Luck can play a huge part to the success of any NFL team. Injuries to players often happen as a result of bad luck; a wrong step on a poor field, a quick plant where the cleats dig in and doesn't let the foot go, or just simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those team that can manage to stay relatively healthy often have better results on the field and in the W-L column.
Just as important as staying healthy is continuity. Having consistency amongst the players, coaches and schemes all play a major role in the success of a team, and this aspect of the game is something that often goes unnoticed by many when projecting how a team may or may not perform throughout the season.
In 2015, the Washington Redskins had both of these factors of the game go against them.
The injury bug bit the Redskins hard last season. On offense, starting left guard Shawn Lauvao went down early in week three with a lower leg injury and was placed on IR. Before his injury, Lauvao was playing at a very high level for the unit. His injury forced second-year pro Spencer Long to step in at left guard. Starting center Kory Lichtensteiger was lost two games later, although he was able to return, albeit ineffectively, for the wild card playoff game against the Packers. His loss to the lineup gave Josh LeRibeus a chance to show his talents at center, and the results were mixed. Injuries to tight ends Niles Paul(who was lost in the preseason), Logan Paulsen(toe surgery), and Derek Carrier(week 12 injury) affected both depth and special teams. Nagging injuries to DeSean Jackson limited the explosive playmaker to just eight and a half games last year, and this greatly affected what the offense could do in the vertical passing game.
Things were even worse on defense in 2015. Junior Galette, the explosive pass rusher who came to the Redskins during the offseason, was lost for all of 2015 before he could even take a snap in a game with a torn Achilles. Free agent corner Chris Culliver, who the team gave a hefty contract to that offseason, played in just six games because of a knee injury. Linebackers Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley were dinged up during the season and had 8 and 9 starts respectively. Defensive tackle Stephen Paea, who was expected to be a major contributor on the defensive line, played in just 11 games, with one start, as he battled nagging injuries. Duke Ihenacho, who was projected to be the starting strong safety, broke his hand in week 1 and was placed on season ending IR. DeAngelo Hall, who was making the permanent move from corner to safety, started off slow due to an Achillies injury from the offseason, and was also bothered by a toe injury during the season. Finally, free agent nose tackle Terrance Knighton was battling migraines throughout the first half of the season which limited his effectiveness early on.
Overall, luck was not on the Redskins' side.
The injuries certainly played a role in the continuity of the team, but they were not solely to blame. The poor play on the right side of the offensive line in 2014 prompted some drastic changes. Former starting right tackle Tyler Polumbus was not re-signed in 2015, and starting right guard Chris Chester was released. Second-year pro, and first-year starter, Morgan Moses stepped in at right tackle, and the fifth overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft, Brandon Scherff, was inserted at right guard. As previously mentioned, Spencer Long and Josh LeRibeus, both first time starters, stepped in at left guard and center, to give the Redskins a starting unit that had just one full-time starter(Trent Williams) from the previous season. Cohesion and continuity are very important to an offensive line, and this unit, under first-year offensive line coach Bill Callahan, had neither.
Now, throw in a brand new starting quarterback behind that young, inexperienced offensive line, and you have some potential issues. Kirk Cousins certainly had his growing pains early on. The running game couldn't get on track, with Alfred Morris, and rookie Matt Jones, and the passing game suffered early without Jackson and Paul. It's tough for a new quarterback to get on the same page with receivers he hasn't had a ton of reps with during the offseason - but Cousins eventually did just that, as he found his groove with Jordan Reed, Pierre Garçon and rookie Jamison Crowder. The continuity starting coming at just the right time during the second half of the season, and the Redskins offense start to click.
Cousins went on to set franchise records in passing yards and completion percentage in a season, while leading his team to a division title. Certainly not a case of too little, too late, but just imagine what the end result could have been with a little luck and some continuity.
The same situation arose on defense, although injuries played a more significant role. Galette's injury forced Trent Murphy to step in as the full time starting outside linebacker. Murphy was solid against the run, but didn't provide much of an impact as a pass rusher. Paea's nagging injuries gave way to Chris Baker seeing a more prominent role on defense, and Baker responded with a career year. At linebacker, the lack of true leadership and a "General" for this defense showed often. Communication was lacking, and playmaking was limited.
The revolving door in the secondary was tough to overcome. Rookie receiver-turned-corner Quinton Dunbar was forced into starting action, and although he did a nice job, the communication was sometimes just not there. Hall was still learning to be a full-time safety, and at times his played showed his tentativeness. He did get much better as the season went on.
Finally, the defense was under first year coordinator Joe Barry. Barry still used the base 3-4 look, but he switched to a one-gap attacking defense, versus the two-gap, block-eating scheme run previously. This was a subtle change, but a change none-the-less.
Injuries, the lack of continuity, and a new coordinator and scheme all factored into the play of the 2015 Redskins.
...Looking forward to 2016.
The Redskins enter 2016 with very high hopes. The team is in year three under head coach Jay Gruden, and most importantly, have a quarterback in Cousins who has had all offseason to work in this offense as the unquestioned starter. The Redskins return their entire starting receiving unit from last season and have added a key weapon in rookie first rounder Josh Doctson, who's combination of size, speed and leaping ability, will give the unit a weapon they have been lacking for years. Veteran Niles Paul should be 100 percent by training camp, and he will factor into both the offense, and special teams. The unit boasts impressive depth as well with the offseason signing of veteran tight end Vernon Davis.
The offensive line should see the greatest improvement of any unit on the team, as they return all five starters from last year, and have had time to work together as a unit this offseason. Even if Lauvao isn't ready by training camp, there is plenty of competition at left guard with some able bodies who can play at a very high level. The right side should be even better with Moses and Scherff locking down tackle and guard, and each having a full season to get bigger, stronger and faster.
Both an improved line and a veteran at quarterback, should help bolster the running game. The Redskins lost Morris to the rival Cowboys in free agency, but they return Matt Jones, who should improve in year two. If Chris Thompson and rookie Keith Marshall can chip in this season, the running game should take a huge leap forward.
On defense, the Redskins made some changes up front. Knighton is gone, but Barry has said the team may not use a traditional nose tackle, but when they do, veteran Kedric Golston may assume that responsibility. Paea is expected to play a major role in the defense this season, and he, Baker and newly signed veteran Kendall Reyes could provide a disruptive force up front. Trent Murphy made the switch this offseason to the defensive line, and at nearly 290 pounds, could factor in as a pass-rush presence. Veterans Ziggy Hood and Ricky Jean-Francois should be solid reserves.
Linebacker is still a huge question mark, but the Redskins do return Will Compton, Mason Foster and Riley. The addition of rookie Su'a Cravens should add much needed versatility to the unit.
In the secondary, the unit has probably improved on paper more than any group on the team. The continuity may be something that will develop over the season, but the talent should be greatly improved. At corner, the Redskins added the dynamic Josh Norman. He and Breeland should form one of the best tandems in the league. Backing them up are Dunbar, who has had an outstanding off-season, and rookie third round pick Kendall Fuller. Hall takes over as the free safety, and Ihenacho, and newly acquired David Bruton, should have a nice training camp battle to see who will be the strong safety. Will Blackmon will likely be in the mix at both safety and nickel corner.
The biggest improvement we may see is this defense being in its second year under Joe Barry. The players should benefit greatly from a full offseason under his guidance and a more aggressive look up front.
If the Redskins can stay healthy this season, the pieces are in place for this team to be very special. The continuity this team has built over last season and the 2016 offseason should go a long way into improving the team, and helping them take the next step in their rise up the rankings of the NFL's best squads.