Monday, September 22, 2008

HOLD THE PRESSES!!! Carlos Rogers Caught a Ball that Hit His Hands / Redskins 24 - Cards 17 / What to Make of these Skins

In the second round of the playoffs in 2005, the Redskins had a 3 - 0 lead over Seattle with 8:54 left in the second quarter. The Seahawks were deep in their own territory when Hasselbeck dropped back to pass, looked to his right, saw nothing, quickly spun to his left and let fly a duck. The Redskins' high first-round draft pick at cornerback that year, rookie Carlos Rogers, played it perfectly. Rogers stepped in front of the receiver near the 25-yard line, had all his momentum heading toward the goal line and there was not a soul in his way.

The Redskins defense had already knocked out of the game Seattle's best offensive weapon, running back Shaun Alexander, when an Arrington tackle gave him a concussion. Alexander had rushed for 1,880 yards that season and scored 28 TDs. The Redskins were about to take a commanding, crowd silencing, 10 - 0 lead into halftime in Seattle while their staff was busy making flight arrangements for the NFC Championship game in Carolina.

The Redskins had finished 10 - 2 in the Conference that year, including a regular season win against Seattle, and it would have been 11 - 1 had the referees in the Tampa Bay game overturned a bad call on a last play, two-point conversion attempt by Alstott. With a correct call, the Redskins would have been preparing to host Joe Gibbs's sixth NFC Championship game, and given their dominance of the NFC that year, they likely would have been the NFC representative in Joe Gibbs's fifth Super Bowl.

All Rogers had to do was catch the ball that hit him in the hands, chest-high between the numbers. But Rogers dropped the ball.

Seattle kept the ball and finished that drive with a touchdown and a lead they never gave up.

I had given the rookie a break on that drop. He was new, had shown great cover skills, and had missed part of the year with an injury. It was easy to forgive him when it looked like the Skins secondary was going to dominate passing offenses for years with Rogers, Springs, and Taylor. And, it became clear over the next few years that Gibbs had done a great job in that draft because Rogers's coverage skills were outstanding. He was always around the ball...and he always seemed to drop them.

Take the first game of this season, for example. With the Redskins offense still trying to get a grip on Zorn's west coast offense, the Redskins defense stepped up and held the defending champs to just 16-points. And, Eli Manning was very generous. It's just that Rogers was equally generous when he let two of Manning's gifts hit the turf after they had hit his hands. Two more interceptions of Manning passes were dropped by other players.

Redskins 24 - Cards 17
So forgive Skins fans for dreaming what it would have been like if Rogers could catch. Well, yesterday we got a glimpse of what it could be like. In the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 17 each, Rogers made an incredibly athletic play to make an interception and then got up and ran it 42-yards to the Cards 15-yard line.

Two plays later Campbell passed to Moss for the TD that put them ahead for good.

On the Skins next possession with 9:55 left in the game and a seven-point lead, Campbell scrambled to his right, saw rookie wide receiver Devin Thomas all alone, fired a strike on the run and watched as Thomas jogged 68-yards for a game-icing TD. Unfortunately, the play was called back for unnecessary roughness. What happened? Well, with the play still live, with Campbell still scrambling with the ball in his hand, right tackle Stephon Heyer blocked the Cards' defensive end too hard.

I am not kidding. No, he did not hit him high while another player hit him low; that would be a penalty. No, he did not hit him in the face or head; that would be a penalty. No, he did not hit him in the back; that would be a penalty. Heyer hit the DE in the chest and knocked him to the ground. In the old days in the NFL (by which I mean as old as two days ago and probably far into the future) that was called blocking.

What's next? If a ball carrier gets tackled hard, will the tackler be penalized? Will we flag a guy who runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash for running too fast? Remember the game against Green Bay a few years ago when Cooley got mauled at the line of scrimmage, shook the defender who fell to the ground, ran across the width of the field and then caught a pass only to be called back for offensive pass interference? Huh? The ball was still in the QB's hand long after Cooley shook the defender. Since when is it a penalty to hand check a defender who tries to jam you at the line of scrimmage? That negated a huge play for the Skins and turned a win into a loss.

It seems to me that NFL refereeing has gotten extremely bad in the past four years. I've said it before: Every play should be reviewable whether a flag is thrown or not. Give coaches ten challenges per game. The short season makes every call crucial.

What I Expect this Season?
In my shortened preview I said the success of this season depends on how fast Zorn learns his job because this is a playoff team that had gotten very healthy and deep. Zorn did not make me comfortable, though, with the way he handled the clock at the end of the Giants game. He had not earned my confidence. He was behaving like a QB coach when the Skins needed a Head Coach and there was too much uncertainty for me to make a prediction.

One thing happened to change my opinion about Zorn: Jason Campbell said before the Saints game that he talked with Zorn and told him to trust him. Zorn agreed that he would let go of micro-managing Campbell a little and that they would try to trust each other more. The Redskins offense has looked like a world-beater ever since.

As Peter King said, they have the best skill players in the division, and they have not even gotten their three second-round-pick rookies into the game plan yet (except for Thomas's called-back TD).

They have tremendous depth on offense. Whether it is Sports Illustrated's best back-up QB in the NFL, or the multiple receivers and running backs, they are extremely talented. When RB Marcus Mason, who led the NFL in rushing yards this preseason, and WR Billy McMullen, who led the team in preseason catches (20), were both looking for work after the Redskins final cuts, you know the Skins have talent.

Add to that the exceptional depth on the O-line and this is a potentially powerful offense. RT Stephon Heyer left the game for a while yesterday with an injury and Jon Jansen came off the bench to replace him. Jansen would be a starting LT, the most important tackle position, for most teams in the NFL, but in DC he is the second-string RT.

Lost in much of the discussion about the Skins playoff runs over the past few years was the fact it was their defense that led them there each year. Gregg Williams had a top-ten defense for most of his tenure as defensive coordinator, and that was true last year despite multiple injuries. The Redskins offense, especially the passing game, was along for the ride. Only the smash-mouth running game made a serious contribution.

With all of the coaching changes this offseason, Snyder & Co kept the philosophy on defense steady by replacing Williams with Blache as defensive coordinator. Blache and Williams had been together for several years and they shared the same approach. This year Blache gets Rocky McIntosh, Carlos Rogers, Shawn Springs and Marcus Washington back. He gets a talented young safety in Landry with a year of experience under his belt who comes into the season with tremendous confidence after a great playoff game against Seattle in his rookie year. He gets a very good rookie safety in Chris Horton, who was the NFL defensive player of the week last week with two picks and a fumble recovery in his first NFL start. He gets a former NFL defensive player of the year in Jason Taylor, who knocked down three passes at the line of scrimmage yesterday. As good as the Skins D was over the past four years, it should be even better this year.

The football season is short. NFL teams can get buried fast. It may sound crazy, but the Redskins season is probably going to be determined by what they do over their next two games. Both are division games on the road—at Dallas this week, and at Philly next. If it seems unfair for the Skins enter the season with a new head coach and have to play three division opponents in their first five games, then it is monumentally unfair for all three to be on the road. The Redskins schedule looks like one that Jerry Jones and the Mara/Tisch families would create.

If they come out of these next two games with a split, they will be 3 - 2 and sitting pretty for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, they will have to play the Dallas game without Jason Taylor, who is only on the team because they lost Philip Daniels for the season. Still the depth is strong and Evans and Wilson should do a decent job there. If they sweep the next two they will win the NFC East—the toughest division in the NFL (8 - 0 against non-NFC East opponents so far). If they lose the next two, then they will have to sweep all three home division games at the end of the year, which will not be easy.

One thing is certain: their offense is going to be much better in the second half than the first, but it is already off to a great start. Coupled with an outstanding defense and led by a coach that looks like he “gets it,” and I have high hopes today.

Prediction: 11 - 5
NFC East champs

I'll have a better idea of a playoff prediction as we get closer.


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