conversely, if he misses significant time or is clearly diminished athletically, the Redskins could plummet precipitously (no, I’m not sold on Kirk Cousins as a long-term starter…yet).

Splitting hairs between similarly talented teams — and the NFC East rosters are comparably talented — often comes down to who has the best quarterback. A healthy RGIII ensures the ‘Skins have at least the second-best signal caller in the division; if Kirk Cousin’s is behind center, they likely have the worst. RGIII creates the expectation of winning every single division game — his moxie makes no deficit or unfortunate circumstances insurmountable. With Cousins at the helm, the Redskins just have a chance to win.

That is neither an original revelation nor is it unique to the ‘Skins. The Giants without Eli Manning, the Cowboys without Tony Romo and even the Eagles without Michael Vick would struggle to remain competitive in the division. The influence of the quarterback position has become that influential on the bottom line. It’s why Aaron Rodgers will make roughly $40 million next year, why Joe Flacco inked a $121 million contract and why Tony Romo — a guy who has consistently come up small in the biggest moments — just got a six-year, $108 million extension at the age of 33. 

The Verdict

So how do the Redskins match up against the rest of the NFC East? Very well, provided RGIII manages not to make a regular acquaintance of the injury report. The ‘Skins will be hard-pressed to repeat the team’s 5-1 division record in 2012, but holding serve at home and stealing one on the road — a 4-2 interdivision record — is an entirely realistic goal, and likely puts you squarely in contention for another division crown.

And, really, why should I doubt RGIII’s health and this rosy outlook? His surgeon has deemed him superhuman, the coach claims his work ethic will set a rehab record and the player himself is “all-in” for Week 1 (and is doing jumping jacks at fan events). This writer, though, says, “we’ll see.” Having RGIII for Week 1 is one variable in determining the Redskins’ 2013 prognosis; his presence for Weeks 2 through 16 is another. Together, these unknowns, more than any other acquisition by any other NFC East team, will determine the path to a division championship. This elephant in the NFC East room was created by RGIII’s mishandling last season, and nothing — despite a round of free agency, the NFL Draft and the universally bullish remarks by the perpetrators of this original crime — has changed. With him, the ‘Skins can neuter any other NFC East defense, and have to be considered the division’s favorite; without him, the team and the fan base probably pout their way to another last place finish. 

Maybe Dr. James Andrews is right; maybe he is superhuman.