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A tale of two seasons: defending an 11-5 prediction for the Redskins 2016 season

The Redskins are fielding the best team they’ve had since the 2005 team that featured Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Chris Samuels, Chris Cooley, Sean Taylor, a young Ryan Clark and LaVar Arrington. This 2016 Redskins team is not perfect, but they look pretty damned good. Kirk showed last year that he can play quarterback. Trent Williams is one of the best LTs in the NFL right now. Josh Norman is possibly the best CB in football, and the team has a scary trio of pass rushers and the deepest receiving corps in the league.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is a time of hope for 32 NFL fan bases. Every team is in first place, and most teams have reasons to think they got better. There are usually four fanbases in every division predicting a division championship and a spot in the playoffs this year.

For teams that have been mired in mediocrity or worse for many years, fans can say, "This year is gonna be different." Fans of eleven teams that made the playoffs last year predict that their favorite squad will ‘take the next step’ this year. And super bowl champions talk about repeating (or sometimes ‘threepeating’).

So, I understand why a lot of people would dismiss me as a typical homer when I predict an eleven-win season for the burgundy and gold in 2016. After all, many people felt that Washington ‘eked’ into the playoffs last year in a weak division, and then only because of injuries to Tony & Dez. Besides, people will say, history is against you; the NFC East hasn’t had a team repeat as division champions since 2004. And by the way, they will ask me, did you know that the Redskins haven’t won 11 games in a single season since 1991 – the amazing squad that went 14-2 and won the super bowl?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t care about any of that.

Even other rabid Redskins fans will go out of their way to dismiss projections of double-digit wins as unrealistic, and put themselves forward as the voice of reason by projecting 8 or 9 wins. Well, if I wanted to play it safe, I wouldn’t ride on motorcycles, eat food at sidewalk street stalls in Bangkok, or cross the street during rush hour. What can I say? I’m a risk taker, and dammit, I’m saying that this 2016 team can win two more games than the 2015 team did! And before you ask – yes, I do realize that the Redskins play a first place schedule this year that includes the Panthers, Cardinals, Packers, Steelers and Bengals. That’s why I’m not predicting 16-0.

Of course, any fool with a keyboard can blindly predict a winning season. The trick is to have some actual support for your beliefs. So, let me take a few minutes to tell you my rationale for what I believe is a rational prediction.

A tale of two seasons

My title for this opinion piece is "A tale of two seasons". And, ironically (or maybe not) there are two reasons why I refer to "two seasons".

First, I’d like to talk about how this 2016 squad compares to the Redskins of 2015. Two seasons.

Secondly, in talking about how the ‘Skins are going to get to 11 wins, I’d like to talk about 2016 as if it were two seasons – 8 games before the BYE, and 8 games after the BYE – that will likely be very different from each other. Two ‘metaphorical’, not literal, seasons.

What I see when I look back at 2015

First off, when I look back at 2015 I see 9 wins. Only two of the games – the home games against the Eagles and the Buccaneers – were ever really at risk of being losses. They both ended up being great Redskin wins, and they should be respected for that.

I also see four 2015 losses in which the Redskins were pretty soundly beaten. They are what they are.

But – significantly -- I see three losses that, in my view, shouldn’t have been. The shoulda-woulda-coulda games. Three games that should have gone into the W-column last year.

First was the opening week loss to Miami in a game where the Redskins outplayed the visitors for most of the game; a game that many fans feel was lost on a special teams play when Jarvis Landry returned a late game punt for a touchdown. That was a painful way to start the season.

The second of the three losses that shouldn’t have been was the Falcons game, which was lost on a pick-6 in overtime when Ryan Grant fell down on his route. The Redskins won the OT coin toss, had the ball and were driving on offense. I was confident the ‘Skins were gonna win that game – right up until the moment they lost.

Finally, I’d point to the brutally painful loss to the Cowboys. I’ll always believe that this game would have ended differently if DeSean Jackson had fielded the punt and run straight up the right sideline, then stepped out of bounds when he ran out of room, instead of reversing field, running backwards, and fumbling the ball away to the Cowboys at his own 15 yard line.

That’s three games that could have gone either way, at least two of them should have gone the Redskins way and probably would have if the Redskins hadn’t made a bonehead play.

Why do I mention it? Because I think that the Redskins were just a couple of plays away from being an 11-5 team last year.

To me, it’s also significant that two of these three games were all early-season games (Weeks 1 and 5). The 2015 Redskins struggled to find their way in the early part of the season, due in large part to the game of Three-card Monte that the team played at quarterback in the preseason, and the conservative approach of the coaches on offense that resulted. And then there was the Dallas loss, which was just a bad game versus a well-known division rival.

OK, so what does that have to do with 2016?

I feel like last year’s Washington Redskins squad was just a couple plays away from "really" being an 11-5 team. In other words, they had the talent to get there, but messed up on the execution.

But the important thing is that I feel confident this year’s team has gotten even better. If this year’s team was playing last year’s schedule, I think they’d be good for 13 wins. But they’re not playing last year’s schedule – and the 2016 schedule will be a much tougher row to hoe. That’s why I’m only predicting 11 wins.

How has the team gotten better?

I’m glad you asked.

They’ve gotten better through free agency, the draft, players returning from injury, more experience playing together, and consistency.

QB - Kirk played great football in the last 8 games of the ’15 season. He was much more pedestrian in the first six. With a full off-season to prepare as the team’s starter, a great season to build off of, and a huge contract payday looming, Kirk should be ready to play like a champion for all 16 games this year, meaning that the team should win some games it would have lost early last season. I guess you could say I’m a fully converted Captain Kirk fanboy now.

WR – Consistency and the draft mean that the wide receiver group will be the same as last year plus Josh Doctson. That means a little more depth, and a slightly enhanced skill set. I see Doc as adding a red-zone threat that the ‘Skins haven’t had in a while, which should provide a small uptick in scoring.

TE – The return from injury of Logan Paulsen, and especially Niles Paul, together with the free-agent acquisition of Vernon Davis gives the Redskins a TE group that is deeper, with more receiving threats and better blocking than last year’s group. This should enhance the passing game and help the run game, allowing the offense to stay on the field longer.

OL – This group didn’t add any significant pieces via draft or free agency, but Lichtensteiger and Lauvao returning from injury, every other member of the squad having a year of experience under their belts that they didn’t have last year, and consistency will help the line play at an improved level under Coach Callahan. The offensive line was too often a weakness last year; it should be better, and may even develop into a strength in 2016.

CB – Culliver is gone and Josh Norman will be starting opposite Bashaud Breeland. This is a huge improvement at a key position in the Redskins defense. Had the team not signed the former Panther CB in the off-season I probably would’ve predicted an 8-8 season for the Redskins this year. With OBJ and Dez in the division, we need serious talent at CB. Antonio Brown is also on the schedule this year, along with AJ Green, Alshon Jeffrey and Jordy Nelson. Let’s face it – we need our cornerbacks to be top notch this season. Norman is a "blue" who will make the entire defense better and enhance the Redskins’ ability to win games. The maturation of Dunbar and the drafting of Fuller mean that the CB group will have talented depth as well.

Safety – Return from injury (Ihenacho and to some extent DHall), free agency (Bruton), and experience playing together should all benefit this part of the defensive unit. Oh yeah, word is that due to the embarrassment of riches at CB, Will Blackmon will join the group as a free safety. Throw in the consistency of Coach Perry Fewell and the Redskins will likely field a competent safety group for the first time since 2007.

OLB – A lot of people forget that Kerrigan was returning from off season surgery and got off to a slow start last year. Too often early last season he wasn’t able to ‘finish’ good rushes against the opposing quarterback. But he’ll start this year fully healthy.

So will Junior Galette. He was a monster for New Orleans, and he’s the Redskins monster now.

Preston Smith always had the on-field ball skills. Word on the street is that he’s now learned how to be a pro as well.

Maybe none of the team’s OLBs is a ‘blue’ but it looks like three bright reds. The ‘Skins pass rush will be improved this year, and they should be terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, boosting the turnover and sack totals and getting the defense off the field on third down.

ILB – I’m not sure if the ILB group has gotten better. Will Compton seems to have stepped up to the leadership role here, and it looks like he and Foster will probably be the starters. If so, Riley should provide very high quality depth. With Spaight returning from injury, it looks like a solid group at least.

The wild card is Su’a Cravens. Is he a linebacker, a safety or something else? As far as I know, I’m the only person on the planet Earth that predicted that Scot would pick Cravens in the second round, and I’m not really sure how he’ll be used. I think he’s an extra linebacker for passing situations who can finally give the Redskins a chance to cover tight ends in the middle of the field – a trait that has seemed to be missing from the team’s DNA for years.

So, are there question marks?

Significant questions exist for the Redskins in the run game – both offensively and defensively.

RB - On offense, the team let Alfred Morris walk, leaving us with Matt Jones and a lot of question marks. The group of running backs we have on the Redskins look great in photos; it remains to be seen whether they’ll look great on the field.

We all know that RBs adapt to the NFL pretty quickly coming out of college, and that their careers tend to flame out quickly, so a group of young guys at this position isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Personally, I’m sold on Matt Jones’ ability, and I believe he figured out his left-hand, open-field fumbling issue. My concern is the depth at the position being a 7th rounder and a group of UDFAs. Still, I’ve seen one guy after another on other teams step up from obscurity when the starter went down and play great ball in the NFL. Scot McCloughan and his team proved last year that they know how to identify depth players who can come in off the street and play in the NFL so I’m gonna trust that he knows what he’s doing, but I’ll be nervous about the run game till I see it happening on the field.

DL – On defense, the team let Knighton walk and they cut Jason Hatcher, replacing them with some free agents (Reyes and Hood) and a 5th round draft pick (Ioannidis). With Trent Murphy sliding to DT/DE from his OLB spot, this will be a new-look unit that will depend on Chris Baker, an aging Kedric Golston, and – frankly – too many other free agent Redskins (Paea, RJF). This unit feels patched-together. The Redskins need to find a way to draft, develop and retain defensive linemen. Until they do, this part of the team is likely to never rise above the level of merely competent.

So, what’s the bottom line here?

Despite the question marks at RB, DL and to some extent ILB, this Redskins team is much better than the 2015 team was, particularly at TE, OLB, CB and S. A team that I think was capable of 11 wins last year, is better this year.

Okay, but 11 wins against this schedule? Really?

Yes, really.

And, continuing my ‘tale of two seasons’ theme, I’m prepared to say that the 2016 season will be a schizophrenic one for the Redskins, with the team winning 7 games before the BYE, and looking like super bowl champs, then finishing with 4 losses after they BYE, leading everyone to question the team due to its apparent ‘meltdown’ and inability to finish.

And it all starts with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I actually think that the Steelers are the better team over all, but the Redskins have some things in their favor going into this game. First is the Martavis Bryant suspension, which is not as significant for the Steelers as it might be for other teams. Pittsburgh has a history of playing well with key players missing, and they have the entire off-season to prepare for the loss of Bryant. Hell, this team won without Big Ben last year, they can win without their #2 WR, but I’ll take any advantage I can get.

The second advantage the Skins have is that the game is at FexEx field. Again, this is not a huge advantage vs. the Steelers because their fans travel well and they don’t have far to go for this game. But still, the Skins are at home.

But the single most important reason that I’m ready to predict an opening day win for the Redskins is that the Steelers great weakness last season was their defensive backs; they were among the league’s worst in giving up passing yards and touchdowns in the passing game. Pittsburgh drafted Artie Burns and added some players via free agency, but DBs have to know each other and play well together in a game situation. While the Steelers defensive backfield will likely improve with every game, I truly believe that Kirk and the Redskins deep & talented group of receivers (WR, TE, RB) will be too much for the Steelers DBs to handle in Week 1, and the Redskins will put up 30+ points in a home win on 12 September.

After that, a confident Redskins team just has to go out and play ball. Three games against division opponents will result in a 3-0 division mark before the BYE.

In Week 4 the Browns show up with a new head coach and a new QB – Redskins win.

That leaves three games on the road against pretty good teams – the Lions, Ravens and Bengals – with the last game before the BYE being in London. Playing in Baltimore isn’t exactly a tough road game, and I don’t think London will be any more of a home field advantage for the Cincinnati than it will be for Washington. So there’s only one "true" road game outside the division in the first half of the season. I believe that the ‘Skins will go 2-1 in these three games, with the sole loss most likely to come in Detroit, but possibly in London.

Wow! So we’re 7-1 at the BYE, having won all our division games, and beaten the Steelers, Ravens & Bengals. What happens then?

The second half schedule is brutal for the Redskins, both in terms of opponents and timing of games.

After the BYE, the Skins face last year’s NFC North champion Vikings at RFK. That’s a win for the good guys.

Then it’s a prime time game against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. They knocked us out of the playoffs last year at FedEx. This time they will have Jordy Nelson. This is a loss for the home team.

The Cowboys don’t normally scare me, but we play them in Texas, on Thursday, following a Sunday night loss to the Packers. RG3 killed the ‘Boys last time we played them on Thanksgiving Day, but it’ll be a different story in 2016, with the Cowboys handing us our sole division loss of the season.

It gets no prettier in Week 13, as the Redskins begin December by travelling to Arizona to play one of the NFL’s best teams, and the Cardinals hand the Redskins their 3rd straight loss. Fans and media alike begin to question whether the 8-4 Redskins can hold on to win the division.

The Redskins answer that question with a Week 14 win in Philadelphia, then come home to lose to Carolina on Monday night and fall to 9-5.

Starting with that Monday night game against the Panthers, the Redskins play their last 3 games of the season in 12 days, testing their depth and health. Thankfully, Jay Cutler in Chicago and Eli Manning at FexEx are on the schedule to allow the Redskins defense to win the two final games of the year with a flurry of sacks and interceptions, pushing the Redskins to an 11-win season and a division championship.

A word about injuries and depth

One problem with roster reviews in June and July is that rosters don’t survive a 16-game season. Last year’s casualties for the Redskins included Niles Paul, Logan Paulsen, Junior Galette, Duke Ihenacho, Martrell Spaight, Kory Lichtensteiger, Sean Lauvao, Chris Culliver, DeAngelo Hall, Desean Jackson and others.

2016 will bring injuries that none of us can predict right now. It happens to every team in the league.

Putting together winning seasons requires teams to have the depth to overcome key injuries. Last year, teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh overcame key injuries to get to the playoffs, where they each won in the wild card round. Teams like Dallas, on the other hand, suffered some key injuries and fell apart.

To put together an 11-win season this year, the Redskins will need to begin with depth coming out of Training Camp, and the front office will need to be adept at identifying players who can join the team and help them win as other players fall to injury during the season.

As I mentioned above, I think this is the deepest team the Redskins have fielded for many years. Fortunately, Scot McCloughan and his staff have also demonstrated ability in finding players, and Gruden and his staff have shown that they can get those players ready. Last year’s key additions included Derek Carrier, Mason Foster, Will Blackmon, Pierre Thomas, Brian De La Puente, Anthony McCoy and a few others. In addition, Quinton Dunbar’s flexibility (and the coach’s willingness to experiment with it) in moving from WR to CB helped keep a wounded position group afloat.

The ability of the Redskin front office to keep the coaches supplied with football players for 16 weeks is a critical part of my consideration in predicting an 11-5 record.

Some teams fold when the injuries hit. Champions find a way.

So, there you have it

The Redskins are fielding the best team they’ve had since the 2005 team that featured Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Chris Samuels, Chris Cooley, Sean Taylor, a young Ryan Clark and LaVar Arrington.

This 2016 Redskins team is not perfect, but they look pretty damned good. Kirk showed last year that he can play quarterback. Trent Williams is one of the best LTs in the NFL right now. Josh Norman is possibly the best CB in football, and the team has a scary trio of pass rushers and the deepest receiving corps in the league.

This team has enough firepower on offense to score 27+ points per game, and the defense will be able to pressure the quarterback and cover any receiver. It all adds up to double-digit wins.

The scary part for the rest of the NFL is that this team will be even better in 2017 after Scot has his third off season to finish building a championship roster.

So, I’m not merely a "homer", simply a realist.