The 5 o’clock club is published Wednesday to Saturday during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.
Looking back to 1982
On at least two occasions this year I have looked back to the 1982 Redskins as a way to understand the 2018 Redskins. I was 22 years old in 1982, one year out of college, and intensely interested in the Redskins, who had finished 8-8 under Joe Gibbs a season earlier. It was a hard season to be an NFL fan, because we lost 7 weeks in the middle of the season to a player’s strike, and for a while, it looked like the entire season was going to be forfeit.
One of the most unusual things about that ‘82 team to go along with the unusual season was the fact that the placekicker, Mark Moseley was named MVP. Not the team MVP, mind you. Most Valuable Player in the NFL.
My guess is that you probably had to have lived through the season to understand just how important Moseley was to that team, and how much that team relied on its defense and special teams to plod its way to a regular season top-seed in the playoffs, but let me try to give a taste of that season to those of you who aren’t ready to collect your social security checks yet.
Here’s a description of the Redskins’ fourth win in that strike-shortened season from The Sports Notebook:
Cornerback Jeris White intercepted two passes, and the team as a whole picked off Jaworski five times. Washington won it 13-9.
Now, that brings to mind Sunday’s 4-turnover, 16-3 victory against Tampa Bay. Not a lot of offense from the Redskins, but enough to win.
Here’s a description of what followed that week’s game in ‘82:
The tone of [that week’s] headlines showed how much the Redskins had to prove if they were going to get respect and the best way to do it was to beat the Dallas Cowboys, who came into RFK for a late Sunday afternoon national TV appearance. But Washington was unable to run the ball, Theismann threw three interceptions and they lost 24-10. It appeared there was still a gap between them and the league’s elite.
Again, I’m reminded of this Super Bowl winning team when I watch the flawed 2018 Redskins, who failed at two chances to prove that they belong at the top, getting blown out by the Saints and the Falcons at critical junctures this season.
But the team quickly got back on track and with a lot of help from Moseley, won their final four games. In a road game at the St. Louis Cardinals, the Redskins offense got inside the red zone four times, never found the end zone, but four Moseley field goals and great defense produced a 12-7 win.
You read that right. The legendary Joe Gibbs’ superbowl winning 1982 team couldn’t score a touchdown against the Cardinals with 4 trips to the Red Zone and had to rely on four field goals to beat the sole touchdown scored by the home team.
That ‘82 team was not an offensive juggernaut; it was a defensive stonewall, with the newly minted Hogs paving the way on offense and Dave Butz, Darryl Grant, Dexter Manley, Monte Coleman, Neal Olkewicz, Mark Murphy and others playing the kind of defense that intimidated opponents.
In 9 games, the offense scored 190 points (21 ppg) and the defense gave up 128 (14.2 ppg). Those numbers might seem eerily familiar to those who’ve been keeping abreast of things this season. Five other NFC teams scored more points in ‘82 (the Cowboys & Packers led the league at 25.1 ppg) but no defense gave up fewer points in 1982 than the Redskins.
A week after the all-field goal win against the Cardinals, the Redskins played the Giants:
The kicker came up even bigger the following week at home against the Giants. On a day when Theismann played poorly, with four interceptions, the defense kept the team in the game, trailing 14-9. Moseley drilled two fourth-quarter field goals, the last one a 42-yarder with nine seconds left to win 15-14.
As a media personality with a super bowl ring, and one of the three quarterbacks to win a championship under Joe Gibbs, Joe Theismann is a bit of a DC legend, but he was a limited quarterback in a lot of ways. Joe certainly managed a lot of offense in a number of games, but the fact that the Redskins won two consecutive division games (Cards & Giants) without scoring a touchdown should speak volumes about Theismann, the team, and the kicker, Mark Moseley.
Theismann threw for more than 3,000 yards in a season just twice — and his career high for a season was 3,568 in 1981, Joe Gibbs’ rookie year as a head coach when he started out trying to install the “Air Coryell” offense he had learned in San Diego.
1981 - Theismann’s biggest passing year
The Redskins started that season 0-5, and in each of the first 4 games, Theismann threw for 265 yards or more each time, with two games over 300 yards. In contrast, the Redskins won 7 of their final 9 games, and Theismann threw for over 250 yards in a game just twice in that nine-game stretch and averaged just 217 yards per game in that stretch. Basically, the Redskins won when Joe passed less, and lost when he passed more.
Theismann completed just 59% of his passes, averaging just 7.2 ypc, with only 19 touchdowns in 16 games. He ran surprisingly often (remember, he had been a punt returner earlier in his Redskins career) with 36 rushes for 177 yards (4.9 ypc).
Aside from being an interception machine (Joey T threw 20 INTs to go with his 19 TDs, and had EIGHT multi-interception games in ‘81) Theismann is a fair comparison to our own Alex Smith: a moderately productive passer whose team wins because of defense and special teams.
In a decision that underscored Moseley’s clutch performances, his record 21 consecutive field goals made and the strange nature of the 1982 NFL season, the kicker was voted the MVP award. Suffice it to say, no kicker since has been so honored.
Mark Moseley, who scored ALL of the points in two of the Redskins’ eight wins in 1982, was a uniquely important player on the team. He stands alone three and a half decades later as the only kicker to ever win the MVP award.
Thanks for the history lesson; do you have a point?
While the parallels between ‘82 and the current season are often strained, I do think some of the parallels are real, and I think that the lens of that ‘82 team can help us understand our current team better.
I have written before about the formula that the 2018 Redskins are relying on for winning football games:
Redskins football in 2018 is defensive football.
It is ball control football.
It is time of possession football.
It is low giveaway, high takeaway football.
It is field position football.
It is field goal football.
And, at 4-2, right now, it is winning football.
The only thing that’s changed is that the team is now 6-3 instead of 4-2, but some things about the formula are becoming increasingly clear.
Two factors seem to be contributing to Redskins wins more than any other this season: turnover margin and field position, and in a very real way, I see turnovers as simply a subset of field position.
A quick glance at the NFL stats tells me that the Redskins are winning the turnover battle in 2018 with a margin of +11.
Turnovers have a few key characteristics:
- They immediately end the opportunity for the offense to score.
- They provide an emotional lift to the defense, getting the unit off the field to rest up for the next series.
- They provide an emotional lift to the offense, giving them another opportunity to put points on the board.
- Often — not always — turnovers give the field position advantage to the team that takes the ball away.
It’s this last point I want to focus on — the relative field position advantage that takeaways give to the team that wins that battle.
I want to focus on what happens to the Redskins field position when the Redskin defense wrestles the ball away from the opposing offense, as it has done 18 times this season.
1. Cardinals - 3rd Quarter 02:03 - Interception, Quinton Dunbar
Field Position: Redskins 24 yard line
2. Cardinals - 4th Quarter 00:14 - Fumble, force/recovered Matt Ioannidis
Game was at an end; field position irrelevant so not included in averages (actual position = Redskins 49)
3. Colts - 2nd Quarter 13:17 - Interception, DJ Swearinger
Field Position: Redskins 38 yard line
4. Colts - 3rd Quarter 09:26 - Interception, DJ Swearinger
Field Position: Colts 29 yard line
5. Packers - 4th Quarter 05:32 - Fumble, forced Moreau - recovered Norman
Field Position: Green Bay 46
6. Saints - 2nd Quarter 01:31 - Fumble, forced Moreau - recovered McPhee
Field Position: Saints 16
7. Panthers - 1st Quarter 10:41 - Fumble, forced Vigil, recovered Sprinkle (punt cover)
Field Position: Panthers 22
8. Panthers - 2nd Quarter 14:20 - Interception, Josh Norman
Field Position: Redskins 28
9. Panthers - 2nd Quarter 11:32 - Fumble, forced Norman - recovered Foster
Field Position: Redskins 33
10. Cowboys - 1st Quarter 07:26 - Fumble, forced/recovered DJ Swearinger
Field Position: Cowboys 45
11. Cowboys - 4th Quarter 05:02 - Fumble, forced Kerrigan - recovered P Smith
Field Position: TOUCHDOWN
12. Giants - 2nd Quarter 06:40 - Interception, DJ Swearinger
Field Position: Redskins 9
13. Giants - 3rd Quarter 04:02 - Interception, DJ Swearinger
Field Position: Giants 40
14. Falcons - 1st Quarter 1:21 - Interception, Quinton Dunbar
Field Position: Redskins 33
15. Buccaneers - 1st Quarter 10:44 - Interception, Josh Norman
Field Position: Redskins 32
16. Buccaneers - 4th Quarter 14:07 - Interception, Greg Stroman
Field Position: Bucs 14
17. Buccaneers - 4th Quarter 10:44 - Fumble, forced Anderson, recovered Clinton-Dix
Field Position: (touchback) Redskins 20
18. Buccaneers - 4th Quarter 10:44 - forced P Smith, recovered Kerrigan
Field Position: Redskins 7
What does all this mean?
If we ignore turnover #2, which happened on the final meaningful play of the game, and turnover #11, on which the Redskins defense scored a touchdown by stripping the ball away from Dak Prescott, then we are left with 16 turnovers — 7 of which gave the Redskins possession of the ball on the opponents’ side of midfield.
The average starting field position resulting from these sixteen turnovers is the Redskins’ 44.5 yard line. On average, the Redskins offense got the ball just a bit more than 5 yards away from the midfield stripe.
This proves — I think — that defensive takeaways are a huge weapon in the field position battle; part of the game within the game.
But the news is probably better than this number makes it appear. The three worst field position results from the takeaways listed above (numbers 9, 17 and 18) all occurred in the Redskins red zone, meaning that they each halted a drive that would likely have put at least 3 points on the board for opponents. Takeway #15, though it ended up at the 32 yard line, was a goal-line interception, so fully 25% of these takeaways represent red zone stops for the Washington defense.
How huge an advantage is it for the Washington defense to take away the ball from the opponents 18 times, resulting in one touchdown and average field position near the Redskins’ 45 yard line on the other drive-stoppers?!
It’s a gift — actually, EIGHTEEN gifts — from the defense to the offense that is being given about twice per game on average.
It’s like Christmas around here
Field position isn’t just a gift being given to the offense by the defense. Special teams is giving a bunch of gifts to the defense in the form of lousy field position for Redskins’ opponents, and Santa’s special little helper in this case is named Tress Way.
Let’s look at what the Redskins punter is accomplishing this season:
Tress Way is having a ridiculous season. 25 of his 42 punts have pinned teams inside their own 20 and he does not have a single touchback. That's outrageous. #Redskins— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) November 12, 2018
Tress Way has turned into a punting machine, routinely dropping punts into the opponents’ red zone — without any touchbacks! — and leaving opponents long fields to navigate if they want to put points on the board.
Note: Grant Paulsen says that Tress Way has dropped 25 out of 42 punts inside the opponents’ 20 yard line. When I tallied things up, I actually calculated 27 out of 42. I don’t doubt that Paulsen is right and I am wrong, but since I got my numbers from scanning the game reports drive-by-drive, I had no desire to go back through and find the discrepancy for the sake of this article. Know that there is a slight difference between my numbers and Grant Paulsen’s tweet, but I feel confident that the difference will be immaterial to the overall message.
How effective has Tress Way been?
Here’s a chart of where each Way punt has ended up.
For the punts that landed outside the opponents’ 20 yard line, I’ve noted the gross and net distance for the punt. I’ve also noted a “P” where the net yardage was affected by a penalty, and an “F” on one punt that resulted in a forced fumble and possession for the Redskins.
I also highlighted 4 punts in a brownish color to identify them as “poor” punts.
For the punts that ended up inside the opponents’ 20 yard line, I’ve highlighted punts in blue if the final spot was affected by a penalty.
For the 27 punts that I record as having been down inside the 20 yard line, I calculate an average starting field position at the opponents’ 12 yard line — 88 yards from the Redskins’ end zone.
For the remaining 15 punts, I calculate the following:
- Average starting field position: Opponents’ 30 yard line
- Average gross punting distance: 45 yards
- Average net punting distance (after return/penalties): 42 yards
- Number of “bad” punts: 4 (9.5%)
The average starting field position for all 42 of Tress Way’s punts is roughly the 19 yard line — 81 yards away from the Redskins’ end zone.
I also note that Tress Way’s strength and accuracy seem to be getting better
He has punted between 3 and 6 times per game, but a ‘typical’ game sees him punting 5 times (the mathematical average is 4.66).
About half of his punts (21) have come in the past four games (Games 6-9). During that time he has dropped 17 punts (77.3%) inside the opponents’ 20.
For the remaining 4 punts that have ended up outside the 20:
- the average field position is the 26.5 yards line
- he has a gross punting distance of 47 yards, and
- a net of 46
- He has had only one “bad” punt (4.76%)
Tress Way — if he continues to punt like he has for the past 4 games — deserves to be the MVP
Jay Gruden said some of Punter Tress Way’s punts are “like hitting a soft 9 iron into the Masters green.” Way has helped the Redskins by forcing teams to drive long ways.— John Keim (@john_keim) November 12, 2018
The punt that John Keim's tweet refers to was a thingof beauty. It initially dropped down around the Tampa Bay 2 yard line, but there were no Redskin gunners nearby to stop it from rolling into the end zone. I remember thinking as I watched it live that his string of punts without a touchback was about to come to an end.
But a funny thing happened... the football bounced up, and a little backward, hit the turf softly, and rolled gently to a stop at the Buc’s 4 yard line just as the punt coverage team arrived to stare at it sitting there like an Easter egg on the White House lawn.
Tress Way — punting genius is ready for the Pro-Am tournament at Augusta.
Jay Gruden on P Tress Way and his overall importance to the team:
”Again, he had another outstanding game. He’s starting to show off a little bit... I told him today [Laughter].
He’s just dropping the ball, pin pointing balls at the three, four-yard line and our guys, our gunners, don’t even have to down them. They are back spinning and he looks like he’s hitting soft 9-irons into the Masters ninth green for goodness sakes, so he’s doing a great job, man.
We talk about all three phases being critical, [Dustin] Hopkins made all his kicks, Tress Way is doing his job and when we’re backed up, he changes field position. He keeps teams backed up, making teams go the length of the field which is huge in the NFL. Eventually – and that’s what we’ve had trouble with in our offense from time to time – we can move the ball 10, 20, 40, 50 yards, [but] when you have to go 85 yards in 12 to 13 plays it becomes difficult. There is a holding call, there’s something that happens, you shoot yourself in the foot and that’s what teams are doing.
Tress is making teams go the length of the field and our defense is taking advantage.”
Tress Way is winning the field position battle for special teams; he is pinning the opponents deep in their own territory where they need huge chunk plays or sustained drives in order to score.
The Redskins defense is winning the field position battle for the offense by creating an average of two takeaways per game, and giving the the offense short fields. Seven times this year the defense has given the ball to the offense on the opponents’ side of midfield. Four times the defense has taken the ball away from the opponents in the Redskins’ red zone. With a turnover margin of +11, the Redskins rank 3rd in the NFL, and the resulting ‘win’ in field position is showing up on the scoreboard at the and of the game.
The Redskins offense is helping to win the field position battle by not giving up the ball easily. The team has lost 4 fumbles and Alex has thrown 3 interceptions.
Jay Gruden and Ben Kotwica are contributing to all this by teaching the kickoff returners to just accept the touchback and take the starting position on the 25-yard line. When the special teams return units — especially punt return unit — have been on the field, they have minimized the loss of yards due to penalty that is so common in the NFL, partly because of careful blocking, and partly by just taking the fair catch or the touchback. It’s a conservative strategy that is part of the field position battle that division-leading Washington Redskins team is successfully waging and winning.
The Redskins are winning games on the scoreboard because of one thing above all: they are winning the field position battle in most games.
The defense is forcing turnovers that stop the opponents an average of twice per game, giving those scoring opportunities to the Washington offense instead. The offense may not be lighting up the scoreboard, but they are protecting the football when they have it, and when drives stall, they are giving Tress Way a chance to do his magic, and he is responding by punting like
a pro bowler an all-pro the league MVP.
Tress Way is giving his teammates the field position advantage they need to win ball games, and it’s working.
A last look back to ‘82
I want to finish up this article where it started, with a look at the 1982 Redskins. This time, instead of focusing on the regular season that featured Mark Moseley, I want to shift focus to the super bowl against the Dolphins that capped a 4-game playoffs that featured the 33-year-old John Riggins, who had been out of the league for a year in 1980, and who accumulated just 714 yards in his comeback year of 1981.
[During the super bowl], after the teams swapped field goals and Theismann found another one of his diminutive wide receivers, Alvin Garrett for a tying touchdown, Miami’s Fulton Walker returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
If you’re going to give up special teams touchdowns and let simple short passes turn into long scores and still win a football game, you better find ways to dominate everywhere else and that’s what Washington did. The defense, having shut down Sims and Dallas’ Tony Dorsett, was overwhelming a mediocre Miami running game. Woodley would complete only four passes for the entire game.
In the meantime, Riggins and the Hogs were controlling the game up front. Miami still clung to a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter when the play for which this game is remembered finally swung the tide. Washington faced 4th-and-1 on the Miami 43-yard line. Gibbs decided to go for it. Everyone knew the ball was going to Riggins. He powered off left tackle, aqua and orange jerseys hanging all over him. Riggins broke through the pile and pulled away, outrunning the rest of the Miami defense to the end zone. With the ‘Skins defense in lockdown mode a 20-17 lead seemed insurmountable, but when the Washington offense got the ball back, Theismann led them down the field and on third and goal hit Brown in the corner of the end zone for the score that sealed the deal. The 1982 Washington Redskins had given their crazed fan base its first Super Bowl title.
It was easy in the moment for outside observers to think the 1982 title run was a fluke, a byproduct of an entire season that was off-kilter. Gibbs and his team proved everyone wrong. It turned out, the winning was just getting started.
I’ve said a number of times that the ‘82 Redskins didn’t ‘feel’ quite right. They were a flawed team that found unusual ways to win — yet win they did.
I’ve also said that parallels between that team and this one are strained and imperfect, so I don’t want to suggest that the parallels hold all the way to the Super Bowl — after all, the ‘82 team, for all its ugly winning ways, was the top team in the league coming out of the regular season with an 8-1 record. The ‘18 Redskins are not in that position.
But that ‘82 team taught us that there is more than one way to achieve goals. Joe Gibbs had to act as apologist for his team many times during the 1982 regular season, responding to reporters’ questions and fans’ concerns about the manner in which his team won.
It was unsustainable, they said, to rely on your field goal kicker to win games.
You can’t win championships, everyone agreed, with a quarterback who throws more interceptions than touchdowns.
You can’t rely on a 33-year-old running back to carry you through the rigors of the post-season; he’ll break down.
Each time the reporters asked about the manner of the Redskins’ victory, Joe Gibbs patiently repeated his mantra: “Good teams find a way to win. Today, we did enough.”
Which position does the Redskins MVP play?
This poll is closed