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Washington Redskins Preseason Checkup

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So what did we learn about the 'Skins after their first preseason game? Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
So what did we learn about the 'Skins after their first preseason game? Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Somebody once said something to the effect of, “the final score doesn’t matter but the games do.” That’s a tidy summation of August NFL football.

In the preseason, the NFL keeps score and declares a winner because it has to; the regular-season gate prices and the glorified practice product that was peddled to various networks demand it. I suppose the numbers on the scoreboard does manufacture some drama (albeit artificial), but no one really “wins.” There are no game plans; most teams even purposefully run vanilla schemes to conceal any trace of one’s strategy. Save for the third edition, stars sit for the majority, if not the duration of preseason games. The play calling is as much about getting in certain work as it is about situational football.

And, most importantly, come the first week of September, the records compiled in August are inconsequential.

Still, the trained eye can find value in these games. At an individual level, players are trying (desperately in some cases) to earn a job and others a starting position. Rookies determine if they belong in the NFL; aging veterans figure out if they can remain in the league. The final steps in rehab are taken and rhythm is established with new teammates. In other words, a lot is learned from the preseason.

In the Washington Redskins’ 22-21 win in the preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans, I was taken to school. Some of what I witnessed confirmed what I thought I knew. However, some of my assumptions about the ‘Skins were challenged, if not dispelled (three more preseason games to go). Here’s the final accounting — from both sides of the ledger — and an “oh, by the way” (OBTW) just because you stopped by. 

What I Thought I Knew — And Did

1. Robert Griffin III is a charisma fountain.

He wasn’t going to play. Everyone knew it. Still, the dude was in full gear for the game. It may seem silly, but I think the visual of him in uniform on game day was important in some deep, we-are-vulnerable-without-you sort of way.

The subliminal message was this: I’m going to post for Week 1. I told you I was “all-in,” I worked my tail off and I will not let my team or its nation down.

Is it reckless? Defiant? Maybe a little crazy? Sure, but that mentality is what will make this kid great — if he can stay in one piece. Oh, and the ‘Skins floppy hat he donned on the sidelines and during an in-game interview was classic RGIII. It’s impossible to not like a dude that takes his craft so seriously but knows just when to offset the intensity with dash of silliness.

2. Joe Theismann is like nails down a chalkboard.

I like Joe Theismann, I really do. He is an underrated player in the annals of the NFL and an underappreciated player in Washington, D.C. He has also been a very successful broadcaster and his football knowledge produces a good verbal product (when he’s not covering the ‘Skins). 

Put him in the home team’s booth, where he was for the preseason opener against Tennessee, and he reverts to a hormonal teenage boy describing Kate Upton’s last photo shoot. Everything is flawless. All acquisitions were brilliant and everyone is going to make the team. Come on, Joe. We need you to be critical because you can be. You are family. Family can talk about itself.

I’d be receptive to Joe Theismann ripping the ‘Skins. Troy Aikman? Not so much.  

3. The depth in the receiving corps is encouraging.

I’ll get the obvious criticism out of the way: there is no Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson in burgundy and gold. No single ‘Skins receiver creates headaches for the opposition like Dez Bryant or Jimmy Graham. There, I owned it; it’s disarmed (I took Psych 101). However, from Pierre Garcon at the top of the depth chart to the last pass catcher (tight ends included) on the final 53-man roster, the ‘Skins will deploy a “considerable amount of talent” — meaning more than most NFL teams — each week.

Fred Davis is back from an Achilles injury; Garcon has recovered from shoulder surgery and a nagging toe problem; Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson are a second year removed from serious injuries; Aldrick Robinson, last I checked, can still fly. Jordan Reed, an intriguing young tight end, was acquired via the draft; Santana Moss remains a reliable commodity, and TE Logan Paulsen will continue to produce above expectations until someone tosses out the “blocking tight end” stereotype and figures out he’s just damn good.

Garcon and Reed didn’t play against Tennessee, but the rest did. The complementary skills of the group were apparent and Kyle Shanahan and the quarterbacks spread the ball around masterfully. Was it a prelude of things to come or a meaningless flash in the first preseason game? I’d bet a precious beer token on the former.

4. Kirk Cousins is a really good backup quarterback.

He’s 1-0 as a starter. He finished a frantic comeback against the Ravens last season. He’s been the consummate pro while backing up RGIII, his more high-profile 2012 NFL Draft classmate. Truth is, just about every NFL team would love to have him, and he could start right now for a handful of them. Mike Shanahan took a lot of heat for burning a fourth-round pick on a backup to RGIII as opposed to someone that could protect him or that he could throw to, but there’s little fuss about Cousins’ selection now.

5. The corners could be vastly improved.

After drafting David Amerson, signing free agent E.J. Biggers and re-signing DeAngelo Hall, there was an indication that their cornerback play would improve in 2013. The opening game against Tennessee did nothing to squelch that hope.

Amerson’s size — 6-1 and a shade under 200 pounds — and length promised to add a dimension absent from last season’s cornerbacks and it was immediately apparent while battling Tennessee WR Kenny Britt. Chase Minnifield, son of former Cleveland Browns CB Frank Minnifield (another factoid that makes me feel old), also played well. Minnifield’s an easy player to root for. His career has been derailed multiple times by serious knee injuries and is probably at the limit of what his body can handle. The fact that he’s even on the field and playing well — and he certainly did against the Titans — is a tribute to his dedication.

Couple Amerson, Biggers and Minnifield with incumbent starters Hall and Josh Wilson and 2012 draft pick Richard Crawford (a player who showed well last season as a nickel corner and punt returner) and cornerback, a problem area last season, is suddenly the deepest position on the roster. 

OBTW: I’m addicted to the NFL.

Let’s be honest, compared to the regular season, the NFL preseason is a hack product. It’s like partaking in a domestic light beer when you know a Belgian import lurks in the fridge with a “do not open until September” warning label. But if all you have is that domestic swill, you drink it. Likewise, if all you have is preseason football, you watch it. When you need a fix (and I do), even an inferior one will do. And before you judge, if you’ve read this far, you’re my brother or sister in pigskin dependence.

“Hi, I’m Ron, and I’m a football-aholic…”

What I Thought I Knew – And Didn’t

1. The offensive line depth would be better this year.

Washington, D.C. football fans love rotund men in ill-fitting costumes. A belly spilling out from underneath a jersey or a crack appearing above sagging pants isn’t the least bit offensive; a quarterback flat on his back or a running back getting blown up in the backfield is. If the performance by the backup offensive lineman against Tennessee holds throughout the upcoming season, RGIII is going to struggle and Alfred Morris may be a huge fantasy bust.

Last season the ‘Skins were spoiled with uncommon health along the offensive line. LT Trent Williams tapped out for part of one game, RT Tyler Polumbus missed a start and LG Kory Lichtensteiger was a non-factor in the playoff game versus Seattle — but that that was about it. What are the odds of that happening again? Perhaps the same as Tiger Woods shooting under par on the weekend in a major. In other words, when (not if) the ‘Skins sustain injuries along the offensive front, what waits on deck? Apparently not much. Forrest ran because he wanted to; Robert may run because he has to…

2. Josh LeRibeus was ready to start.

Josh LeRibeus was a third-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. By most accounts, the ‘Skins reached to nab the SMU guard product a round or two earlier than projected. It’s hard to criticize Mike Shanahan’s instincts with respect to offensive lineman, so the expectation was that LeRibeus, once fully indoctrinated into the zone-blocking scheme, would thrive. He filled in admirably for Lichtensteiger late last season, but the training camp reports on LeRibeus have been so-so, and he was just awful against Tennessee. His signature moment was a holding penalty that negated a long run by RB Roy Helu.

Botton line: LeRibeus was on camera way too much for an interior offensive lineman. If he can’t play in the NFL, it’s a big whiff in the draft and creates huge hole on the depth chart.  

3. Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo will make an immediate impact.

The much ballyhooed safety tandem, scored in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively, in April’s NFL Draft, received a rude introduction to professional football. Tennessee RB Shonn Greene, who enraged fantasy football players nationwide by showing more burst and shiftiness in a meaningless preseason game than he had shown during his plodding Jets career, pancaked Thomas early in the game and sent the rookie to the showers with a foot injury and hurt feelings.

Rambo’s big screen debut, while less painful, was even more embarrassing. Chris Johnson burst through a gaping hole in the ‘Skins defense and faced Rambo one-on-one in the open field … it was no contest. A little shimmy of the hips, a foot planted firmly in the ground and Johnson was by Rambo without being touched. After retrieving Rambo’s jock from the turf, the Tennessee grounds crew was probably waving it around later that night like high school seniors immortalized the undergarments of newly “wedgied” freshman.

Will it get better for their rookie secondary hopefuls? It absolutely will, but the first preseason game showed both have a long way to go before they are trustworthy presences within the last line of defense — and that’s exactly what they are expected to be. This is situation worth keeping an eye on as the preseason unfolds. 

4. The defense would be vastly improved.

Yes, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo recorded sacks. The latter also jumped offsides and the unit as a whole underwhelmed against an offense that is … underwhelming. The run defense was soft and the tackling was terrible. And unlike the offense, the defense had most hands on deck — even the soon-to-be suspended ones.

If the defense is 28th in the league again in 2013, there’s no way the ‘Skins win 10 games. With a little less of RGIII and a little more of everyone else, the offense could repeat its performance from last season; but if gains are to be made and a deep playoff run is to be realized, it’s on the defense genie to grant that wish. After the performance in Tennessee, though, the defensive genie seems to be stuck in the lamp. In the meantime, rub like heck…  

5. Leonard Hankerson was too soft.

I’m sorry, Leonard Hankerson, I had just about given up on you. Through two seasons of injuries, regular displays of alligator arms and yards-after-contact stats resembling someone several inches and 25 pounds south of your 6-2, 205-pound frame, I had labeled you too soft to make a meaningful difference in the league. Then you caught a pass against Tennessee last week, ran north with fury and threw caution to the wind while somersaulting into the endzone.

Touchdown, Washington Redskins; touchdown, Leonard Hankerson.

You looked reinvented. Perhaps Warren Sapp’s Hall-of-Fame speech about “The U” inspired you. Whatever it was, I hope it lasts because you, my friend, have the skills to take the receiving corps to another level.  

OBTW: Chris Johnson was done as an elite fantasy player.

Uhhh … no, he’s definitely not (see No. 3 above). Johnson only carried the ball two times, but his 58-yard touchdown run was vintage 2009 and CJ2K. Untouched at the line, Johnson burst into the secondary, abused ‘Skins S Bacarri Rambo in the open field (this ain’t the SEC my friend) and took it to the house.

Wow. My fantasy cheat sheets have been updated. I’m going to loosen my hammies, run some wind sprints and see if I can turn back the clock as effectively as Chris Johnson. On second thought, maybe I’ll just remain behind this computer screen and work on my next piece. Discretion is the better part of valor …