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We’re All Undefeated Now: Looking Back and Moving Forward

As the 2016 season comes to a close, let’s take a moment to reflect before moving on.

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As red and blue confetti rained down upon NRG Field, and Tom Brady smugly accepted the Lombardi Trophy for the fifth time in his career, all while (I imagine) using every ounce of self-restraint to avoid spitting directly in commissioner Roger Goodell’s eye, I couldn’t help but think back to on of the NFL’s more jovial ad campaigns from the past decade:

Tone-deafness and poor pitch-matching aside, the concluding message rings true: “As of tomorrow, we’re all undefeated.”

While the most productive use of time and energy is to turn our attention towards next season, it’s hard not to take a moment to consider what could, might, or even should have been, but for a small handful of missed opportunities that kept Washington from returning to the postseason.

What would have happened if Dustin Hopkins made field goals that could have been game-changers against Dallas, and certainly would have been difference-makers against Detroit and Cincinnati? Was Joe Barry’s decision to deploy a prevent defense in Detroit on their final game-clinching drive the difference between a playoff berth and January golf? What if the offense were able to complete red-zone drives with touchdowns more than a league 3rd-worst 46% of the time? Could Washington have gone on a postseason run if Cousins had capitalized on controlling their own destiny against the Giants in week 17 with a final-drive score instead of a Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie interception?

All of that hand-wringing is to ignore the flip-side of the coin, plays that you can demonstrably point to which resulted in Redskins victories: Su’a Cravens’ game-winning interception following their 21-9 comeback against the Giants in week 3, Duke Johnson’s phantom fumble week 4 against Cleveland, a bend-but-don’t-break defensive stand in facing the Vikings in week 10, Ryan Kerrigan’s strip-sack of Carson Wentz as the Eagles drove into the red-zone in the final moments of week 14 in Philadelphia.

That what separates great teams and good teams is small, the difference between good teams and mediocre teams is smaller, and the gap dividing mediocre teams and the dregs of the league can come down to no more than a scant few plays, moments, or decisions at year’s end.

This year with a handful of bounces that went their way combined with a variety of missed opportunities, the Redskins played like a team befitting of a 8-7-1 record.

While pre-season expectations were lofty, for the first time in a long time they were reasonable. However, it is hard to argue that the Redskins’ inability to return to the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1992 is not a justified disappointment.

Despite taking a step back: in a league marked by extreme parity, consider how difficult and infrequent it is to win a division in back-to-back years:

The only two teams from each conference made repeat trips to the playoffs in 2016-17: the Patriots and Texans in the AFC, and Seahawks and Packers in the NFC, with only New England and Houston repeating as division winners.

Now in hindsight, it’s easy to point to areas of regression from a year ago. The offense was historically inefficient with far too many ill-fated, red-zone fade routes in the early weeks of the season. On special teams the Redskins were in the bottom 1/3rd in kick and punt return yards, while the once automatic Dustin Hopkins converted only 81% of his field goal attempts and 92% of point-after tries. The injury-hobbled defense allowed 378 yards per game, and was worst in the league in getting off the field on 3rd down.

That said, there were pleasant surprises that included the emergence of Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson as a reliable 1-2 punch in the backfield after Matt Jones’ demotion. After betting on himself and playing angry, (“How you like me now!?”) Kirk Cousins took major steps forward, racking up myriad franchise passing records while seeing his interception percentage continue to drop. There was plenty to be excited about with the high-energy play of Su’a Cravens’ in igniting the defensive interior. Meanwhile, we witnessed the development of one of the league’s top offensive lines which allowed the 4th fewest sacks per game.

Washington heads into the offseason with plenty of questions: how will contract negotiations play out with Kirk Cousins as doubts linger regarding his viability as an expensive long-term solution at quarterback? Is Cravens’ shift from linebacker to safety going to be the missing link to shore up the league’s 7th-worst passing defense? How many of the team’s 16 unrestricted free agents; a list that includes Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Chris Baker, and Vernon Davis; will return next season? Can Josh Doctson hit the reset button on his rookie season false start to be a key contributor at wideout going forward? Which veterans will the Redskins target in free agency, and which prospects can be difference-makers in the upcoming draft?

But unlike in years past, there are more pieces in place and far less uncertainty than has been the hallmark of Redskins’ off-seasons gone by: There are no calls for head-coaching or major front office shake-ups. Departed coordinators have been replaced prior to the end of the playoffs (by in-house candidates, no less.) While best estimates give Scot McCloughan over $45 million in cap space to work with as they look towards 2017.

Much to the chagrin of bombastic local sports-talk radio hosts and armchair analysts, the circus that has traditionally marked off-seasons past in here Washington seems to have folded up the tent and moved elsewhere.

“Winning off the field” now mercifully seems more like a set of rapidly dimming headlights in the rearview mirror than a tailgating big rig with flashing LED high beams.

So as we lament a quarter century absence of a Lombardi Trophy here in DC, it becomes clear that how the Redskins are able to rebound from disappointment will determine whether, in fact, the sun will in fact come out tomorrow.