One of the many solid relationships SB Nation has cultured over the years includes the well-knowledged guys over at Football Outsiders. They correctly nailed the Cowboys demise last year while pretty much all the major media had the 'Girls as NFC Champions. I was able to get my paws on advanced copy of the 2011 Almanac, which they were still making edits to through pre-season. Let me preface this that when I was in Vegas this past July, I bet on the under Redskins 6.5 wins. After all the roster changes and quality play this pre-season, to say I'm nervous about the bet is an understatement. I was a bit surprised to see the Football Outsiders so bearish on the Skins predicting they win 5.6 games in 2011.
Mike Tanier, who writes for FO, ESPN.com, and NYTimes, answered my questions regarding the grim outlook. (From his tone, it sounds like he took offense to my questions, which was not at all the case or my intention).
Kevin: The Redskins running game was absolutely atrocious last year on so many levels (24th ranked but felt like 324th ranked). Portis was on IR early, Torain was banged up often, and the interior OLine was laughable. The Skins have made huge upgrades all around and that is evident with the Redskins dominating the time of possession in their pre-season matchups vs the 1s and having multiple 50+ yard rushes. The running game has a trickle affect on the passing game and keeping Skins defense off the field...so how can a stout running game with quality rushers like Hightower, Helu, and Torain not open it up for this offense?
MIKE TANIER: Let me preface this by saying that I am getting a lot of criticism, in general, from Redskins fans for that chapter. There is obviously a sense of optimism among fans, which is great, because there is nothing worse than pessimism at the start of the season when you are a fan. That being said, it is my job to take a league-wide perspective and also a long-term, rational approach, both as a writer and interpreter of statistics.
That makes it hard to answer a question like this one, because "huge upgrades" have been assumed, and they just have not happened. I suppose Chris Chester is an upgrade. Tim Hightower is an upgrade, and technically a "quality rusher." The Redskins certainly have the ingredients to run the ball better than they did last year, when a lot of third-stringers were getting carries. I think we are a long way from declaring this a "stout" running game that can in turn open things up for the passing game. Did the Cardinals have a stout running game with Hightower? Did Chris Chester make the Pro Bowl a bunch of times when I was not looking?
Redskins fans have taken a lot of encouragement out of the early preseason games. But again, they are preseason games.
Kevin: Shanahan's offense is all about good rhythm and taking what the offense gives you. That has been evident in the first 3 pre-season games where Beck and Grossman simply are asked to play mistake free football. They don't need to be Peyton Manning. Isn't it fair to say Grossman and Beck's reputation with prior teams is what brings down their respect/value (like when Plummer first went to DEN and eventually went to AFC championship)? They've shown they can run the Shanahans offense at a decent level going into year two (Beck) and three (Grossman).
MIKE TANIER: Once again, Beck and Grossman have demonstrated some basic amount of competence in meaningless games against opponents who did not gameplan for them. They did not "show that they can run Shanahan's offense" in any meaningful way. Beck threw 27 passes in the first three games, for heaven's sake.
It is very fair to say that Grossman and Beck's reputation with prior teams is what brings down their respect and value. That's how we evaluate players, right? On how they performed in the past? The Jake Plummer argument is akin to the "They Laughed at Einstein" argument. You know, people may laugh at my scientific theory that the earth is Twizzler shaped, but they laughed at Einstein too, so that must mean we are both geniuses. We are really in "prove the negative" territory here. It's not my job to provide evidence that Grossman and Beck are not NFL starters: they have track records. It is up to their supporters to provide evidence that they are. What we have are some preseason games and a comparison to a (better than both of them) quarterback from years ago.
Let's put it this way. Say the Eagles cut Michael Vick and Vince Young and brought A.J. Feeley back to compete with Mike Kafka. Would you think that was an awful, potentially crippling quarterback situation, or would you think "Gee, Andy Reid knows how to develop quarterbacks, and they looked okay in the preseason, so really we shouldn't judge these quarterbacks on the fact that they never did anything to deserve their current opportunity." No, you would laugh at the Eagles. And at least Kafka is young.
Kevin: The Redskins defense up the middle was horrid as your stat highlighted: "When opponents ran the ball out of spread sets with three or more wide receivers, Washington allowed a 21.6% DVOA (31st in the NFL) and 5.78 yards per carry (32nd)." The additions of Cofield, Bowen, and Kerrigan no doubt about it improve that greatly. With that hole fixed and Atogwe replacing a horrible FS tackler in Kareem More, what am I missing here with such a grim outlook?
MIKE TANIER: Cofield and Bowen are solid, not spectacular, players, and Kerrigan is an outside pass rusher who will have minimal impact on runs up the middle. The upgrades move the Redskins from 31st to 20th, or even 16th. These upgrades are similar to the ones you spoke of on offense: they help to a degree, but they don't make the Redskins a playoff team, nor do they really elevate the Redskins past their division competition.
Really, the projection is highly based on the quarterback situation. And a lot is riding on "Shanahan Magic" in that quarterback situation. Recent evidence suggests that Shanahan magic, if it ever existed, may not work anymore.
Well, there you have it. I disagree on Kerrigan having minimal impact on runs up the middle because we've already seen him tackle RBs multiple times behind the line of scrimmage - up the middle.