Monday, September 19, 2005

Redskins Preview 2005

Prior to last Monday’s benching of Patrick Ramsey, I had planned to write a detailed preview of the Redskins’ season and write about an inexorable march to the 2005 NFL playoffs, but the benching has changed a lot of things. Friends call me the eternal optimist, so you can guess that I still think the Redskins will reach the playoffs this year. But, because the future is a little cloudier now, I have canned the detailed preview. Here is a less-detailed preview.

The Redskins will make the playoffs this year. My post on September 11 highlighted the three main reasons for the Redskins' bright outlook:

1. Joe Gibb’s record of success in everything he attempts
2. The outstanding defense
3. The best offensive line in football

The benching of Ramsey only changes one thing in this assessment. The offensive line is going to be challenged much more with Brunell at QB. Defenses are going to stack eight guys in the box and force Brunell to prove he can beat them deep. If he cannot, Portis and Betts are going to have a tough time finding holes to run through. No matter how talented any five offensive linemen are they cannot beat eight guys on defense, even if they are the worst eight defensemen in the league.

This just goes to show how difficult it is to pinpoint one player or one unit on a team and declaring it the best or worst. If a team has a quarterback who can accurately throw downfield, it will open running lanes for its running backs and it will have a balanced offense. That will allow lineman to open up holes and protect its QB, making talented linemen seem extraordinarily talented. The protection the linemen provide the QB will make the QB seem better than his talent, and the same is true of the running backs and receivers. All the units rely on each other for success. The same is true for the defense. The Redskins have had a very talented secondary for the last ten years, but between 1996 and 2003 their defensive linemen have been average or below average. Their defensive linemen gave opposing QBs so much time to throw, the Redskins’ secondary seemed much worse than its talent. Furthermore, when an offensive unit consistently goes three-and-out and forces the defensive unit to play thirty-five or more minutes per game, the defense can also look worse than its talent. Football is a team sport.

So, the main question for the Redskins in 2005 will be: Can Brunell throw for a higher average yards-per-attempt than the five yards he earned as starter last year? If the Bears game is any indication, the answer is no. Much of Brunell’s passing in that game was rocket screens to the wide receivers that picked up three or four yards, much like last year. His only memorable deep attempt resulted in an interception on a poorly thrown ball, but the interception was reversed on pass interference. Brunell will try the patience of the offensive linemen and running backs and the Skins will have to win with defense and special teams.

How good is the defense? In the third (and typically most important) preseason game, the Skins starters gave up three points against the Steelers. In their season opener, for all intents and purposes, they pitched a shutout against the Bears (the Bears managed to score seven points when the Redskins fumbled the second-half kickoff deep in their own territory). Since facing the Redskins, the Steelers and Bears are a combined 3-0 in the regular season and scored a combined 99 points in those three wins. The Redskins defense is damn good.

Special teams are now a concern with the injury to kicker John Hall. In tonight’s important game against the Cowboys, the Redskins will be relying on a kicker who never attempted a regular-season kick, which is not a good recipe for victory on an offensively challenged team.

So, where is my optimism coming from? I have always been a huge fan of football teams that win with defense and a ball control offense. I love Joe Gibbs’s teams of yesteryear because of that old style of play. When not playing against the Skins and when the Skins were eliminated from the playoffs in the past few years, I rooted for the Patriots because they are a throwback team. The Ravens won the Super Bowl in January 2001 because of defense and ball control (but I could never root for any team with a player who was an accomplice to murder). The Redskins defense is as good as or better than the defenses that won the last five Super Bowls. That is the primary source of my optimism.

Since the late eighties, when rules increasingly restricted defenses from getting physical with players on offense, offenses opened up. The mobile quarterback became more important than the quarterback who could step into a blitz and deliver the pass downfield. Fast receivers who pick up twenty yards three times per game before stepping out of bounds became more important than possession receivers like Art Monk who consistently moved the chains by catching eight- or ten-passes for ten yards in the middle of the field before taking excruciating hits. Teams built the “modern way” have frequently won division titles (think Eagles, Colts, Falcons, etc.), but no team that was built the “modern way” has won a Super Bowl in the last five years. I don’t think the “modern way” is a good prescription for building a Super Bowl champion. When Gibbs bent over backwards to hire Greg Williams as defensive coordinator, he sent a message to Skins fans who suffered through years of defenses built by modern coaches: Turner and the Ole Ball Coach. When he traded for Portis, he made a statement about the running game (how could Spurrier let Stephen Davis go?).

So, my optimism is in DE-FENSE and Portis and Betts (the running backs, not the Gershwin musical); especially Betts because of his size. The Redskins earned 164 yards rushing last week against an excellent Bears defense. If they can repeat that kind of performance against lesser defenses, they will be very good no matter who QBs. The Defenders who will be fun to watch are Arrington (who returns from missing most of last year due to injury), Sean Taylor (who hits harder than any safety since Ronnie Lott), Cornelius Griffin (awesome run stopper, how could the Giants let him get away?), Marcus Washington (he's all over the field), and rookie Carlos Rogers. But, Williams has proven the point that the team is more important than the individual. Since he came on board, the Redskins have more players around the ball than I can ever remember. It's rare to see a solo tackle; the whole team likes to get in on the fun.

Before the Ramsey benching, I looked at tonight’s game as winnable. The next two opponents are Seattle and Denver, so if they beat Dallas the Skins could realistically be 4-0. That record would do wonders for this team’s confidence. Overnight, commentators would go from saying that the game has passed Joe by, to saying he’s the next Vermeil with a shot at his fourth Lombardi; such is the fickleness of NFL commentators. I had expected that confidence to accrue to Ramsey’s account, not Brunell’s, and I expected that accrual to establish this team as a Super Bowl contender for the remaining tenure of Gibbs’s contract (four years). With Ramsey’s benching, the future is cloudy, but with this defense the Redskins will be in every game. It will be up to Joe to pull the rabbit out of the hat to turn one-point losses into two-point wins until Ramsey wins his job back.


Post a Comment

<< Home