As the Washington Redskins embark today on their 80th season, there is an odd mix of excitement and caution in the air. While Skins fans are ecstatic about the possibility of finally finding that elusive franchise quarterback (with the potential to be the even rarer elusive elusive franchise quarterback), they also seem reluctant to some degree to believe that this team, this year can contend.
Lofty expectations are nothing new for the Redskins this time of year. As the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell put it recently in a column,
"The Redskins’ worst enemy in most of the last 20 years has not been any one team on their schedule, but the invisible adversary that always hovers over a franchise that is a regional obsession: excessive expectations."
Now, I don’t particularly agree with this statement. I would say these "excessive expectations" were more of a product the Redskins’ biggest problem rather than the problem itself. Year after year, owner Daniel Snyder did everything he could to make the team competitive in the short run. He was the one who fueled our expectations by signing the biggest free agents and making headlining trades that mortgaged the future in favor of the now. There was a new injection of players and excitement every year that promised this was the year they were going to turn the corner. Danny Boy would annually do just enough to get his fans pumped, move tons of new player jerseys and quietly increase his fortune without the product on the field ever improving significantly.
Refusing to ever truly rebuild, they fluctuated between a couple games under .500 to a couple games over, even sneaking in the playoff a few times, for the first decade of Snyder’s regime until finally bottoming out at 4-12 in 2009 under the regrettable Jim Zorn era. Since then the franchise has seemed to be moving in the right direction. After that season, they hired Mike Shanahan as head coach and Bruce Allen as general manager. They have mostly stopped getting into the big free agent bidding wars and trading draft picks away. They have brought in younger players and have found a few talented gems among them. All signs indicate that they are now trying to build the team the right way.
Most view this rebuild as still ongoing and do not expect much of the Redskins this season. Even most Redskins fans are already conceding that a four to six win season seems likely. They won five games last year, are starting a rookie quarterback, have big questions on the offensive line and in the secondary and have a lack of proven playmakers at the skill positions. So, as Redskins fans, we should expect that this season will be another step in building for the future, enjoy watching RG3 and the young players grow and get ready to (hopefully) compete in 2013, right?
I respectfully disagree.
I am very confident about the prospects of this year’s Redskins team. I think they will win at least nine games and be in the thick of the playoff hunt at year end. Now, there are variables that are impossible to predict like injuries, how much players progressed or regressed from last year to this year, and straight dumb luck that play a big part in every team’s ultimate success or failure, but here are just a few reasons why it’s not crazy for us Skins fans to think that better days may indeed be in our imminent future.
1. Robert Griffin III: No surprise here. The hopes of the Burgundy and Gold for the coming years are tied to the performance of our new rookie quarterback from Baylor. He comes into the NFL with a combination of passing and athletic ability that is unmatched in the league today, with the one possible exception of Mike Vick.
It takes a lot more than physical gifts though to make an elite quarterback at the professional level. I thought Sports Guy Bill Simmons expressed this superbly this week when he wrote, "I believe the quarterback position comes down to 50 percent charisma/personality/leadership/intelligence/coolness-under-pressure, 25 percent hard work and 25 percent talent." (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8347893/the-new-quarterbacks-league)
Assuming these criterions, what do we know about RGIII after three preseason games? Talent? Off the charts. Intelligence? (Ranked 7th in high school class, graduated from Baylor in three years with a degree in political science with a 3.67 GPA) Check. From some of his teammates quotes about him in the preseason, (http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/09/04/josh-morgan-rg3-is-fast-as-vick-smart-as-brady-throws-like-peyton/) (http://www.brunoboys.net/entry/redskins-teammates-impressed-with-rgiii/) he seems to also have some of the charisma and leadership too. With the speed he is picking up the Shanahan offense and his past academic achievements, it can be safely assumed that he is not adverse to hard work either.
As far as his coolness under pressure, it is too early to be certain, but I was encouraged by certain things he showed us in his preseason games. In the second preseason game against Chicago, the Bears seemed intent on welcoming Bob to the big leagues. They weren’t afraid to send pressure and this led to Griffin taking several hits, as the hearts of Skins faithful everywhere skipped a beat each time. The scariest of these was the sack strip on him by defensive end Israel Idonije (side note: Are there any other country names that double as first names? Chad. That’s about it, right?). However, he brushed himself off after taking these early hits and played his best football as the game went on, later leading a drive deep into Chicago territory against a determined defense that ended in a field goal.
The next week, RGIII performed even better in the most hyped preseason game of recent memory in facing off against fellow highly touted rookie Andrew Luck. If the Bears game showed he could take a hit and keep his composure when things weren’t going his way, then the Colts game showed that he wasn’t afraid of the spotlight. With millions of eyes fixed on the first two picks of the last draft, he turned in an efficient performance, leading two touchdown drives and getting the better of his counterpart. This is drawn from an admittedly insanely small sample size, but I was impressed by Robert Griffin III’s poise, confidence, and unrattle-ability under pressure in the preseason. We won’t know for some time whether young Mr. Griffin has what it takes to become one of those few "it" quarterbacks, but I think these insights into his "RGMen-tal-i-3" bode well for the future.
2. Vegas Likes the Skins: When in doubt, a good place to turn to are the people who do this for a living. There are some strong indicators that at least some of these "sharps" think the Redskins are better than their current perception would lead us to believe. For one, there is the line of today’s game to consider. I already went over why I like the Redskins over the Saints in my Week One picks (http://daodesam.blogspot.com/2012/09/nfl-season-2012-week-one-i-ching-picks.html), but the movement of the line is showing that lots of people are also leaning toward the Skins. The spread for the game opened with the Saints being favored by 11 points. Today, the line at most gambling institutions is around eight to nine points, and is as low as seven some places. This points to a lot of action being placed on the heavy underdog Redskins.
There has also been some movement in betting on their season win total. Early in the preseason, casinos give a projected amount of wins for each team and the gambler can bet over or under this total. The Redskins was originally set at 6.5 wins, and stands there at most betting houses. However, the odds for betting over that total has shifted. When the lines were released back in May, you could have bet the over at +110 odds, meaning you would win $110 on a $100 bet. Today, the odds you’d get on the same bet are anywhere between -115 to -140, meaning you’d have to put up $115-140 to win $100. Both of these movements in the betting community regarding the Redskins indicate that a lot of people that know what they’re doing like the Redskins chances in 2012.
3. The Nature of the Beast: The parity of the NFL is what gives every team’s fans hope in the before the first ball is kicked. As the Colts showed last year, teams are so close in talent level that the loss of just one player (albeit a very important one) can turn a perennial playoff team into the worst in football. Every year, there are teams that unexpectedly rise and fall. The relative gap between the good and bad is smaller than any other major professional sports league. So to say that the Redskins are terrible or mediocre at best, and they definitely won’t make the playoffs is naïve and misinformed.
Last year, the Redskins weren’t as far off last year as most think. The Redskins offense was dead middle in the league in total yards at 16th, but ranked just 27th in offensive touchdowns. They were able to move the ball on almost every team they faced, but struggled to score when they got close, as evidenced by their second most field goal attempts in the league. They were last team to beat the Super Bowl champion Giants in Week 15, and they did all this with the dynamic duo of Rex Grossman and John Beck at quarterback. If Robert Griffin III is any upgrade at all over these two, which is hard to imagine him not despite being a rookie, then they should at least be able to add 2-3 wins based on that alone.
Boswell, in the Post article I cited before, bases most of his argument in tempering our 'excessive expectations' by pointing out that no number one or two overall drafted quarterback has ever led his team to even a .500 record. While this is true, there are some reasons to think that RGIII will be the exception. The first is that this is not the normal type of team drafting in the highest of slots. Before the rookie wage scale was implemented, trading the first or even second overall pick would have been unheard of because of the commitment to that player you would have to make financially, aside from whatever you gave up to acquire him. So, these highly drafted rookies historically ended up on really bad teams.
Furthermore, in today’s league, rookie quarterbacks have a much better chance to succeed than history would lead us to believe. While the first year quarterback taking his team to the postseason was almost unheard of for the greater part of NFL history, it has happened far more frequently in recent years. Andy Dalton did it last year, and Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlishberger also showed it was possible for a rookie to have success with a strong team around him. It is undeniable at this point that rookie passers come into the league more prepared and better able to contribute immediately than in our fathers' or grandfathers' NFL.
So despair not Redskins fan! For although the glory of a Super Bowl win may seem far on the horizon, this year's squad could be the best we have seen in many years. For the reasons listed above and more, wear your jersey with your head held high. Your Redskin hater friends and family will say what they will, but we have an improved defense that looks like a top ten unit, a coach with two Super Bowl rings that has had two years now to bring in his type of players and the most dynamic young quarterback to enter the league in years. To me, that's a lot to feel good about.