The more things change, the more they stay the same. I can recall writing this article about this time the last couple years and thinking, "This year it feels different...this year it all seems to point to improvement and progress." Cue the festival of absurdity that ensued after the opening kickoff each season.
I can honestly say that once again, my prevailing thought this May is that, "This year it feels different...this year it all seems to point to improvement and progress."
I thought that instead of jumping to the conclusion I seem to get to rather quickly each summer, I would just lay out a host of observations and we could decide collectively if this all adds up to the offseason that we actually set ourselves up for improvement and progress.
Ten Yard Fight
1) Competition up and down the roster - I figured I would lead off with the one I most recently wrote about, since it sparked such a firestorm of debate. To frame my point up succinctly: No, we do not have Pro Bowlers battling it out at each position, but we do have the sense that the new coaching regime will have zero reservations starting the best player come September. While I am hard-pressed to argue that previous coaches refrained from starting the best player, I have no problem arguing that certain positions were less than competitive in training camps. Specifically, running back and wide receiver are two spots where a lack of legitimate competition in July and August have left us either without a reliable cadre of starters or without any quality depth. That looks to be different this offseason.
2) Fred Davis is already having a great offseason - I had a chance to talk to Brian Mitchell the other night on the set of Burgundy and Gold Magazine and on a break that followed a discussion of our wide receivers, I asked him if he thought Kyle Shanahan was going to get Cooley and Davis on the field together a lot. As some of you know, Donovan McNabb is his cousin. He told me that he spoke to Donovan on the phone the other day and McNabb told him that Fred Davis is a beast. He said that McNabb believes if Davis can learn the playbook by August, it will be damn near impossible to keep him off the field. I recall watching Davis in practice last summer and noting that he appeared to be 7 feet tall on the field...a man among boys. I think Cooley is still a factor obviously, but if Davis continues developing at his current pace, he could be a real difference maker this season.
3) Selvish Capers and Erik Cook are likely to be linemen in this town for a long time - I know I am not the first to jump on the Capers bandwagon around here. Rebuilding the offensive line has ostensibly been a priority this offseason, thank God. Capers dropped like a rock to the bottom of the draft after faltering at the Senior Bowl and the Combine (in the eyes of NFL GM's that is.) He is a converted tight end that should flourish once they add some strength and footwork to his game. The selections of Capers and Cook inspire confidence in me because of who made the selections. I am ecstatic to see the Shanahans get a pair of lineman out of this draft that they think can play at the NFL level. You can't rebuild an offensive line all at once, so adding a top 5 Tackle and a couple guys that will have the chance to grow and develop under this coaching staff is a huge step forward in Phase One of the plan.
4) Guys are working hard in the weight room that need to be working hard in the weight room - This is kind of a softball observation since a lot of guys are paid to be around the weight room in the offseason. But aside from the notable absence of Haynesworth, all reports indicate that participation in Shanahan's offseason program is very high. LaRon Landry looks like a tank. Devin Thomas also looks cut out of stone. We'll see how this translates to the field come September, but I always get a kick out of seeing a weight room full of our favorite players. It is better than reading about them getting arrested or accused of outrageous acts.
5) Haynesworth is a huge distraction - I didn't say they would all be positive. I can't tell you how insulting it at least seems that a guy would get paid tens of millions of dollars and go off on his own. Who among us would cash that check from an employer and tell them that despite their request to stay local, you were going to go work out on your own? It just strikes me as unbelievably pathetic on his part. He had issues in Tennessee off the field before he came here (legal entanglements documented here since he signed.) He had issues on the field in Tennessee before he came here (stepping on Gurode's head.) Whether or not they tried to trade this guy, it is becoming more and more likely he will be lining up for the Skins on Sundays in 2010. Here's hoping he plays with the same nastiness and disruptiveness that he has displayed in the last couple months.
6) There will be another punt returner this season - I know I bashed ARE all last year but the possibility that he was not necessarily the problem does exist. It is not my theory, but come September, we will have some hard evidence to process on the matter. Our focus on punt returning specifically has become somewhat of an obsession. It was the kind of situation that snowballed, with each forgettable return further underlining what was clearly a weakness on our squad. Without a returning veteran like ARE coming back to lay claim to the punt return job, we should see a spirited competition between a few players who might be looking to make the team based on their ability to impact special teams. This is a position that could benefit greatly by competition.
7) Upgraded the QB, locked up the Left Tackle spot, and solidified the RB position - The combination of these moves cannot be understated. Our woeful offensive production the last few years begged for these kinds of moves. Again, at RB, it is not like we have a trio of All-World players duking it out. But if you believe that each of those veterans can, when healthy, carry the load, then I think we can all agree that we stand in a far better position than we did a year ago. Trent Williams has to prove it in practice and he has to show he can handle the elite pass rushers in our division. Donovan McNabb has to show he can stay healthy and exhibit the leadership necessary to right the ship. So there are some question marks still, but can you point to a recent offseason where these three areas were all solidified like this? It's strong...to quite srong.
8) Installing a defensive scheme that will lead to more turnovers - Our pass rush was much improved last season but our turnover totals were still near the bottom of the league. Let's be fair...I have never heard a Defensive Coordinator address reporters and say, "You know what, turnovers don't mean squat. We simply don't care about them and we are not going to specifically address that area of our defense." But Jim Haslett is making substantial scheme changes to a defensive unit that has been the strength of the team for years. I don't take this lightly, and I don't think Shanahan and Allen do either. Today, I am willing to bet we get more turnovers next year than we did last year. Let me be the first to admit I would have lost that bet a number of times in the last 10 years.
9) The one under-the-radar free agent signing I am most excited about watching this summer: Ryan Torain - Mike Shanahan drafted this guy in the 5th round of the 2008 draft, so there is the 5th round sleeper running back I wanted out of Shanny this year (well, kind of.) He missed three months with a fractured elbow that (red flag #1.) He was buried on the depth chart in Denver but I had my eye on him all that year. As some of you know, I write the Fantasy Mailbag over at SBNation.com and when people ask me about under the radar players, I really try to unearth a guy who is under the radar. I thought Torain was more than capable of playing at a high level in the NFL but he was simply too far down in the pecking order to be a huge fantasy contributor unless multiple injuries occurred. Sure enough, both Andre Hall and Michael Pittman were lost for the season, and Torain found himself starting a game late in the season against the Cleveland Browns. I quickly made him my Waiver Wire pickup of the week and I let the world know I had stashed him on my roster a couple weeks prior to him getting his chance (I felt so smart, I should have known what was coming.) He went gangbusters on the Browns, quickly rattling off 68 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. I was changing my shorts after every three carries. Then it happened--on a tackle at the end of the 2nd quarter, he suffered a knee injury that turned out to be a torn ACL. So he has a history of injuries...like almost every running back out there. Our backfield is getting rather crowded but Torain is a guy I am very intrigued by and I suspect he will be given a long, hard look by the offensive coaching staff. As far as backup running backs go, I would put him in the tier above Quinton Ganther and probably Rock Cartwright. We shall see.
10) The coach is in charge - Didn't we say this about Zorn at some point before everything seemed to implode around him pretty early on last year? Zorn lost control fast and the lasting image of his lost control was Clinton Portis allegedly going over his head and dealing directly with Snyder. The Country Club atmosphere at Redskins Park in recent years came complete with an open door policy to the owner's suite--for some players. Is there anyone out there who thinks Mike Shanahan is going to tolerate players going over him? Is there anyone out there who thinks that any players from a 4-12 team won't get cut for that kind of gross insubordination? I think the quick fix was Snyder shutting that door, to eliminate the temptation altogether.
You all know as well as me that we could list 50 of these kinds of observations. I am interested in hearing yours, hearing where you agree and disagree with mine, and taking your temperature at the beginning of May on what this all means.