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The 5 O’Clock Club: February expectations for the 2018 season

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Miami Dolphins v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club 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.

marblemike sent an email

In response to my repeated invitations for readers to contribute to the 5 o’clock club, I got an email recently from marblemike (who wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Redskins needed to trade Ryan Kerrigan to remain competitive). His email started out talking about golf, but when he switched the focus to football, he said the following:

The Browns don’t expect to make the playoffs in 2019, but would be very satisfied with 6 wins. The Vikings, Steelers and Packers will be disappointed with anything less than 10 wins. The Patriots expect to be playing in the Super Bowl next year and anything less will be considered a failure.

The past 3 years the Skins won 9, 8 and then 7 games. Recently I’ve seen many comments stating that this team is “close.” If we can resign our own key FAs and add a few players thru the draft or in free agency, then we could have a “good” team in 2018.

Good is a relative term. My own definition of good is a playoff team, but others may have another definition. This is the NFL. To me, anything less than the playoffs is a failed season.

Taken in the context of his full email, Mike seemed to be suggesting that Redskins fans are ‘settling’ for less than they should.

But following the train of his thoughts here, if Redskin fans expect the team to add players to be ‘good’, that implies that the performance would be better than it’s been, so it sounds like Mike is describing fans who are expecting the Redskins to improve to at least a 10-win team.

This would put them on par with the Vikings, Steelers and Packers fans that marblemike seems to admire (the Green Bay fans must’ve been terribly disappointed with the 7-9 season they just suffered through).

In my view, when Redskin fans talk about fielding a ‘good’ team, they aren’t talking about more of the same. We are talking about fielding a playoff team.

Before anyone sneers at that, let me remind you of what you already know. Teams rise and fall in cycles.

In my opinion, the Redskins are a team on the rise.

Peaks and valleys

Let me share a record of frustration with you — 9 seasons without a division title; a fan base that was increasingly frustrated. 8 wins, 9 wins, 5, 1, 6, 2, 5, 10, and 6-win seasons. Forty-four more losses than wins. That was the New England Patriots from 1987 to 1995.

At one time, the Browns were arguably the best team in pro football.

  • In the eight seasons from 1950 to 1957 Cleveland played in 7 championship games, winning 3 of them.
  • In the 6 years from ‘64 to ‘69 they played in 4 more league championship games, winning one of them.
  • From ‘86 to ‘89 they won an average of 10 games per season, and played in 3 AFC championship games.

It’s from 1990 onward that the Browns have been perhaps the worst franchise in the NFL.

Teams get better for a while and worse for a while.

The Cowboys from ‘91 to ‘95 averaged 12 wins per season and won 3 superbowls.

From ‘99-’02? 8-8, 5-11, 5-11, 5-11.

From 2010 to 2013? 6-10, 8-8, 8-8, 8-8, with a 4-12 season in 2015.

The Redskins had a wonderful run from ‘82 to ‘92. In 11 seasons, they were under .500 only once (a 7-9 season in ‘88) and an overall record of 116-52, winning 5 division championships, playing in 4 superbowls, and winning 3 world championships.

The Redskins haven’t won 11 games in a season since 1991, and have stacked up 14 losing seasons in that time, versus 9 winning seasons. Like the Patriots, the Browns and the Cowboys, Washington has cycled through periods of winning and losing.

Mike’s email above indicated that, because the Redskins had averaged 8 wins per season over the past three years, the fans somehow expect less than fans of other franchises. He seems to think that Redskins fans are happy with more of the same. I disagree. Hell, I strenuously disagree!

I think Redskin fans want more than they’ve been getting, and genuinely expect more in 2018.

I think Redskin fans are ready to demand more from the franchise.

Jay Gruden has brought a sense of relative stability to the Redskins, but as I said not very long ago:

The fans, players, the front office and the owner — who were happy to achieve consistent mediocrity in 2015 and perhaps even 2016 — now want more. The team has shown it can compete, now everyone wants to see them win.

I’d say that [Jay Gruden] has to achieve at least 10 wins in 2018 to keep his job.

If the team isn’t in the playoffs, it’s hard to see Gruden returning as the head coach in 2019.

If the team gets to the postseason but can’t win a playoff game in 2018, then Jay — if he’s back at all in 2019 — will probably begin the season on a very hot seat with a very short leash.

In short, it’s time to produce.

There are reasons that I’m optimistic about 2018

Recovering from a season of injury

I believe the Redskins had the right team at the beginning of the season in 2017. While some teams suffered more injuries to key players (including the Eagles and the Vikings), only the Giants suffered more injuries that cut deep into the roster. The Redskins literally had players signed during the week and active on Sunday several times during the ‘17 season.

In short, the Redskins roster was much better than a 7-9 team last year, but it got torn to bits with injuries.

The Redskins have the opportunity to build on a that pre-injury roster in 2018.

Recovering from the RG3 fiasco

In a recent 5 o’clock club post, we looked at the hole in the Redskins draft history where three 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick were used to acquire one player who is no longer in the league.

The Redskins have been making up for those missing draft picks for years by fielding 3rd & 4th rounders who have played at a high level, but 2018 and 2019 will finally see the Redskin roster ‘normalized’, with the amount of first-round talent on the team reaching the same level as most other teams.

Good stewardship is back in fashion in Asburn

Every current Redskins fan knows the philosophy of Scot McCloughan: The draft is the lifeline of the organization.

The draft. The draft. The draft.

”I honestly think (the) draft is the lifeline of an organization,” McCloughan said. “... The thing I liked about what we did in (San Francisco), what we did in Seattle: we drafted our own, molded our own and re-signed the ones we wanted to re-sign.”

McCloughan grew up in that mold of Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, who focused on cultivating the draft and keeping their own players

While Scot may be gone from Asburn, the commitment to the draft as the lifeline of the organization seems to live on.

The Redskins spent a decade and a half in the wilderness of seeing free agency as the path to the Promised Land. The list of shiny new toys that turned out to be expensive rusty worn-out mistakes is long and undistinguished.

But the Redskin front office hasn’t really made an expensive move for another team’s aging and no-longer-relevant free agent for a long time now. And since the aborted RG3 big splash in the 2012 draft, the team has been conservative with its draft picks.

In short, a corner seems to have been turned in Ashburn.

The stewards of the Redskin legacy are protecting draft capital, using free agency to sign 5th year players to safe contracts that don’t hobble the team, and are unafraid to make a move when they see the opportunity to strengthen the roster (DJax, Josh Norman, Pryor, Brown, Swearinger, Alex Smith).

Since the firing of Mike Shanahan, the guys in charge seem to be behaving like grown ups who understand roster-building in the NFL. They aren’t perfect... if they were, we wouldn’t have seen McClain or Pryor in burgundy and gold last year, but they aren’t reckless either. Free agent contracts aren’t crippling the team if the player doesn’t turn out to be what the franchise was hoping for, and the front office isn’t trading away the future in the form of draft picks that don’t have a payoff.

Turning around a roster

Two or three key players on a team can change a season. The difference made by Jon Allen in 2017, for example, was huge — it was easy to see how much the team suffered when he went on IR. He’ll be back and healthy this season (knock wood), and hopefully the team will add another dominant DT in either free agency or the draft.

From 2014 to 2017 the Redskin team depth has improved noticeably. This is a roster that’s getting stronger year by year.

The Redskins and their fans, as we sit here before free agency and the draft, have many good reasons to expect another playoff year in 2018 — what would be the Redskins’ second appearance in four seasons, and third in seven seasons — despite the roster holes created by the RG3 trade.

Here’s a bit more of marblemike’s email to me:

Both the Eagles and the Cowboys will be adding players to improve their teams this offseason and to begin with, both teams are already better than the Skins.

In order to reach the playoffs next season the Redskins need to improve by a greater margin than they improve their teams.

I’m not so sure that anything in this paragraph is correct.

Will the Eagles actually be adding players to improve this off season?

Here’s an (incomplete) list of free agents from the Eagles super bowl team who may be hitting free agency on 14 March:

  • Darren Sproles
  • Trey Burton
  • Cory Graham
  • LeGarrette Blount
  • Caleb Sturgis
  • Will Beatty
  • Dannell Ellerbe
  • Najee Goode
  • Patrick Robinson
  • Jaylen Watkins

Without signing any of those players, the Eagles are currently projected to be $9.4 million OVER the salary cap when the new league year starts on 14 March.

They’ll need to create about $12m in cap space just to be able to sign their draft picks, not to mention any of the ten free agent players listed above.

Far from adding players, like most Super Bowl teams in the era of salary cap and free agency, the Eagles will almost certainly be losing players that they can’t pay.

Cowboys

Things are similar for the Cowboys, though it is less clear that the Cowboys are, as marblemike contends, even a more talented team than the Redskins. True, the Cowboys had the better overall record, and beat the Redskins in both head-to-head matchups in ‘17, but the Redskins played the Cowboys in Weeks 8 and 13, after the injury bug had bitten deep into the Redskins roster.

Similar to the Eagles, the Cowboys have 16 free agents from the ‘17 squad. Chief among them is Demarcus Lawrence, who supplied almost their entire pass rushing production last year, and who will be looking for a big payday. Other key players include Rolando McClain, Jonathan Cooper, Anthony Hitchens, and David Irving.

A Cowboy defense that lost Ronald Leary, Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Terrell McClain last season will be struggling to field an improved unit in 2018 as it will take all of their available cap space (and probably more) just to retain or replace their impending key free agents.

Redskins

Washington has a long list of free agents as well, but only a few of them will really matter: Cousins, Zach Brown, Junior Galette, Spencer Long, Baushaud Breeland, and Ryan Grant. Of course, Kendall Fuller will need to be replaced as well.

Cousins has already been replaced via trade. Having the starting quarterback situation settled for the next several years will be good for the organization, and allow it to move forward with building the rest of the roster.

The Redskins have around $30m in 2018 cap space to use toward replacing the other players.

  • There’s a good chance that the Skins already have the cornerback depth to deal with the potential loss of Breeland and Fuller.
  • Roullier has already replaced Long at starting Center.
  • Galette was simply a part-time player for the Redskins in ‘17, though he’ll likely play more wherever he signs in ‘18.
  • Grant is a #4 receiver.

The key loss would be Zach Brown, but there should be plenty of options for replacing him if he doesn’t re-sign in Washington.

The Redskins are in a good position to improve in 2018

In short, the Eagles will struggle to field the same quality team in ‘18 due to the salary cap.

The Cowboys, after losing the heart of their defense last season, will struggle just to tread water with the defensive roster in 2018.

The Cowboys only receiving threat last year was Dez Bryant, and both Stephen and Jerry Jones have made noises about Dez needing to contribute more.

The Redskins — by choosing to trade for Alex Smith instead of being held ransom by Kirk Cousins — will (based on media reports) pay $22.2m per year for the QB from ‘18 to ‘22, and have probably saved $5m to $8m per year in salary cap charges versus signing Cousins to his expected record-breaking contract. By not having to meet Kirk’s repeated demands for more guarantees, the Redskins front office will likely have much more roster flexibility going forward than they would have if they had retained their starting signal caller. This means that the Redskins good roster depth will likely be improved in free agency next month.

Impact of the salary cap on the NFC East in 2018

According to OverTheCap, this is the current salary cap space situation in the NFC East:

  • Redskins $49.1m (adjust to around $30m following the Fuller for Smith trade)
  • Giants $24.5m
  • Cowboys $19.1m
  • Eagles ($9.6m)

If you figure that each of the 4 teams needs to reserve about $8m for draft picks and ‘contingeny’ for 2018 injuries, the money available to go shopping in free agency will be something like this:

  • Redskins $22m
  • Giants $16.5m
  • Cowboys $10.1m
  • Eagles (18.6m)

Sure, the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants can create room through cuts & restructures, but then, so can the Redskins.

The fact is, the Redskins are in a much better position to strengthen the team by signing free agents (either re-signing its own, or bringing players in from other teams) than anyone else in the division, while the Eagles are looking a salary cap conundrum.

The Eagles need to create nearly $25m in new cap space just to be able to re-sign a a player like Patrick Robinson, a backup cornerback. They can’t possibly make progress in free agency. The Eagles are gonna be bleeding (green) talent in 2018 due to salary cap the same way the Cowboys defense was decimated last year.

Far from adding talent, the Eagles are likely to hemorrhage talent in March.

Meanwhile the Cowboys will have to struggle to maintain the status quo as Damarcus Lawrence, Jonathan Cooper and Anthony Hitchens all hit free agency, just as the owner/GM of the team is publicly questioning Dez Bryant’s contributions.

This season — 2018 — is ripe with opportunity for the Redskins to reestablish themselves as the dominant team in the division. The Redskins have key players entering free agency too, but they have the best salary cap position, and the best roster depth to absorb the free agent losses in the division.

Pollyanna and Cassandra

Another recent 5 o’clock club post talked about those who see only doom & gloom for the Redskins — the Cassandras — who see a roster incapable of winning the division, and a franchise mired in perennial 8-win seasons.

It also talked about the Pollyannas — fans who look at the roster and see that, without the kind of injuries suffered in ‘17, with the most cap space of any team in the division, and with another year of adding 1st & 2nd round draft picks to the roster, things are getting better. These fans see a team that was constructed to win 11 games last year, but got waylaid by injury. Pollyanna sees a bright future for the Redskins going forward.

Marblemike is clearly a Cassandra as far as the Redskins are concerned. His comments on the site are consistently pessimistic about the team’s ability to move forward and to win. His answer is to trade Ryan Kerrigan, to strip down the roster and start again.

The Skins aren’t going to the Super Bowl in the next 2 years and may not even sniff the playoffs. How much worse can the defense be the next 2 years without Kerrigan?

—marblemike

I’m clearly a Pollyanna. I see a deep roster that’s getting deeper.

I see a head coach who has brought stability to a franchise that had spent 15 seasons lost in the desert, and is now ready to take the next step.

I see a franchise that has drafted well for 4 consecutive seasons, and that has now moved on from the circus of the Kirk Cousins contract and created certainty at the most critical position on the team.

Mike thinks Redskin fans are missing the point because they talk of being ‘close’ and expecting to have a good team in 2018. I get the feeling that he thinks that we are talking about winning 9 games and finishing second in the division. He doesn’t get it.

I expect the team to win the division, go to the playoffs and play well in 2018 and the postseason.

Turnarounds are the norm

  • In the two seasons before the Redskins won their first Superbowl, they were 6-10 and 8-8.
  • In 1989 & ‘90, just before the Cowboys won their 3 super bowls in four seasons, they went 1-15 and 7-9.
  • The current superbowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles, were 7-9 in 2015 and 7-9 again in 2016. Immediately prior to their five division titles between 2000 and 2006, the Eagles had consecutive seasons where they won 6, 3, and 5 games.
  • Prior to the Patriots first super bowl win in 2001, they went 5-11 in 2000 — which was a three-game drop off from the disappointing 8-8 season in ‘99.

“Worst to first” is too common in the NFL generally, and the NFC East specifically, for anyone to use the 2017 results to predict that the Redskins will have a poor season in 2018.

History tells us that teams follow periods of struggle with periods of great success. God knows the Redskins have struggled, but the past three years have been a time of consolidation for the franchise. In 2018, the franchise is poised to make a great leap forward. Eight-win seasons are in the rearview mirror; this should be a season of winning performance for the Redskins.

This will be a season for playoff football in DC.

Poll

Since marblemike brought it up, what will it take for you to see 2018 as a "successful" season?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Nothing less than a superbowl win
    (11 votes)
  • 31%
    At least one win in the playoffs
    (130 votes)
  • 10%
    At least winning the division title
    (45 votes)
  • 25%
    At least a wildcard spot
    (108 votes)
  • 12%
    at least 10 wins
    (53 votes)
  • 6%
    at least 9 wins
    (26 votes)
  • 0%
    at least 8 wins
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Seeing Gruden get fired
    (1 vote)
  • 6%
    Seeing Bruch Allen get fired
    (26 votes)
  • 2%
    Seeing Gruden and Allen both get fired
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    As long as we beat Dallas once, I’m happy.
    (4 votes)
418 votes total Vote Now