The Trials and Tribulations of the Washington Redskins

by Benjamin Domenech on 11:44 pm October 25, 2009

Amid all the hatred and finger-pointing swirling around about the 2-4 Washington Redskins, it seemed worthwhile to share a few thoughts before I head out to FedEx for the Monday Night game against the Eagles tomorrow night, where the Redskins will showcase a new (decrepit) offensive playcaller and attempt to keep add to the positive side of a 3-1 record against the Eagles over the past two years.

Disaster is waiting in the wings. So let’s frame things for a moment.

For the six years prior to Dan Snyder owning the team, the Redskins averaged 6 wins.

Under him, they’ve averaged a game and a half better, at 7.6.

In those prior six years, their average Offensive ranking was 16, their average Defensive ranking 20 (both points, not yards — I personally think yards deceive, because it’s points that really matter).

In ten years under Snyder, their average Offensive ranking was 21, their average Defensive rating 15.

In other words, all that’s happened is that the units have flipped. One side got better, the other side worse. The six years prior to Snyder’s arrival had a better offense than we remember — an average offense — and the past ten years they’ve had a defense ranked in the top ten half of the years he’s owned the team (six times if you measure it by yards, but again, I don’t).

This year, the Redskins have an Offense ranked 29th in points scored, 24th in yards. They have a Defense ranked 6th in points allowed and 7th in yards allowed.

In other words: as bad as it seems, this is really par for the course: a below average Offense has become a terrible one, and a Defense has remained a top ten entity.

A top ten defense coupled with a terrible offense makes for a solidly below average team. This is all the more frustrating when you consider that the defense is primarily composed of free agents (only four out of eleven current starters were drafted by the team), while the reverse is true of the offense, a majority of which was drafted by the team in the person of Mr. Vinny Cerrato, a yes-man caricature of a disastrous front office man, whose incoherent style has translated to a misbegotten mashup of players, none of whom fit the offensive scheme the Redskins currently run.

The lesson of the past few years, as told via the Worldwide Leader and countless commentators, is that Defense Wins Championships. This is actually, upon further inspection, a lie — the Baltimore Ravens of old are the exception that proves the rule. There are plenty of examples of top ten defenses, including the Redskins teams of the past decade, that have missed the playoffs or made no mark in them. The truth is that you can’t win without a defense — that Balance Wins Championships. A top flight offense without a capable defense is chewy fodder for better teams in January, but everyone needs to be able to manage the clock, control possession, and score points.

So how do you fix this terrible offense? There are two solutions, both of which the Redskins, in my opinion, are likely to follow: a new scheme (which means a new head coach), and a new front office (which means a new GM).

Let’s take the front office first. This week has, for Redskins fandom, been primarily focused on the injury to left tackle Chris Samuels. Arguably the best and most consistent Redskins player of the past decade, Samuels has consistently faced some of the best attacking talent in the NFL in recent years. What is amazing, if you pause to consider it, is the list of Redskins quarterbacks he’s protected in that time.

  • Brad Johnson
  • Jeff George
  • Todd Husak
  • Tony Banks
  • Kent Graham
  • Shane Matthews
  • Danny Wuerffel
  • Patrick Ramsey
  • Tim Hasselbeck
  • Rob Johnson
  • Gibran Hamdan
  • Mark Brunell
  • Jason Campbell
  • Todd Collins

There’s something you’ll notice about this list, and it’s not good: only two of these quarterbacks could ever have been considered in the top tier of passers in the league, and only one of them — Johnson — had his best season in a Redskins uniform (in 1999, Johnson threw for 4,005 yards, 24 TDs, 13 INTs, and a 60.9% completion percentage). The next best single season is the veteran Brunell’s, in 2005, when he threw for 3,050 yards, 23 TDs, and 10 INTs — a shadow of his former self, but good enough in a run heavy offense. Both, as you might expect, were playoff years.

There’s something else you may notice here: very few if any of these quarterbacks have the same skillset or similar talents. A consistent offense demands a consistent passer. While Campbell has proven himself to be an acceptable if limited pro-caliber passer in the past two seasons, the rest of these players are backup quality at best. Consistency demands a signal caller who has the capability to make a variety of throws, limit turnovers, lead a two minute drive, and force defenses to stay honest. Surveying the league, this can be said to be true of, by my count, 22 out of 32 franchises — the exceptions being the Raiders, Bills, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Jets, Lions, Browns, Niners, Titans and yes, the Redskins.

Collectively, no team in this grouping has more than three wins, several are winless, and most are at the bottom of their divisions. Only two teams with terrible records — the winless Rams with an injured Marc Bulger, and the one win Chiefs with an injured Matt Cassel — have quarterbacks who have proven themselves to be in the top tier of quarterbacks in the NFL in the recent past.

Under Snyder, the Redskins desperately need someone who can build, run, and sustain an offense. That means adopting a mentality, drafting players who fit that mentality, and going from there. Most importantly, it means having a quarterback who fits your system: there’s a perfect example of system-shock in the circumstances in Chicago, where Jay Cutler’s inability to adapt to Ron Turner’s offense is proving disastrous, versus those in Denver, where the previously mediocre Kyle Orton has shown himself to be an excellent fit in Josh McDaniels’ system.

It does not require years of effort to build a consistent above-average offense with acceptable personnel. One need not look at the Colts, Patriots, Eagles or Saints as the model here: instead, look at a team like Houston. The Texans have built a showstopping offense around the solid Matt Schaub (seeing Schaub several times at UVA, I always believed he’d be an excellent quarterback at the pro level, but even I am amazed at his skill at this point in his relatively young career), a field-stretching receiver, a relatively light but agile line, and a quick athletic scatback in Steve Slaton.

These pieces fit together well, after being assembled in essentially three years, in ways that contrast notably with the schizophrenic pursuits of the Redskins — a team which has shifted from Norv Turner’s Dallas attack, to Martyball, to Fun-and-Gun, to Gibbs’ Smashmouth 2.0, to Al Saunders, to a hybrid West Coast attack all in less than a decade. Inconsistent offensive schemes make for inconsistent offensive drafts, and while the Redskins’ defensive scheme is for the most part unchanged, and the consistency there has proved rewarding, the back and forth nature of the demands and requirements of the offense has resulted in a soup of ridiculously unmatched talent, with an aging offensive line nearly bereft of depth and aging skill players backed up by a mix of mediocrity and outright busts.

The front office has to take the blame for this circumstance, and in this team’s arrangement, that translates to the aforementioned Cerrato. Cerrato is not the worst personnel head in the NFL, and he deserves credit for his strong, defense-focused first round picks — he ignored pleas from the fanbase in taking Sean Taylor over Kellen Winslow, Carlos Rogers over Mike Williams — none of whom were embarrassing busts (which cannot be said of nearly any team in the NFL over the past several years). The worst first round pick arguably happened in the one year he was absent (Rod Gardner). That said, Cerrato fails not on the big questions, but on countless little ones — his drafts have failed to produce the cheap raw talent in the middle rounds that grows into starting caliber players.

In my opinion, entirely from the outside, Cerrato now understands his destiny is tied to Coach Jim Zorn’s. His recent statement of support for the coach is just the last domino in a long chain of events — particularly Cerrato’s notable failures in the 2006 free agent period and the 2008 draft, both of which had wide-ranging ramifications for the franchise — which has put his head in the stocks. If this season doesn’t turn around for the Redskins — and a turnaround, ridiculously unlikely at this point, would mean a better than .500 season — it is altogether too convenient for Snyder to send a signal to the fans by dismissing both Zorn and Cerrato, and starting anew: a new scheme, and a new front office to fuel it.

Snyder is not an awful owner. There are clearly worse ones in the league — in my opinion, I’ll always favor an owner who’s willing to take the money gained on a team and re-invest it, as opposed to one happy to stand pat with below average personnel and a system proven not to work — and Snyder is clearly a fan of the franchise, not merely a money-grubbing businessman looking to benefit himself. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Snyder has many of the same weaknesses as Jerry Jones in Dallas: a tendency to meddle, to waste money on subpar or over-the-hill talent (Dallas tends to overspend for young while Washington overspends for old — the Cowboys trade a third round pick for Drew Henson and hands him $3.5 million guaranteed without playing a down, the Redskins trade a second and sixth round pick for Jason Taylor), and to make excessively petty moves. Snyder has more playoff wins in his tenure than Jones, of course — but otherwise, their teams are remarkably similar: they make a great deal of money for their owners, they dominate the offseasons, and their fans are watching someone else in January.

If Snyder truly wants to change that, he’ll hand the reins of the front-office to a proven GM — there are a solid five or six names in the market this coming year — who will select and approve a proven offensive-minded head coach, and allow him the time to build, run, and sustain that offense. That’s the only way you’ll achieve balance on this team, and in my opinion, it’s the only way the Redskins will ever be a real contender.

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