The Washington Redskins’ Final Preseason Checkup
Do you hear it? Of course you do. The “tick tock, tick tock” of the NFL’s regular season countdown clock is all around us. We can’t miss it. It’s in every room and omnipresent in our minds. Fantasy teams are being drafted. Televisions are being procured or fine-tuned. Gameday dry runs are being executed in home viewing centers and man caves worldwide (because a technical glitch anytime between Thursday, Sept. 5 and Monday, Sept. 9 would be catastrophic).
This time of year is like Christmas Eve (if you’re inclined to celebrate such things) for adults. The anticipation is palatable. It’s late August, Maggie, and I really should be breaking up with you now. Sorry, it’s just that soon I won’t have time for you (hopeless romantic that I am). The NFL, my irresistible pigskin mistress, has returned.
Yeah, I know there’s another week of preseason remaining, but the fourth round of fake games is only for players hoping to realize or sustain their NFL dreams and fantasy football players watching sheepishly as super-secret sleeper picks take live hits. I’m certain you’ll forgive me for ignoring it completely and jumping ahead to the regular season. With the NFL Draft, free agency season, mini-camps, training camps and three scrimmage games in the rearview, I’ve never been smarter about the 2013 Washington Redskins than I am right now. That makes me dangerous and you ready to scoff at my allegedly skewed observations. Without further ado, here’s what I think I know about this year’s ‘Skins.
What We Have Here, Is A Program
If you’ve watched or covered the ‘Skins for a few decades — presidencies, Batman movies or however you tell time — there’s a sense of something both different and familiar with the 2013 edition. During Joe Gibbs’ first tenure with the team, the ‘Skins did things in a certain way. “Things” is vague, but I’m betting you know what I’m referring to. The ‘Skins had a system or, as they call in college football, a “program.” It’s the “thing” that exists today in New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, and it’s a concept that requires leadership, continuity and success — none of which would describe the Washington Redskins over the last 20 years.
On the heels of The Jim Zorn Experience (you know, staying “medium,” rooting for the “maroon and black” and something called the swinging gate), Mike Shanahan was hired and tasked with arresting a volatile and chaotic head coaching cycle dating back to Gibbs’ first exit in 1993 — he’s done just that. The team now spends prudently and values draft picks. The owner’s lack of influence on daily football operations is apparent. The roster is as young, deep and talented as any ‘Skins roster since Gibbs walked into Redskins Park in 1981.
How will that translate on the field? The NFL has too many variables to be sure, but the state of ‘Skins nation hasn’t been this bright since Mark Rypien was plucking confetti out of his hair and declaring his intent to patronize Walt Disney’s theme park.
The Linebackers Have Been Sent Here To Destroy You
The linebackers were the one unit that consistently elicited “wows” during the preseason. ILBs London Fletcher and Perry Riley were their usual steady force. At outside linebacker, the unique combination of Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Brandon Jenkins and Darryl Tapp — two entrenched starters, a rookie and a journeyman free agent — was a revelation.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has used creative looks, including putting Kerrigan in a down lineman position, to get as many of them as possible on the field together in passing situations. The result was something sorely lacking from the 2012 defensive squad: consistent quarterback pressure. Orakpo looks like a Muscle & Fitness cover model and a guy pent up with football rage after missing essentially an entire season. Kerrigan dominated against Pittsburgh. Jenkins, selected in the fifth round with the pick acquired from the Patriots for Albert Haynesworth (to my previous point on the team valuing the draft), looks like a draft-day find, and Tapp, well, looks like he did at Virginia Tech. If the linebackers’ quarterback-harassing preseason transfers to the regular season, it very well could provide the illusive tonic for the secondary’s ills. Man’s best friend: a dog. A cornerback’s best friend: quarterback pressure.
The Thin Line Between Robert Griffin III And The Enemy
The offensive line remains Shanahan’s great failure. He’s like the parent with a dozen kids — one was bound to go awry, end up unemployed and back living at home at an advanced age. After some unnerving turbulence, it appears he found an O-line anchor in LT Trent Williams. LG Kory Lichtensteiger is pretty good; C Will Montgomery and RG Chris Chester are okay; RT Tyler Polumbus wouldn’t start for the majority of the league.
But that mixed report card isn’t the crime. Having drafted only two offensive lineman in the first five rounds during his tenure — Williams and the marginally talented Josh LeRebius — Shanahan has failed to layer any semblance of serviceable depth behind the starters. An injury to Polumbus would be recoverable … I think. But if any of the other four starters goes down (a virtual certainty in the NFL), there will be a noticeable degradation in play. And degradation of play translates to more harm being inflicted on the inconveniently mortal D.C. superhero, RGIII.
Who Wants It?
Once upon a time, say when mullets, leg warmers and break dancing were cool (the 1980s for the historically challenged), the NFC East was without question the NFL’s finest division and the Washington Redskins were its’ crown jewel. In recent years, the division has lacked a dominant team (all four teams have been taking turns hoisting the division crown over the last four years) and the eventual champion has been just a game or two over .500.
If you had to place a hard-earned George Washington on one of the four to emerge from the pack of socialist mediocrity, the smart money would be on the ‘Skins. The Giants are either habitually better than (during their hot stretches: see the two recent Super Bowl wins) or far worse than (inexplicable losses and losing streaks) their talent. Dallas has both the talent to win the division and the psychological instability to implode every season. How ‘bout ‘em? Philadelphia, once the symbol of stability, is now anything but. Chip Kelly had to be talked into the head coaching job, the quarterback position is unsettled, ACL tears have been more contagious than influenza in the fall and then there’s, well, the “great mind” of Riley Cooper.
Incredibly, that leaves the ‘Skins, yes the Washington Redskins, as the most likely to emerge from this dramatic and mediocre pack and assert some level of division dominance — bizarre. What’s next? The Smurfs returning to popularity? Wait…
His Presence Makes It Better
There is a buzz about this team. They are fun to cover, nationally relevant and no longer the butt of prognosticator’s jokes. The team’s faithful have hope and no longer want to tar and feather the owner. The ‘Skins, reigning NFC East champions, are firmly in the playoff conversation; they are even in the mix as a possible, albeit long shot conference champ.
It seems obvious to trace this positive vibe to the aforementioned “program” that’s been established. Like a carefully constructed multiple-choice exam, though, the obvious answer can be misleading. Yes, the program deserves credit for reinvigorating the franchise but it is inconsequential without a singular catalyst: RGIII.
There is perhaps nothing better in sports than being a fan of an NFL team with an elite quarterback … and nothing worse than being emotionally invested in a team with no answer at quarterback. Would all be lost for the ‘Skins if RGIII’s career went the way of Bo Jackson’s? I’ll answer that with another question: do you believe in Kirk Cousins? Even if the answer is yes, he would offer little consolation for the loss of RGIII — Griffin’s ceiling is simply much, much higher.
RGIII’s media empire, candid declarations about his health, frustration with “Operation Patience” and insatiable need for attention has invited the first wave of criticism from ‘Skins fans and the press (this writer included). To that I’ll channel my internal RGIII and offer this brutally honest response: it’s like nitpicking slightly skewed grill marks on a perfectly grilled steak. Has he had missteps this offseason? Sure. But RGIII is a one-man dream machine. There is life with RGIII under center (or in the pistol formation), and there’s life without him under center. The former state makes anything possible; the latter is unimaginable.