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The 2018 Redskins: winning ugly... but winning

When the other team only scores 17 points per game, you don’t need to be very pretty to get the ‘W’

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Redskins are winning, and they are winning in a way that many Redskins fans aren’t accustomed to. They are winning with suffocating defense.

Total Yards per game

Rushing defense - yards per game

The Redskins defense ranks 5th in the NFL and 2nd in the NFC in yards per game. The Redskins had one significant outlier in the six games they’ve played — the blowout loss to the Saints on Monday Night Football in Week 5 when they gave up 461 total yards of offense. In the other 5 games, the Redskins have given up an average of 298 yards per game. Only one team in the NFL (the Ravens) is giving up less than 300 yards per game for the season.

Points per game

We sometimes see examples of teams that limit yards but give up points. The Redskins are not in that category, giving up just 20.2 ppg, good for 7th in the NFL. You can see from the chart that the NFC East has transformed into a defensive division, with the Cowboys and Eagles both ranked even higher than the Redskins in points per game, at 2nd and 6th respectively. The Redskins, again, have one outlier on the season, having given up 43 points to the Saints. In their five other games, the Redskins have given up 6, 21, 17, 17, and 17 (an average of 15.6 ppg). Again, only the Ravens have achieved a better mark than that in the season to date.

Turnover differential

The Redskins are fourth in the league in turnover differential.

In my personal experience of watching football for half a century — aside from the obvious statistic of points scored — I don’t believe any statistic is more indicative of a team’s likelihood of winning games than turnover margin.

But there is a multiplier effect for the Redskins that I think is important: Time of Possession.

Time of Possession

We normally think of Time of Possession as an offensive statistic, but it is really a full team statistic that takes into account both offensive and defensive play. It is, perhaps, the ultimate team statistic.

Since my focus here it defensive, I have posted the ToP allowed in the chart above. You can see that the Redskins rank 2nd in the NFL in Time of Possession.

Hoping I don’t have to always repeat the caveat about points being the ultimate statistic, to me, these two metrics — Turnover Differential and Time of Possession — are the most critical measures of success for teams that are “built” like the 2018 Redskins.

Teams like the Kansas City Chiefs are put together to win track meets by simply outscoring the opponent. It makes for exciting games and makes the team a favorite for prime time broadcasts, but as I’ve said before, the NFL doesn’t give any points for style. A win is a win, and a loss is a loss.

The power of winning Time of Possession

It’s only been in recent years that I have begun to appreciate that each NFL game is made up of a limited number of drives. Long-term statistics tell us that there are about 24 drives per game, or usually around 12 per team; typically about 6 drives per half.

A team like the Redskins, that can rely on the running game to control the clock, can, in effect, ‘shorten’ the game for the opponents by giving them fewer opportunities to possess the ball — meaning, fewer drives that provide the opportunity to score.

In the Dallas game, each team had 5 drives in the first half (10 in total), and in the second half, the Cowboys had 6 drives while the ‘Skins had 5 due to the Redskins defensive TD, which gave Dallas back-to-back drives. With 21 total drives, the game offered fewer scoring opportunities for both teams.

Winning the turnover battle

Creating turnovers defensively while protecting the ball on offense has a multiplier effect on the Time of Possession battle. Having already limited opponents scoring opportunities to a below-average number, having a ‘plus’ turnover margin means that the team is taking even more scoring opportunities away from the other team, and creating added scoring opportunities for themselves in a game where such opportunities come at a huge premium.

Against the Cowboys, the Redskins forced two defensive takeaways while the offense protected the ball and didn’t give it up via fumble or interception. The defense actually scored on one of those takeaways, as already mentioned.

Here’s how the ‘game script’ works for the Redskins:

  • A ‘typical’ game provides a team with 11-12 drives, which means 11-12 scoring opportunities.
  • The style of play dictates fewer drives. In this case, there were 21 drives, which is slightly below average.
  • By taking the ball away twice, the Redskins reduced the Cowboys’ number of scoring chances to 9 drives, meaning that Dallas had only about 75% of the normal scoring opportunities that an NFL team usually gets.

Looking at the chart of drives per game, you can see that there have been a total of 118 drives in the Redskins’ 6 games, for an average of less than 20 drives per game. In other words, the Redskins are reducing opponents’ scoring opportunities to around 10 drives per game through style of play.

By winning the turnover battle, the Redskins are multiplying this effect. As you can see, opponents have had 53 net scoring opportunities, while the Redskins have had 65. New Orleans is the only opponent the Redskins have faced this season that has had more net scoring opportunities than Washington.

With more scoring opportunities, the Redskins offense has less pressure to score on every drive; in effect, the Redskins offense has a greater margin for error.

In games where the Redskins have had more net scoring opportunities, they are 4-1.

In those four wins, the Redskins defense has given up 57 points in 35 net scoring opportunities, or 1.63 points per scoring opp.

With the Redskins offense having 45 net scoring opportunities in those 4 wins (10 more than their opponents), the offense doesn’t have to be highly efficient on a per-drive basis to win. The Redskin offense put up 98 points in those 4 wins, averaging 24.5 points per game in victory. They are producing 2.18 points per scoring opportunity in those wins, and 1.94 points per scoring opportunity across all 6 games.

What does this mean for the Redskins offense?

The Redskins are ranked 25th in the league, averaging 21 points per game. The median point for avg ppg is around 24, and the highest scoring offense in the league is the Chiefs, at 37.1 ppg.

But simply scoring more points offensively isn’t a recipe for success. The top 5 teams in scoring per game are each leading their division, but after that, it becomes a mixed bag.

Four of the top-10 scoring teams (and 8 of the top 20) do not have a winning record.

The Redskins are choosing the less popular road to winning, but at the moment they are ranked 3rd in the NFC, and only 5 teams in the league boast a better winning percentage than Washington. The only other .667 team is the Panthers, and the Redskins have already beaten them.

The Redskins only put up 20 points in their win against the Cowboys, but when you take into account that Dallas boasts the top-ranked defense in the NFC, it’s easier to see this as more of an accomplishment than it might otherwise seem. But, in any event, when the Redskins defense is giving up 17 points to the opponents, 20 points is 2 more than the team needs to get the win.

Is this a sustainable model for roster building?

I don’t just think this is a sustainable model for roster-building; in this era of salary caps and free agency, I have become convinced that it is the best model for roster-building.

To me, building a roster in today’s NFL comes down to choosing, broadly speaking, one of two paths. Either you will build around a top-tier quarterback, or you won’t.

Building your team around a top-tier quarterback

If you choose to build around a top-tier quarterback, you usually have to draft him, as the best quarterbacks are only rarely available via trade or free agency. This means that your team needs to either have a terrible season and ‘earn’ a pick at or near the top of the draft (Cleveland) or the GM needs to trade his way to the top (Philadelphia).

Drafting a top quarterback is a risky proposition, as Redskins fans know very well. But Washington isn’t the only franchise to learn that lesson. The Browns and the Jets have had multiple blown draft picks, and John Elway has proved surprisingly unadept at picking QBs.

But even top-2 picks haven’t necessarily worked out. Winston and Mariota haven’t really paid off for the Bucs and Titans, and even the once-in-a-generation, can’t miss talent of Andrew Luck hasn’t delivered to Colts fans the championships they expected from drafting him in 2012.

If the draft pick does work out, once his rookie deal is finished, he has to be paid. Salaries for top-shelf proven veteran quarterbacks are crippling to a salary cap. OverTheCap has published a number of articles over the years suggesting that the magic number is around 10% of the salary cap — that, as teams go higher and higher above paying 10% of the cap to their QB, their chances of winning a super bowl drop lower and lower.

So, the strategy of building a team around a top-tier quarterback is riddled with obstacles, from drafting the guy, to keeping him healthy, to paying him once he becomes a success.

What’s the option?

Years and years of NFL history show that championships can be won by quarterbacks of average talent if they have two things: a top shelf defense and a strong running game.

After watching the Redskins struggle to 7, 8 and 9 win seasons with a good quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and evaluating how much of a crapshoot it is to draft a franchise quarterback, I had a profound moment after the 2017 season, which I wrote about in an article in January: The 5 O’Clock Club: For the record, I’m all in for building a killer defense and starting a veteran quarterback:

Here are a few highlights from that article:

I’ve decided that it’s more realistic to win consistently by fielding a strong defense paired with a capable quarterback than it is to look for one golden boy (à la Aaron Rodgers) who can elevate the team to playoff contention year in and year out.

I plan to push this point of view all off season.

I’m content to see the Redskins take the field in September with Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Alex Smith or Ryan Tannehill under center IF Kirk leaves, as long as the defense is bolstered with excellent young talent at ILB, Safety and DL. .

This ‘great defense, non-elite quarterback’ concept is by no means an innovative idea. I’ve heard the saying “Defense wins championships” since I was a boy, and lots of teams have had a lot of success by putting the burden on the defense to win games, allowing a quarterback who is merely good (not great) to do enough to win. We can look back to the ‘91 Redskins defense, who allowed the second-lowest points scored and had an +18 turnover ratio, giving quarterback Mark Rypien lots of chances to score points.

A more recent example would be the Minnesota Vikings, whose top ranked defense has allowed the Vikings to reach the playoffs despite starting a hobbled Sam Bradford early in the season, and career backup Case Keenum for the balance.

Working under the premise that quarterback is the most important position on the field, the goal of [strong defensive] teams is to create a defense that decreases the opponent’s quarterback to the point where your “lesser” quarterback can outperform that elite quarterback you’re facing in the playoffs.

I’d like to focus on draft resources. What I mean is that the Redskins are in a position to finish building a top-10 defense this season by repeating the kind of draft strategy that they used a year ago, and I detailed my ideas on this in a recent article. This would be both effective on the field of play, and effective in terms of salary cap management.

What were those key ideas I had published just prior to this January article?

The 5 O’Clock Club: Re-shaping the defense

The standard catechism says that a team with a strong defense can win with an average quarterback (hello 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, 2016 Houston Texans, 2015 Denver Broncos, 1981 Washington Redskins). For the past several years, the Redskins have been trying to do it the other way, but following last year’s successful defensive-focused off season, the Redskins have an opportunity that they haven’t had in a long time:

I think the Redskins can achieve a top-10 defense THIS year by re-signing some key players, and using some high draft picks on defense.


What I’m suggesting is that the Redskins can use 4 of their top 5 picks on defense, aiming to get two starters (ILB & DL) and two backups (CB & FS).

I’m thinking that a first round pick might be someone like Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia or Vita Vea, NT, Washington State.

Re-signing 3 - 4 2017 Redskin defensive players

This plan assumes that the ‘Skins can re-sign Murphy, Zach Brown and Junior Galette. They have already re-signed Quinton Dunbar.

Signing UFAs from other teams

I’m not advocating bringing in any outside free agents for the defense. To allow the defensive focus in the draft, I’d like to see the Redskins use veteran free agents to patch up the offense where (remember that we’ve assumed that we’ve already solved the QB issue) the key weak spots are WR, LG and RB.

The result

The defense that would result from this approach would be a combination of youth & experience, speed & strength, with no obvious weaknesses, and a clear succession plan to help the team move forward into future years.

I got my wish, and it’s working

If you look through the roadmap outlined in the two articles above, the Redskins front office pretty much followed the roadmap that I advocated, aside from that oversight on the Left Guard position.

  • They traded for Alex Smith (who was on my list).
  • They used draft resources to bolster the defense by drafting Payne, Settle and some defensive backs.
  • They re-signed Foster & Brown at ILB.
  • They acquired talent at the Running Back position.
  • They signed a free agent receiver in Paul Richardson.

It may not be every name or every roster move I outlined, but the front office plan is one that I am very comfortable with, and very happy about.

Why do I like this strategy so much?

First of all, with a top-shelf defense and a strong run game, the team can win with an average quarterback, and average quarterbacks are much easier to find than the elite ones. You can draft them, trade for them or sign them in free agency.

Secondly, a strong defense and running game can be built or maintained with just two or three good draft picks. The Redskins went from atrocious defense in 2015 to a top-eight defense in 2018 with the addition of Payne, Allen, Ioannidis and a number of mid-round defensive back picks.

One good draft pick (Guice) or free agent signing (Peterson) can solve the run game very quickly.

Thirdly, this strategy of roster-building, if it is done primarily through the draft and not free agency, is sustainable over the long term from the standpoint of both talent acquisition and salary cap maintenance. I’m not talking here about buying a defense like the Giants did a few years ago, but drafting consistently well, and constantly seeking to upgrade individual talent, while fostering a bad ass mentality through coaching and an outstanding locker room.

Winning ugly in an era that likes ‘pretty’

I grew up with the Hogs. Three or four decades have put a bit of a halo-like glow around the Gibbs 1.0 Redskins, making them seem, perhaps, like something they weren’t. The Bill Walsh 49ers had a reputation as a ‘finesse’ team — a reputation that Walsh hated, by the way.

Even Landry’s Cowboys were considered to be perhaps a bit antiseptic, mechanical and — for want of a better word — robotic. If you never saw the Dallas lineman from back in the day all going into their stances together, first in a ‘breakdown’ stance, then standing up straight in unison, and moving into three point stances in unison, it was a bit like watching a marine drill team marching.

Joe Gibbs’ Redskins were the antithesis for teams like the Niners and Cowboys of the late 70’s and 1980’s. They weren’t called “the Hogs” for no good reason, and Kicker Mark Mosely didn’t win the MVP in 1982 because the Redskins offense was blowing teams out by three touchdowns.

Joe Gibbs teams often won ugly. It’s a Redskins tradition, and, to be honest, the 2018 Redskins look a lot like I expected them to. I wrote this in September, just before the current season started:

I have the feeling that the 2018 Redskins are going to be a team that is led by the defense once again. A lot of fans don’t really think of strong defense and average offense as “Redskin football” but a “who let the dogs out” defense was certainly what defined the team that won Super Bowl XVII, and my feeling as a Redskins fanatic is that this is the year that Washington returns as a defensive powerhouse. The team has a lot of young players who haven’t proven themselves yet.

So I’m expecting a lot of ball control (queue up #26, “All Day”).

I’m expecting a team that will protect the ball (welcome to the Redskins with your 5-interceptions in 2017, Alex Smith) and win the turnover battle (the ‘82 Redskins were +18).

I’m expecting a lot of sacks and pressure, not just from the edge rushers (Kerrigan, Smith) but also from the interior. This part of the Redskin game has been getting stronger in recent years, and I expect the trend to continue.

In a division that features Saquon Barkley and Zeke Elliott, plus Jay Ajayi running behind an outstanding Eagles offensive line, I expect the Redskins defense to catapult from the bottom of the league to the top in terms of run-stopping ability. The lessons learned inside the division against some of the best running attacks in the league will pay off when the ‘Skins face other teams outside the division.

When you play suffocating defense, conservative low-turnover offense, and ball control in the 4th quarter, your place kicker becomes very important,

the ‘18 Redskins will likely be relying on the strength and accuracy of Dustin Hopkins’ leg to get the win several times this year. I think he’s ready to come through and help rack up the Ws.

I’m looking for my Washington Redskins to be some of the worst fantasy players in the NFL in 2018. I expect a runningback-by-committee that will prevent any single guy from being a fantasy star, but will help the Redskins control the clock and win games.

I expect several players, from backs to tight ends to wide receivers, to be catching balls — too many different fingers in the pie for anyone to amass 1,000 yards receiving.

I expect Alex Smith to play a lot of ‘small ball’ and allow Tress Way to help win the field position battle, the defense to stop the opponents and get the ball back, and the team to score just enough to win tough games week in and week out.

I expect the Redskins to win ugly, but I expect them to win. I expect them to win a lot.

This is the new era of Redskins football — the era of stout defense and efficient offense. This is the era of division titles and playoff wins. This is the era of unbridled excitement for me as a Redskins fan, and lots of happy Mondays.

This is the kind of football we’re seeing from the 2018 Redskins.

This is winning football.

For the record, what the Redskins did on Monday night against the Saints was NOT this kind of football. I don’t know what that was — it was ugly in a whole different kind of way. That game was an embarrassment, and hopefully and aberration.

And, while the offense failed against the Colts, that was simply a bad loss based on the offense not finding a way to score. Almost every team will have a failure or two like that during a 16-game season.

The Redskin offense should be better; in particular, Alex Smith needs to be better.

But the team had two full seasons (and more) of watching Kirk Cousins compile great statistics and throwing beautiful passes, only to see him make fatal mistakes by fumbling the ball away, throwing an interception or taking a knee in the red zone. The blend of beautiful passing, great statistics, and badly timed errors led to a lot of .500 ball and no playoff wins.


The care that Alex Smith takes with the ball is part of his strength. He certainly fumbles a lot more than I thought he would, but he somehow seems not to lose those fumbles. It is clear that he isn’t going to toss many interceptions. He’s a low-risk, and so far, low reward quarterback, and there’s room for improvement there.

Time of possession and field goals

But Alex’s careful nature fits the game strategy that we’re talking about. By pairing him with a guy like Adrian Peterson, the offense is able to go on clock-eating, multi-play drives. Because of the care this team takes with the ball, those drives don’t end in turnovers very often. While the team isn’t always finishing every drive with a touchdown, Dustin Hopkins is consistently putting the ball through the uprights for 3 points, and Tress Way is helping the Redskins win the battle of field position.

Tress Way winning the battle for field position

Five times against the Cowboys, Tress Way pinned the Dallas offense inside the 20 yard line. He did it several times against the Panthers too. And in those two games, Tress Way didn’t punt for any touchbacks. That’s MVP performance from the punter.

But Tress Way’s great punting wouldn’t matter if the defense couldn’t be counted on to keep the opposing offense pinned in their own territory. Forcing a team to start on their own 12-yard line doesn’t matter if you allow the opposition to march 88 yards for a touchdown, and in recent years, that’s what usually happened to the Redskins.

And that’s why 2018 is different.

This defense has given up 17 points in three of the last 4 games. It gave up 21 to the Colts and 6 to the Cardinals.

The only failure for the Redskins defense this season came against the Saints, who moved the ball at will and put up 43 points. I like to think that if we see the Saints again in the playoffs that it will be a very different result.

When you routinely give up 17 ppg, the offense doesn’t need to do a lot to get the win. The 21 points per game that the Redskins are scoring will win more often than not when the defense is playing like it is, and, as I’ve said before, there are no points awarded in the NFL for style, only for winning.

This is what it’s all about.

The Redskins are currently all alone at the top of the division, and ranked 3rd in the NFC.

We hold head-to-head advantage over the Panthers, Packers, Cowboys and Cardinals. Only the Saints have an advantage against the Redskins for tie-breakers when it comes to playoff seedings.

This is the Redskins list of remaining opponents:

  • Giants (twice) 1-5
  • Falcons 2-4
  • Buccaneers 3-3
  • Texans 4-3
  • Cowboys 3-4
  • Eagles (twice) 3-4
  • Jaguars 3-4
  • Titans 3-4

A lot of those teams just don’t look as intimidating as they did before the season started. With ten games remaining, the Redskins need 6 wins to reach double digit victories for the season. it’s hard to look at the list of opponents remaining and not feel good about the team’s chances of doing that if the defense continues to perform as it has in the 5 games not played on Monday night this season.

Wanna know my mantra for the 2018 season?

The Redskins: winning ugly... but winning.