Monday, September 25, 2006

Counter Trey's 2006 Preview: The Redskins are the Best 0 – 2 Team in the NFL

(Ed. Note: This was written before the game against the Texans. It couldn't be published until today because of a loss of electrical power over the weekend.)

Who can forget last year when the Redskins started the season 3 – 0 and all of the critics called them the worst 3 – 0 team in the NFL? Since they finished tied with Seattle and Chicago for the best record in the NFC and had beaten both of those teams; and since they came within one dropped interception from playing in Joe Gibbs’s sixth NFC Championship game; I’d say they were not even close to being the worst 3 – 0 team last year. This year they have already accumulated as many losses in the NFC (two) and the NFC East (one) as they did in all of last year and the critics make last year seem like decades ago. But, we and Peter King shouldn’t forget history, especially recent history, and most especially Joe Gibbs’s history.

In the Redskins first preseason game, Clinton Portis dislocated his shoulder and it spooked the entire team. Gibbs pulled the starting offense off of the field over the mild objection of their new offensive coordinator, Al Saunders. For the rest of the preseason the starting offense spent most of the time on the bench. That was unfortunate because that offense was trying to learn a 700-page play book that Saunders developed running NFL offenses for over twenty-years. Several times Saunders’ offenses were the best in the NFL including each of the last two years in Kansas City. The Redskins said they were getting lots of reps in practice, but practice speed and game speed are entirely different. This week, after the loss to Dallas, Gibbs said that he will run next year’s preseason differently from the way he ran it this year. Great coaches adapt.

So, after four preseason and two regular season games, the Redskins are still looking for their first win. This preview of the season was supposed to be published before the first regular season game, but not much would have changed in the analysis had it been published a few weeks ago. The season is a marathon, not a sprint. As bad as the Redskins have looked, they are only one game away from first place in the NFC East, well within reach for a team with this kind of talent and coaching ability.

The Problems:
With the benefit of two games of hindsight, there are two things that have surprised me so far. One is the complete lack of a pass rush from the Redskins front four. The other is the poor play of Mark Brunnell. Each has led to serious problems on third down. Let’s look at each of those problems.

No Pass Rush from the D-Line
Last year, the Redskins had several injuries on defense that resulted in significant loss of playing time. The worst of the injuries was to defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, who missed about five games. When Griffin was playing and healthy, the Redskins did extremely well. They won their last five games and then won their first playoff game on the road. In that span they registered most of the sacks, QB pressures, and tips at the line-of-scrimmage that they had achieved in the whole year. A healthy Griffin drew double teams and freed Daniels to get at the quarterback, which he did with alacrity. Daniels also led the NFL in tips at the line. In my mind, Griffin was their defensive MVP last year because of those results.

So, why hasn’t the Redskins defensive line, with all four starters healthy and with a new, expensive pass rushing defensive end (Andre Carter), been able to pick up where it left off last year? Has 33-year old Daniels lost a step? That is difficult to fathom given the shape that Daniels keeps himself in. Everyone else on the D-line is between 31- (Salave’a) and 27-years old (Carter). Age is not the likely culprit. However, injury might again be.

Gregg Williams is an aggressive and unorthodox defensive coordinator and his teams frequently blitz the quarterback. He causes offensive lineman and backs to constantly guess where the blitz will come from next. The Redskins had the luxury of blitzing last year because cornerback Shawn Springs played through several injuries and was outstanding in shutting down their opponent’s best receiver. Springs also took part in many blitz packages himself and wound up with the team lead in sacks in 2004 with six. Even on plays when the Redskins didn’t blitz, the D-line would get pressure on the quarterback, in part because O-lines and backs were looking for the blitz.

This year Springs had surgery on his abdomen, has missed the first two games and might miss a few more, and the Redskins have noticeably reduced their blitzing. Some speculate that the Redskins sans Springs are not confident enough in their secondary to blitz. I counted three in the first game and only about a half-dozen the second. To use a baseball analogy, I think offenses are sitting on the fastball because they know that without Springs the Redskins defense can’t get the curveball over for a strike. When O-lines do not have to guess where the blitz is coming from, they can focus all of their attention on the guys directly in front of them and it becomes five- or six-O-lineman against four D-lineman. When backs do not have to stay in to pick up the blitz, they become another option in the receiving package. The end result is the third-worst defense at stopping teams from converting third downs.

In fairness to the Skins D-line, though, those weren’t two high school O-lines they went up against either. In their first game, for example, they faced the Vikings who have a left side that is a six-foot and five-inch, almost 700-pound wall of brick on which the Vikings just invested about $70 million. Many felt the Seahawks would regret letting guard Hutchinson get away even though he cost the Vikes about $49 million, which was guaranteed (for a guard!). The Vikings converted half of their third down plays against the Skins because their QB had all day to find his second and third receivers. Most of those conversions came on third and seven-plus yards to go. The Vikings have now started 2 – 0 and beat two teams that played in the NFC playoffs last year including the Panthers, everyone’s favorite to win the Super Bowl this year.

So, maybe the Springs injury is having a domino effect on the rest of the defense, and especially the defensive line. Skins fans shouldn’t expect him to be in mid-season form until about game eight, so the Skins need to figure this out or the season could be over before November. One injury cannot possibly prevent a serious contender from contending, and the Skins are a serious contender.

Poor QB Play
As for the Brunnell conundrum, I just can’t figure him out. After the 2004 season I thought he was done, and I wrote that here. I was eager to see what Gibbs’s declared 2005 starter, Patrick Ramsey, could do behind a Bugel/Gibbs offensive line. Then, Gibbs gave Ramsey the hook in less than one half of football (due to a minor injury) and after a couple of weeks Brunnell had performed so well that I wrote an apology to him here.

Brunnell wound up with the highest quarterback rating of all of the starting QBs in the NFC East last year and played like a veteran, making very few mistakes. Why is Brunnell not hitting his receivers this year despite having many more weapons at his disposal? The only difference between this year and last is the new play book and the Clinton Portis injury. Portis only had a couple of carries against the Vikings (and scored a touchdown) and didn’t even dress against the Cowboys. Can one injury have that much of an effect? Can it, especially when they have very capable backups for Portis? A more likely culprit is Brunnell’s lack of comfort with the playbook.

Again, to be fair, Brunnell put up good numbers last year despite getting off to a slow start and playing inconsistently in the middle of the year. In fact, the Redskins might have been the only playoff team in the NFL last year that relied that little on the quarterback for their wins. Portis, Moss and Cooley were their leaders on offense and Brunnell’s job often was to simply avoid sacks and turnovers and dump the ball off to Cooley and Moss and let them accumulate yards-after-catch, or YAC in NFL vernacular. There is no reason that he cannot do that again this year, especially with the addition of Brandon Lloyd, Antwaan Randle-El and TJ Duckett.

Reasons for Optimism:
Details from the Games Played: Vikings:
In the Vikings game, the Redskins had the ball inside the ten-yard line twice and were one Darren Sharper hit on Moss from scoring a touchdown on one of those possessions; instead they had to settle for field goals each time. That Sharper hit was the difference in the game. They were that close.

Even then, they came within a missed 48-yard field goal from tying the game and a 15-yard face mask penalty on the Vikings’ final drive from preventing the Vikings from taking the lead. Not having Portis and Springs surely hurt. Had they won that game they would be tied for first place today and would not be facing questions now of whether they will win a game this year.

Down by seven in the second half against the Cowboys, Skins safety Sean Taylor made an athletic play and stripped the football from Cowboys RB Jones as he was tackling him. The skins drove the ball to within striking distance of tying the game, but Brunnell threw an interception that Roy Williams ran out of bounds at the one-yard line. Again, as bad as they have looked, they were one play from tying that game late in the second half.

So, now is not the time to panic.

The NFC East
Sean Taylor broke Terrell Owens hand last week. The official line is he broke it early in the game when he was blocking a corner and his finger “got caught in a shirt,” but there is little doubt in my mind that Owens doesn’t want to give Taylor any satisfaction. Taylor put two hits on Owens in that game that had Owens literally writhing in pain. This is probably the one that broke his hand.

Taylor has owned Owens in the five-or-so meetings since Taylor was drafted and has thoroughly intimidated Owens, even when Taylor was just a Rookie and Owens was all-world for the Eagles. (Taylor wore number 36 as a Rookie and Owen #81 for the Eagles as can be seen at 0:37, 1:04, 1:33 and 2:13 of this clip. This clip also has footage of rookie Taylor versus the best the NFL has to offer including Randy Moss, Keyshawn Johnson, Chad Johnson, and Donovan McNabb). In fact, the entire Redskins defense has done a tremendous job against guys like Owens since Gregg Williams arrived. Williams takes away the opponent's best threats and makes teams try to beat the Redskins with their second- or third-best options. Without Owens, the 2006 Cowboys are the 2005 Cowboys and watching the playoffs from home; sorry Mike Francesca and Peter King.

I have never underestimated the Eagles. I think they would have been in the hunt for the NFC East title last year had they not had all those injuries. I think last Sunday was the first time the Giants beat the Eagles with McNabb at QB and it took a Herculean, last-quarter effort to do it. But, the Eagles lost Kearse for the season and that will hurt. My fear is that that the Giants win gives them and Eli Manning a huge boost of confidence. Still, the Redskins have all four games left to play against those teams, so their fate is in their hands. If they split with the Giants, sweep the Eagles and take the home game against the Cowboys, they will win the NFC East.

The Schedule
Suddenly the Skins schedule doesn’t look as tough as it did before the season. Carolina and Tampa Bay are surprisingly 0 – 2 (so are Tennessee and Houston). On the flip side, Atlanta and New Orleans are surprisingly 2 – 0, but I fear them a lot less. The Colts and Jacksonville are also 2 – 0 and deserve to be feared, but no more than they were feared last year, and the Skins get to play the Jaguars in DC.

Everyone else that the Redskins have to play is 1 – 1. Again, the Skins have played horrifically, but were just one or two plays from 1 – 1. A little improvement will make a big difference, and that little improvement should come this week with the return of Portis, and next month with the return of Springs. With parity in every division except the NFC West, it is difficult to imagine that anyone besides Seattle will get a huge lead in the NFC.

The Playbook
The playbook will be mastered, of that there should be no doubt. The only question is will it be mastered in time to save the season. As I wrote up top, great coaches adapt and this is a great coaching staff. If you own a ranch somewhere, bet it on the Redskins this week against the Texans (Disclaimer: CT does not endorse gambling). Mark Brunnell is a smart QB. Smart QBs with his kind of talent adjust, and small adjustments will eventually be levered by their talent—especially their additions—into huge results.

The Additions
Critics sarcastically call the Redskins the champions of the off-season because they seem to get the most headlines when acquiring players. It was true that the owner Dan Snyder led the charge in 2000 to sign washed-up former stars like Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith, and half-star Jeff George, and it was their poor play that gave the Redskins the sarcastic label. But, the critics have not given the Redskins proper credit for their acquisitions since 2000, particularly since Gibbs became head coach and president of the team.

Other than this episode, Snyder learned his lesson from his 2000 errors. Much like the Yankees—who didn’t become good in the 1990s until Steinbrenner was prevented by MLB from presiding over his team as punishment for a bribery scandal—the Redskins didn’t improve in player acquisitions until Snyder found the discipline to stay out of player decisions. Many believe that Derek Jeter would be playing in someplace like Toronto if Steinbrenner was in charge back then; God only knows what the Redskins would look like if Snyder didn’t get out of the way.

So, the Skins have done quite well in the off-seasons since 2000, hiring Griffin (DT), Marcus Washington (OLB), John Hall (K), Brunnell (QB), Springs (CB), Sean Taylor (S), Cooley (TE), Moss (WR), Portis (RB), Randy Thomas (G), and Casey Rabach (C ) (not in date order or necessarily in order of importance). In other words, with the exception of Brunnell, they have focused all of their attention on stars who are young and who are (or were) just entering the prime of their careers.

This year they have continued the recent trend and added Brandon Lloyd (WR), Antwaan Randle-El (WR/PR), Andre Carter (DE), Adam Archuleta (S), and TJ Duckett (RB). Prior additions made their defense exceptionally strong. This year’s additions will bolster that, but also perfectly fill the holes that the Redskins had last year at wide receiver and returner. It is amazing that Moss played as well as he did last year when he had no one on the opposite side of the field to draw coverage away.

Some Wins are More Important than Others
Wins against division opponents count more than wins against the rest of the conference. Wins against teams in the conference count more than in non-conference games. And, because of playoff momentum, wins in late November and throughout December count more than those before then. And, of course, wins in January are the most important wins of the season.

Joe Gibbs’ record in important games is phenomenal. Last year he led the team to the NFC's best record against teams in the conference. The Redskins also had the best record in the NFC East at 5 – 1. Last year, Gibbs went 6 – 3 in regular season games in November and December/January including 5 – 0 in his last five. Gibbs then won a playoff game on the road in a very tough place to play before losing a close one to the eventual NFC Champions.

Joe Gibbs career record in games played after Novemebr 30 (including playoff games) is an absurd 53 – 16 for a 0.768 winning percentage. Since he returned to coaching in 2004, his record in games played in that time frame is 9 – 3; not bad for a guy who watched the “game pass him by.” Expect more of the same in big games this year.

Reason for Pessimism:
If Not Now, When?
It won’t take much for the Redskins to turn the ship around, but they have to start now, and they haven’t shown many signs that they will. After the first game, I took heart that they would have won if one of their possessions inside the ten had resulted in a TD. I thought the coaches would have made an adjustment for Dallas and blitzed more and that the offense would have absorbed more of Saunders’ 700-page playbook. But, the Dallas loss was a step back. And, we might not see a completely healthy Springs all year, so we might not see the aggressive and effective defense that we saw last year.

The NFC West
Seattle plays in a pathetic division. They can count on six wins before the season starts because they play six games against poor NFC West teams. No other team in the NFC has that luxury. The Seahawks are almost guaranteed a bye and home field advantage each year until the other three division opponents decide to put competitive teams on the field instead of putting the TV revenue in their pockets. It is very difficult for any team to get to the Super Bowl when they have to play an extra playoff game and have to travel, especially when an east coast team has to travel all the way to Seattle.

Counter Trey Prediction:
The Redskins made the playoffs last year via an aggressive, top-ranked defense and a low-risk, ball-control offense that occasionally stretched the field with deep passes. The players that produced those results were made up of young and aggressive players and experienced veterans who were mostly in the prime of their careers. They produced solid results on offense despite having only one threat at wide receiver and only one other receiving threat in Chris Cooley a tight end.

This year they have all of that talent returning plus they made terrific additions to fill holes. They also brought in an offensive genius who has had tremendous success everywhere he has been; each time with different players. All of that should translate into wins soon. I predict that will happen sooner than the critics think. And Joe Gibbs’s ability to win when it counts should never be discounted.

This is what I expect to happen in the remainder of the year:

Minnesota L
@ Dallas L

@ Houston W
Jacksonville W
@ New Jersey Giants L
Tennessee W
@ Indianapolis L
Dallas W
@ Philadelphia W
@ Tampa Bay W
Carolina L
Atlanta W
Philadelphia W
@ New Orleans W
@ St. Louis W
New Jersey W

I cannot wait to hear the howling by Redskins fans and Redskins media if the they lose to the Giants in New Jersey as I predict and start the year 0 - 3 in the NFC and 0 - 2 in the NFC East. Actually I can wait. Based on the posts on, DC area psychiatrists must have had a record year last year. And, they are off to a great start this year. Remember fans, it's a marathon not a sprint. Take a deep breath and trust this coaching staff to maximize the talent on this very talented team.

With these results the Redskins will finish 11- 5 overall; 4 – 2 in the NFC East; and 8 – 4 in the NFC. That is one game better than last year, which is about what I figured they would achieve just based on talent. That is good enough to win the NFC East and get at least one playoff game at home, but probably not good enough to get home field advantage or a playoff bye. Chicago and Seattle are good teams that play pathetically easy schedules. Despite getting to play NFC West teams, Seattle also has Kansas City, Oakland, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay on their schedule. How the hell did the NFC champs get that gift?

What? You think I am crazy to predict that the Redskins will finish with eight wins in their last nine games? You think it’s crazy to predict they will run the table after November 30? Plenty of folks laughed last year when I wrote that the Skins would lose to the Chargers and then win their last five games and make the playoffs. Those same folks apologized in January.

As I said, the Redskins are the best 0 – 2 team in the NFL. Next year they will have to start addressing some age at quarterback and defensive line, but those are next year's problems and there is plenty of time to deal with them. Today, the Redskins already have everything that they need to win the NFC East.


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