Friday, September 9, 2011

How good can the Redskins be?

It’s a hard question and I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I think we can look at all three phases – offense, defense, and special teams – and at get a pretty good idea of the range of possibilities. And unlike the Michael Lombardi post I took issue with earlier today, we can base it off what the team actually brings to the table, and where its strengths and weaknesses will lie.

I have written about the defense before, but here is a summary. The point is that the defense can go wildly in either direction:

- Even more-so than is always the case in football, this defense is extremely dependent on the pass rush. This secondary, while it has playmaking ability, will get torched if the pass rush doesn’t get there. 

- The talent of the front seven has been upgraded, but it it still a bunch of 4-3 players trying to learn a new system. There are a lot of good players; if they succeed the front seven can be strong. But we don’t know yet if that will happen.

- No matter what, this defense will be volatile. They are guaranteed to give up a lot of soft first downs because that’s how Haslett does things. Haslett intends to hit the quarterback, and to let his defensive backs jump routes to create turnovers. The question is whether enough turnovers will be created to offset all the yardage that this system concedes to the opponent. It truly could go either way.

So what is the upside for the offense?

The passing game will for the most part be unexciting, but Jabar Gaffney teamed with Santana Moss make for a very good pair of possession receivers. Both are going to run professional routes and be where Rex or Beck needs them to be. The big plays will only be occasional, but unless the quarterbacks live down to the national expectations – and I don’t think they will – the passing game should be able to move the chains and sustain some drives.

The running game could also be much better than last year. Ryan Torain broke some tackles but ran himself into lots of losses as well.  Hightower, I think, will be a more polished runner who won’t leave yards on the table.

The interior line will still be overpowered at times, but Chris Chester seems like a natural zone blocker. I have a low opinion of Will Montgomery, but if he proves me wrong and plays even adequately then combined with Chris Chester’s and Kory Lichtensteiger’s quickness to the second level this line should be able to open up some good cutback lanes, which Hightower is likely to exploit.

Add this up and what you get is many fewer three and outs than last year.  They probably won’t put up a ton of points, but in this good scenario they should score reasonably and, at the very least, be able to efficiently sustain drives. That’s where the special teams come in.

Field position football may not be exciting, and it certainly is not a path to a championship in the modern passing-oriented NFL, but it is probably the Redskins best chance for success until another offseason or two lets them build a more dynamic team. That means Sav Rocca, Graham Gano, and Brandon Banks could be key to any improvement. As we talked about above, when drives stall they are more likely to be after multiple first downs rather than zero. With Rocca’s leg strength, hang time, and placement (remember – when it comes to punting hang time is every bit as important as distance, and consistency is more important than both), teams should be starting drives deep in their own territory more often. Even more so with Graham Gano virtually a guaranteed touchback. I expect that the directional kicks Danny Smith favored last year will fall by the wayside and he’ll just let Gano bury it in the back of the end zone every time. So with offenses starting at the 20 after kickoffs and sometime even deeper after punts, those soft first downs given up by the defense are less scary. The defense has that many more opportunities to make their hoped-for big plays, and with a little more margin for error.  Meanwhile the occasional big returns from Brandon Banks, even when they don’t result in touchdowns, improve this field position game still further. Of course, you can only win with field position football if you make the field goals. If Gano improves his results, either through refined technique, better mental state, or just the natural regression that should occur with a small sample probabilistic event – I don’t care how it happens, it just needs to – then the Redskins will be in a lot of games.

That’s a somewhat rosy outlook, but based on things that are entirely possible. If all of the above happens, the Redskins are certainly capable of pulling off a 10-6 record. That is not a prediction, but it is a perfectly reasonable estimate of the upside if things break right.

So what’s the worst case scenario? Well it’s bad:

- The offensive line’s lack of depth, or simply underperforming starters, mean that the QBs and running backs get no help. 

-       Grossman reverts to being a turnover machine, and when Beck comes in he is simply lost due to his lack of experience.

-       The new addition to the front seven fail to adjust well to the 3-4 scheme, and the defense is still vulnerable to the running game and can’t significantly improve the pass rush.

-       Without a formidable pass rush, the high-risk secondary gets gashed.

-       Gano kicks like he did last year, preventing the Redskins from pulling out wins even when they keep games close.

-       Banks’  knee gives out, robbing the return game of dynamism.

In that worst of all possible worlds we are might end up looking at a 6-10 like last year, or with a couple bad bounces even a 4-12. Fortunately, everything going wrong is even less likely than a bunch of things going right. 

But looking at all this an 8-8 record, while not easy, is well within the realm of possibility. It takes only mild optimism to get there. No one can really “predict” the NFL, but I think they’ll revoke my blogging license if I don’t try. So let’s stick with that 8-8 and see how it goes.

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