Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The 2008 Season Post Mortem

First let me begin by taking the heat for making a statement that was wrong. On September 22, 2008 when the Redskins had a record of 2 – 1, I posted the following prediction:

“…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 they come out of these next two games with a split, they will be 3 - 2 and sitting pretty for a playoff spot…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).”

You know the outcome. The Redskins did sweep Dallas and Philadelphia on the road, but not only did they fail to win the division, they could not even grab a wildcard spot. Why not? It starts at the top. It always does.

The Redskins organization has serious problems. Dan Snyder is a Redskins fan, which I like, but like many people who are successful in one sphere, he thinks he can be successful in any sphere. To be fair, some people can pull that off. And if all you care about are the Redskins’ cash flow statements, Snyder is pulling it off. I should know because Snyder perennially sucks several thousand dollars out of my accounts despite putting an inferior product on the field in most years. It’s just that Snyder is not one of the people who can pull it off in the one place that matters to Redskins fans: championships. He thinks he needs little help in building a winning football franchise. And he is wrong.

Snyder was smart to bring Joe Gibbs back and give him free reign over the organization. Snyder was such a fan you could almost hear him calling Joe “Mr. Gibbs” in private. Vinny Cerrato, the man putatively in charge of personnel decisions, was wide eyed around Gibbs. Gibbs brought respectability back to the franchise in part because he pushed Snyder and his cronies to the sideline.

Team Snyder swore they learned from Gibbs and wouldn’t repeat their past mistakes such as dismantling the team at the end of each season and disrupting the stability necessary for success. Four years of continuity resulted in two playoff appearances in the past three years and nearly another trip to the Super Bowl in 2005. But, when Gibbs left unexpectedly, team Snyder came back with all of their bad habits and dismantled almost all of Gibbs’s coaching team. The head coaching job should have gone to Gregg Williams, and Al Saunders should have stayed on as offensive coordinator this year. Jason Campbell would have known Saunders’ offense by now.

In the one area where there was some continuity, the Redskins once again excelled. Williams’ defenses were always outstanding and Defensive Coordinator Greg Blache, who was Williams’ assistant for the prior four years, maintained that system and personnel. The Redskins were the second toughest team to score on in the NFC next to the Giants and the Giants were only better by two points. Until the last game, the Skins were the only team in the NFL that did not give up twenty-five points in any game. Teams with defenses this good are almost always in the playoffs and almost always go far in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Skins offense did not score at least twenty-five points in any of its last eight games; not since it beat Detroit 25 - 17. Speaking of the winless Detroit Lions, the Lions scored more points than the Redskins in 2008.

If the Skins could have managed 25 points in each of their last eight games, they would have finished 13 – 3. Ironically, their only loss in that stretch would have been in the last game of the year against the 49ers, but they would have had home field advantage all locked up by then anyway.

Had they managed to score the same 21-points per game that Gibbs was repeatedly criticized for in 2007 on—the Redskins official message board—they would have finished 10 – 6 and in the playoffs. More than likely they would have won the 49er game too, because the game would have mattered, and they would have finished 11-5. They also would have split the season series with the Giants and finished with the same overall record as the Giants, but with a better division record they would have won the Division title. So, why was there a lack of continuity, especially on offense?

Well, what front office in its right mind would hire its assistant coaches before it hired a head coach? It’s a rhetorical question. No head coach worth a dime is going to want to coach a team when he cannot pick his assistants. The HC is responsible for everything that happens on the field and in the locker room, and responsibility without authority is just stress. What front office does something like that? One that thinks it can do it all, or one that does not care. I do not think team Snyder is one of the latter. I think it wants to win, but it is just incompetent, and incompetent front offices tend to hire incompetent coaches.

Zorn’s clock management, decisions under pressure, and official challenges of bad calls were pathetic. He only threw the red challenge flag about six times this year and lost all but one. The one win: Against the Ravens after he had already lost a challenge, he threw the flag with about six minutes left in the game to argue for two yards at mid field. When a coach wins both challenges, he will get to keep one of them. If he loses at least one challenge, he only gets two for the entire game. That Zorn would give up his last challenge with six-minutes left in a close game for two yards of field position near the 50-yard line—after a first down mind you—is just terrible.

In the opener against the Giants, deep in Giants territory, in field goal range with a few minutes left in the game, he made the decision to go for a first down on fourth and long. They were down by nine points at the time and needed both a field goal and a touchdown to win the game. My kids’ high school coaches would have known that he had to kick the field goal there to preserve any chance for a victory. I would be writing the same thing today even if they scored a touchdown there. You have to play the odds, but I do not believe that Zorn even understood the odds.

How good were the Skins last year? They beat the Cowboys on the road and could have swept them. They swept the Eagles. They held the emotional Giants to sixteen points on opening night in the Meadowlands—the night they celebrated their Super Bowl victory. They beat the NFC champions and representative in last year’s Super Bowl—the Cards. That, my friends, is a playoff-caliber team. Joe Gibbs handed Snyder a perennial playoff contender.

But, they lost to the then-winless Rams (two wins for the year), the 1-11-1 Bengals, and the then-six win and nine loss 49ers. That is coaching. A good coach with as much talent as the Redskins had last year would have found a way to win those three games.

It was particularly frustrating in the Bengals loss to watch Zorn bench a healthy Clinton Portis when the Skins were attempting to score the tying touchdown in the third quarter with a first-and-goal from the one-yard line. The Skins were very much in the playoff hunt at the time. A win would have probably secured a spot in the playoffs. On Mike Sellers’ second attempt to punch it in from the one, he fumbled, and the Skins did not score again after that. I love Mike Clinton Portis's blocker, which is his normal role. He had no business getting the ball there. Zorn benched Portis because Portis was critical of him in the week before that game. Way to punish the team and the fans, Jim.

Again, that is coaching, not lack of talent. But in many ways I am being unfair to Zorn. Snyder thrust Zorn into a role for which he was clearly not ready. I am not sure that he is ready now after he has sixteen games under his belt. If Zorn can be faulted, it is in not being self-aware enough to reject Snyder's offer.

But, cheer up Skins fans. This post mortem was written at the darkest hour last year and never posted on Counter Trey until now. The 2009 season is looking brighter. I liked what I saw in the preseason game against the Patriots, and the Skins defense is going to be beastly this year. That alone may be worth the price of admission. Now, if only coach Zorn can get out of his own way…Stay tuned.


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