Friday, January 04, 2008

Hail to the Redskins

I stand by the prediction that I made at the beginning of the season: The Redskins are going to the...

SUPER BOWL!!!!!!!!

Hey, I was right about their defense. I said it would be a top-ten D after finishing at number 31 last year. I was right about this too: The Redskins are going to the Super Bowl because they are the best team in the NFC. Here are the facts:

• There is no other running back in the NFC playoffs within 250 yards of the rushing yards that Portis has gained this year. And, Portis has improved immensely as a receiver this year making him a Westbrook-like release valve for Collins and the rest of the offense. Portis is the best running back in the NFC playoffs. A strong running game is key in January and February;

• There is no other NFC quarterback within 9 QB rating points of Todd Collins. I concede that Collins rating was earned in only four games, but even the best four-game stretch of the other QBs in the NFC playoffs only matches what Collins has done. Only Brady in the AFC has a higher rating and it is only slightly better. Collins also leads the NFL in yards per attempt. He has stretched the field and helped open up the running game for Portis. Collins was the NFC Offensive Player of the Month. The timing of his arrival is impeccable;

• The Redskins have the second-highest ranked defense of all the teams in the NFC playoffs (tied with the Giants / behind the Bucs), and it is playing its best right now;

• There is no other team in the playoffs that has played a tougher schedule. You read that correctly. The Skins had by far the toughest schedule of all the teams in the playoffs from either conference. They faced teams with a combined 0.555 winning percentage. Seattle, by comparison, not only had the easiest schedule of all of the teams in the playoffs, they had the easiest schedule of all 32 teams in the NFL;

• Certainly, there is no other team that has had to overcome the adversity that the Redskins have overcome this year. The Redskins proved they have championship-quality depth when six starters were lost for the year (or forever) and they still managed to get into the derby. All except Jansen and Thomas were first-round draft picks who were replaced by guys who were mostly low draft picks or undrafted free agents. Jansen and Thomas were high second rounders. Great depth and the proven ability to overcome adversity is how conference championships are won;

• The six fill-in starters have gained valuable experience because many of the injuries occurred early in the year. The timing was both a curse and a blessing. A curse because it cost them in losses in early games that they would have won. A blessing because those fill-ins—like right tackle Stephon Heyer who shut out Adewale Ogunleye, Strahan, and DeMarcus Ware in three of the last four weeks—have made major contributions in the four-game win streak and are ready to help this team win in the playoffs. They are peaking at the perfect time;

Let’s Review How we Got Here
Last Sunday the Redskins crushed the Cowboys—the NFC’s number-one seed—to ensure a playoff spot. Don’t tell me that the Cowboys didn’t care about the game. They were going full out with their best players on the field until the Redskins put the game out of reach late in the third quarter. Even then they only pulled Romo and a couple of defensive players (not Roy Williams).

Do you think the Cowboys want to see the Redskins again? No team would want to face a division foe in the playoffs regardless of the quality of the opponent because division foes know each other so well. But, when you consider that the Cowboys also know they should have lost both games against the Skins this year, you can understand the urgency in which the Cowboys played this game.

Also, consider this: Marion Barber entered the game needing 19-yards to reach the 1,000-yard rushing milestone. He ended the game needing 25-yards. Witten needed seven catches to go over the 100-receptions mark. His two catches didn’t get him there. They wanted it, but the Skins took it from them.

How badly did Phillips want this game? Most of his starters were on the field for the whole game. How badly? He called Romo out of the tunnel just before halftime to run another play on an un-timed down due to a Redskins penalty. The Skins then sacked him and hurt him. Romo was wincing as he walked into the locker room. Yet, the Boy Blunder was back out there to start the second half. Wade Phillips risked the franchise in an attempt to win this game and knock the Skins out. Super Bowl and number one seed be damned.

Now, let’s look at other games against playoff teams this year in chronological order. Two things should become evident. First, the Redskins were “this” close to 12 to 15 wins, a bye, and home field advantage. Second, the team flying to Seattle is a different team from the one that let six wins slip away earlier in the season. This is true for several reasons, one of which is more important than most…which I will write about later.

1. The Skins lost to the Giants by seven points after jumping out to a 17 – 3 early lead. First-year starter Jason Campbell did an admirable job leading the team 64-yards down the field in the final two minutes, but the drive stalled on the one-yard line as time expired;

2. The Skins lost to Green Bay by three points in Green Bay after they had a 14–7 early lead. Santana Moss, who had been battling injuries most of the year until December, had his worst day as a pro. He dropped several deep passes and fumbled the ball that Green Bay’s Woodson returned for the winning TD in the second half. Jason Campbell did an admirable job leading the team to Green Bay’s 33 in the fourth quarter, but that drive and two subsequent ones fell short of a score;

3. The Skins lost to Dallas by five points in Dallas. With a 10 – 7 lead late in the third quarter Rocky McIntosh intercepted Romo and returned the ball to the Dallas three-yard line. That was the ruling on the field, anyway. At the very least, replays were inconclusive with several that showed McIntosh had at least one hand under the ball. Somehow, the interception was reversed and Dallas scored a TD on the drive resulting in a 14-point swing. Jason Campbell did an admirable job on two drives with less than three-minutes left. On one he overthrew (by five inches) a wide-open Santana Moss in the end zone on what would have been the game-winning TD. Two plays later he was intercepted;

4. The Skins lost to Tampa Bay by six points in Tampa. The Skins turned the ball over to the Bucs SIX times. The Bucs did not return the favor once, and the Skins only lost by six on the road. Are you kidding me? Every fumble that hit the ground, including one by the Bucs, landed in Tampa’s hands. The Bucs recovered four fumbles in the first half at the Washington, 28-, 26-, 18-, and 32-yard lines and the Bucs scored 16-points on those turnovers. In the third quarter the Skins were stopped on a fourth-and-one play at Tampa’s four-yard line. Late in the fourth quarter, Campbell did an admirable job on two drives. On one, he took the Skins from their nine-yard line to Tampa’s 32-yard line before he was intercepted. On the other, he took the Skins from their seven-yard line to Tampa’s 16-yard line before his potential game-winning pass was intercepted in the end zone;

And, of course, there were two losses to non-playoff teams. They had a five-point lead against the Eagles with four-minutes left and lost by eight. This was the game in which the Redskins had a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before Sean Taylor injured his knee. That injury allowed Philly to score 26-points in the final 18-minutes by exploiting the part of the field that Taylor abandoned, after they could only score seven in the first 42-minutes with Taylor in the game. Taylor's injury also led to his murder, and his death was responsible for the team’s one-point, last-second loss to Buffalo on the day before Taylor’s funeral.

In fact, if you changed the outcome in just three extremely close games, the Redskins would be the NFC East division winners with a bye right now: 1. Give Buffalo the win over the Cowboys in that Monday night debacle in which the Cowboys--in 3:45--scored a TD, missed a two-point conversion, knocked forward and recovered an onside kick with 18 seconds left at the Buffalo 47, and kicked a field goal to win by two; 2. Reverse the first Dallas-Washington game; and 3. Reverse the Buffalo-Washington game. Reverse the outcome of these three close games and the Skins and Cowboys are each 11 - 5 with the Skins holding the head-to-head tie breaker. That is how close the Skins are to the number one seed in the NFC.

The unhappy recap is they could have waltzed into the playoffs with home field advantage. But, then they wouldn’t be the heartwarming story that they are now. They are America’s team now.

What is different now? Why are they blowing away opponents now when they lost close games before?
There are many who say the main difference is Taylor’s death. They believe the team is riding a wave of emotion that carried them this far. I think it is true that several key players who were close to Sean have stepped up their game, but the Redskins are not winning on emotion. Emotions eventually burn out. No, this team is winning because they are good. They are wining because they are the best team in the NFC. They are winning because they have great coaching, an excellent running game, and an outstanding defense. And, they are winning because they finally have a quarterback who knows how to run the Gibbs-Saunders offense. Todd Collins is the main difference between early-season close losses and late-season dominance.

Readers know I love Jason Campbell’s future. I think it is bright. I also think it is much brighter today if he incorporates what he learns from watching Collins run the Redskins offense. Again, his injury was a curse and could be a blessing. He would not have had this chance without the injury.

I was optimistic about Collins after I heard the comments from Skins leaders after the Redskins knocked the Bears out of the playoffs. It was Collins first game and it came in relief. Cooley said he was surprised that when he came out of his break and turned to look for the ball, it was already there. The coverage had no chance to make a play on it. Sellers said he was surprised at how quickly Collins releases the ball. The Gibbs-Saunders passing offense is complex. It takes years of study and practice. It is all about spreading the field, reading defenses quickly, going through progressions with receivers, trusting receivers will make the same reads, and getting rid of the ball on time. Campbell will run it well some day. Collins runs it extremely well now.

You cannot argue with success. It’s hard to argue about four straight wins against conference opponents fighting hard for something. It’s hard to argue with an offense that scored an average of 26.25 points per meaningful game when it could only muster 19 points per game before Collins. And, when Collins keeps drives alive, he helps the defense too. The defense is only allowing 13.25 points per game now, when it was giving up 21.42 in the prior twelve. The pre-Collins 5 -7 Skins had an average point differential per game of minus 2.3. The Collins-led 4-0 Skins have an average margin of victory of 13-points per game, which is 60% greater than Dallas’s margin and almost as high as the Patriots’.

Time for a Little Cold Water on the Face, Counter Trey?
Collins is a backup quarterback. How many of those led their teams through the playoffs and into the super Bowl? Hmmmm.

Well, Jim Plunkett was a backup who led the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XV. He was also the MVP. The Dolphins used a platoon of Woodley and Strock to get to Super Bowl XVII. Doug Williams was Jay Schroeder’s backup and led the Skins to a victory in XXII. He was also the MVP. Jeff Hostetler led the Giants to a victory in XXV in relief of Phil Simms. Kurt Warner started for the injured Trent Green and led the Rams to victory in XXXIV. He also broke Montana’s passing yard record and was named MVP. There are two coincidences in XXXIV: Green was the Skins QB before signing with the Rams, and Al Saunders was a coach of the Rams offense. And, then of course, there was a guy named Tom Brady who led the Patriots to a win in XXXVI after Drew Bledsoe was injured. He was also named MVP.

The history of the Super Bowl would be a lot less interesting without the backup QB.

The Matchup with the Seahawks
We already know about the difficulty of the Redskins schedule and the pathetically easy schedule the Seahawks played this year. What about the strengths of the Seahawks? People say the Hawks have a prolific offense, especially their passing game. How did they achieve their stats?

Well, they exploited the poorest defenses in the NFL. The Seahawks' three division opponents were ranked 21, 22, and 28 against the pass. That's a sum of 71 (out of a maximum 93).

Only Green Bay had an easier division to pass against: 27, 31, and 32 for a sum of 90(out of a maximum 93!!!!). It's no coincidence that Favre had a 95.7 passer rating this year, but when he faced Philly, Washington, and Dallas he had a passer rating of 58.2, 43.5, and 8.4, respectively.

In comparison, the Skins faced division foes with pass Ds ranked 11, 13 and 18 for a 42 total.

The Seahawks' division foes had an overall D ranking that totaled 67 (again, out of 93), while the Skins' division foes had overall D rankings that totaled 26. Six games against this kind of competition--almost 40% of a team's games--can make some team's stats look great.

In addition to division foes, here is a sample of some of the other teams the Seahawks faced with overall D ranking in parentheses: Cincinnati (27), New Orleans (26), Cleveland (30), and Chicago (28).

Exactly half of the Seahawks games were against teams ranked in the bottom 25-percent in total D (i.e. defenses ranked 25 through 32), which gave the Seahawks the schedule with the largest number of games against easy defenses this year.

The Seahawks only played four games against top-10 defenses and averaged 18.75 points per game in those. That’s a little different from the 24.6 PPG I keep reading about. Oh, and the Skins have the eighth-ranked defense in the NFL.

Finally, there is the coaching. Do I have to rehash Gibbs record in games played after November 30? He is the best. Whether we’re talking about Gibbs I or II (I really hate those monikers), he gets his team prepared and he leads them. They respect him and play hard for him and they win. And, given all of the adversity he faced this year, he probably had his best year as a coach in his career.


Post a Comment

<< Home