If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse
A lot of critics of the Redskins franchise say that the team hasn’t gotten better this off season, or at least, not better enough to compete in the division that holds the defending super bowl champs.
Those critics say that the Redskins have stood still on the roster and haven’t been active enough in free agency. They use the argument that ‘if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse’. They suggest that, somehow, the Eagles, who have lost 16 players from their super bowl squad, have improved. They point to 16 games of Zeke Elliott as being better than 10 games of Zeke Elliott. They point to the injuries that the Giants dealt with last season.
They say that the Redskins are falling behind. I disagree.
The Eagles hope to get Carson Wentz back healthy after he tore his ACL/LCL in Week 14 last year.
The Cowboys think that 16 games of Zeke Elliott will turn their 9-7 squad into division champs. They will actually be relying heavily on a bevy of young players to make that vision into a reality, as they have 10 draft picks but one of the unhealthiest cap situations in the league at the moment.
The Giants will be trying to convince themselves that Ben McAdoo was a bad dream — and that the combination of Dave Gettleman and Pat Shurmer can leverage off the #2 pick in the draft to bring order to the chaos that is Odell Beckham Junior, an aging Eli Manning, and a non-existent running game. The Giants are going to need to make their 6 draft picks count for lot, because they have a plethora of needs in a thin roster that has seen 3 offensive line starters leave in free agency this off season, to be replaced by Nate Solder, who will now be the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. The Giants are trying to buy talent again, but they’ve gone 6 seasons without a division title or a playoff win, and that’s unlikely to change with a first year head coach, an aging quarterback and a tumultuous off-season focused on the diva WR who may or may not be traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
The Redskins will be better because they will be healthier.
The NFL’s most injured team in 2017
Football Outsiders does an annual calculation called Adjusted Games Lost, which measures “how injured” each team was during the season. In 2016, the Bears set the all time record by measuring 158.8 AGL. In that season (2016) the Redskins mark was 99 Adjusted Games Lost, ranking them 25th (8th worst).
In 2017, Washington took the unwanted title of “Most Injured” with a mark of 121 Adjusted Games Lost. Here’s what Football Outsiders had to say about the Redskins ‘17 season:
When we looked at AGL for head coaches last year, Jay Gruden was only surpassed by Mike McCoy’s San Diego teams.
After Washington finished last in AGL in 2017, we can say that Gruden has had the most injured teams of any coach since 2002. This 2017 total does not even include anything for safety Su’a Cravens, who shocked everyone when he decided to retire a week before the regular season. He was placed on an exempt list and missed the entire season after getting treated for post-concussion syndrome.
Middle linebacker Mason Foster (11.3 AGL) and first-round rookie Jonathan Allen (11.0 AGL) were Washington’s two biggest losses by AGL. The skill positions also lost tight end Jordan Reed (8.3 AGL), running backs Rob Kelley (8.6 AGL) and Chris Thompson (6.1 AGL), and wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (7.1 AGL) for extended periods of time. [T]he depth of injuries along the offensive line really pushed Washington over the top here. Washington had a league-high 10 players incur at least 6.0 AGL.
Wow. These guys aren’t Redskins fans looking for excuses for the team’s mediocre record last year; this is an independent third party doing what they do every year. When you take the last minute unexpected loss of Su’a Cravens into account, the impact on last season is even more pronounced.
Getting healthier means getting better
The Redskins haven’t made a ton of free agency moves because, if the team returns to a ‘normal’ level of injury (around 65 to 70 AGL), then the team will be improved by having better personnel on the field more often.
One reason for optimism is the way the Redskins were playing before the injuries really started to hit last year (which I would say was the Kansas City game in Week 4). The Redskins were winning that game until Trent Williams got his initial injury of the season, and — seemingly more critically in that game — Josh Norman broke his ribs and had to leave the game. It was the loss of Norman that ultimately seemed to provide Kansas City with the opportunity to come back in that game.
Redskins Wire recently published an article that discussed last season’s injuries.
When looking back at last season, it must be noted that the Redskins started it with a lot of promise, even after most pundits predicted the team to win, on average, just five to six games.
After a Sunday night demolishing of the Oakland Raiders, Washington was 2-1 and had gained the attention of football fans nationwide. The Redskins appeared to be in decent shape despite a loss a week later (on Monday Night Football) to the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City came into that game undefeated and few, if any, thought Washington had a chance to defeat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium… which is one of the NFL’s toughest venues to play in.
The Burgundy and Gold played the Chiefs tough however and had a chance to win the game on a couple of late plays.
Washington entered its bye week with a record of 2-2 and most thought it was a playoff-caliber team.
Despite the growing number of injuries, the Redskins stayed in (or near) the USA TODAY NFL rankings for most of the first half of the season.
Was Washington really a playoff-caliber team before injuries derailed their season?
Most who don’t follow the team will respond to this question with a resounding ‘No.’ They will use the analogy of the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl with their backup quarterback Nick Foles (backup to MVP candidate Carson Wentz) and having countless other injuries, including those to three starters, as justification for their answer. Even the Minnesota Vikings made it to the NFC Championship game with their third-string quarterback and without their top running back in Dalvin Cook. The New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars made it to the Super Bowl and AFC Championship games without two of their best offensive players in WRs Julian Edelman and Allen Robinson recently.
Injuries are part of the game and no team uses it as an excuse. But the real Redskins of 2017 were never on display after the first few weeks of the season.
The ‘real’ Redskins that we saw early last season were tough against the run defensively, and were holding opposing offenses in check.
The Redskins’ passing game was a bit off-kilter early, but seemed to settle in as the season went on, with running back Chris Thompson turning out to be the real star of the offense. The running attack was anemic throughout the season, and remains an area of concern even now.
In addition to injuries, turnovers were a huge problem for the Redskins last year
Turnovers were a problem — especially fumbles —- with Kirk Cousins being the third worst quarterback in the league with 13 fumbles, and Jamison Crowder 2nd worst of the non-quarterbacks with a half dozen fumbles of his own. Between the two of them, they gave opposing offenses too many extra bites at the apple with excellent field position. The lost fumbles put the Redskin defense back on the field too often and too soon.
A defense that was undermanned due to injuries was too often off the bench quickly and having to defend short fields.
That’s not a recipe for success. It wears the defense down.
But the fumbling problem should improve with the change at quarterback, since, while Kirk Cousins was treating the football like a greased piglet, Alex Smith dropped the ball only twice last year.
What does all this mean for 2018?
The fumbling quarterback problem
Everyone focuses on interceptions as the key quarterback turnover statistic. Kirk Cousins threw 13 INTs in 2017, while Alex Smith threw 5, according to TeamRankings.com. In fact, across the three season from 2015-17 (Kirk’s 3 years as a starter), Cousins threw 11, 12, and 13 interceptions, respectively, while Alex Smith threw 7, 8, and 5.
Smith being careful with the football isn’t anything new; Cousins being looser with the ball isn’t new either.
In those 3 season, Smith fumbled the ball a total of 13 times, losing 5 of them.
Cousins, in the same three seasons, fumbled the ball 31 times, losing 11 of them.
That means 25 turnovers (INTs + lost fumbles) for Smith in 3 years (8.33 per season) versus 47 turnovers for Kirk (15.66 per season). Amazingly, thoughout his tenure as a starter, Kirk has been giving the ball tot the other team about once per game, on average. That’s an extra possession per game for the other team.
We have every reason to expect that the Redskins new quarterback will give the ball to the opposing team at only about half the rate that last year’s starter, Cousins, did.
Fewer turnovers means better field position, more rested defense, and fewer opportunities for the other team to score.
This is a winning formula.
Rebounding from the injury problem
There are two reasons to feel that the Redskins will be healthier in 2018.
The first is a mathematical argument — regression to the mean. It is not typical for a team, a player, an organization... whatever... to repeatedly land in the position of outlier in a statistical sample.
The Redskins were the most injured team in the NFL in 2017 according to Football Outsiders, and they were the 8th most injured team in 2016.
Jay Gruden’s first three season as a head coach saw him with the second-worst outcome for an NFL head coach from 2002 onward, and 2017 pushed him into first place (or perhaps ‘last place’ is the better way to think about it) on that list.
Odds are that even if the Redskins did nothing at all to address the injury problem, they would be healthier in 2018 just because the math says that they should be.
But of course, the Redskins are taking action. We’ve seen multiple reports about the Redskins new ‘Recovery Center’ following the owner’s meeting in Orlando, where Jay Gruden talked about it.
Avoiding such a devastating swath of injuries is chief amongst the Redskins’ concerns in 2018, and thankfully, the team is combatting the issue head on. Speaking to media at the NFL’s annual meetings in Orlando, head coach Jay Gruden confirmed their plans to develop a recovery center for players at team’s Ashburn training center, with head trainer Larry Hess embarking on a transatlantic journey to take in some of the world’s most state of the art facilities in the Premier League.
“Our trainer will be here shortly with the final projection and we’ll get it started I think starting Monday,” Gruden said. “He’s flying up to London – or he’s flying over there – to check out some recovery centers at some of the soccer facilities that they have over there. So we’re adding quite a few things that will hopefully help in the recovery process. Will it cure injuries? A guy getting rolled up on or a shoulder or an Achilles? No. But I think in order to help guys after games recover could be beneficial to everybody.
Issues were raised by multiple players regarding the lack of dedication to individual recovery, but Gruden and the Redskins have a plan to change that. It’s become commonplace for players to use devices ranging from oxygen tanks to electrotherapy leg systems at home, however the Redskins are keen to offer those same services at Redskins Park under the supervision of the training staff.
“There’s a lot of these tanks and things that they’ve been using, some of them, on their own,” Gruden said. “Now, we’re just trying to have access so they can use them at the facility.
Here’s an incomplete list of players who lost significant time to injury last season; better health should mean more talent on the field for more of the season:
- Trent Williams
- Morgan Moses
- Ty Nsekhe
- Jordan Reed
- Chris Thompson
- Rob Kelley
- Samajae Perine
- Kapri Bibbs
- Matt Ioannidis
- Jonathan Allen
- Mason Foster
- Zach Brown
- Montae Nicholson
That’s a lot of talent, and a lot of starting talent especially, that accounted for most of those 121 adjusted games lost last season.
Of course the Redskins will still suffer injuries in 2018 — every team does — but the expectation is that the team won’t continue at the same incredible rate that they have for the past two years.
The Redskins haven’t been extremely active this off-season, content to let several free agents walk, while signing only one high-dollar free agent from another team, concentrating instead on filling some roster cracks with low priced veterans and re-signing key 2017 Redskins on team-friendly contracts. Of course, they made one of the bigger transactions of the 2018 offseason when they traded for former Chiefs quarterback, Alex Smith.
In addition to the anticipated improvement from last year’s devastating turnover statistics discussed above, Smith is known as a fantastic team leader and teacher. His experience gives him a leg up on running and adjusting an offense, and his superior athletic ability adds a dangerous dimension to the offense — one that is likely to help the Redskins improve on their poor 3rd down conversion rate, once again aiding the ‘Skins defense by increasing Washington’s time of possession and improving field position.
The Redskins have seen a number of players leave this off-season, yet, among those to leave, only Kirk Cousins and Bashaud Breeland were really significant starters and contributors in 2017, and the Redskins actually upgraded the quarterback position by bringing in 13 year veteran pro bowl quarterback Alex Smith to replace him. The Breeland replacement, Fabian Morearu, is arguably an upgrade as well.
Bashaud Breeland - Breeland was the Redskins’ #2 CB in recent years, but the team seems to have planned to let him walk at the end of his rookie contract rather than pay him along with Josh Norman. Fabian Moreau was selected in the ‘17 draft, and is considered to be a better prospect than Breeland was; he should be able to start opposite Norman this season and provide a seamless transition in the defensive backfield for Washington
At the wide receiver position, the addition of Paul Richardson, signed from the Seahawks, should help restore the quick-strike offense that the Redskins lost when Desean Jackson went to Tampa Bay at the end of the ‘16 season. While Terrelle Pryor was expected to help re-shape the Redskins passing attack last season, he proved to be ineffective on the field in 2017, and was a major disappointment as a free agent signing.
Aside from Cousins, Breeland and Terrelle Pryor — each of whom has already been replaced on the roster with better players — the key losses in free agency were mostly a collection of backups, rotational players and guys who were injured last season:
Ryan Grant - a career #4 WR who will likely be replaced by younger players like Maurice Harris and Robert Davis
Trent Murphy - a rotational OLB who spent the entire 2017 season on IR
Junior Galette - a 30-year-old rotational OLB, Galette has had a soft market this off-season, after playing well for the ‘Skins last year, with few reports of teams interested beyond the Redskins. Washington signed Pernell McPhee to replace Galette, though McPhee’s skill set is probably closer to that of Trent Murphy. The Redskins may select a young speed rusher in the mid-to-late rounds of this month’s draft to replace some of Galette’s skill set.
Spencer Long - an interior offensive lineman who started at Center in the 2016 season before missing most of ‘17 on the IR list, Long has already been replaced by 2017 draft pick Chase Roullier
Kendall Fuller - The Redskins young slot corner played really well in his sophomore campaign last year. Fuller was sent to the Chiefs in the trade that brought Alex Smith to the Redskins, and the unexpectedness of his loss left a roster hole that the Redskins have tried to fill with a bit of FlexSeal by signing CB Orlando Scandrick from the Cowboys. Scandrick is an aging and oft-injured veteran Cowboy defensive player on a very small contract that provides a limited amount of insurance for the Redskins, who still have Quinton Dunbar, a young and improving player, to round out the CB group. The team will likely take a CB with one of their draft picks this month.
Su’a Cravens - appeared to commit career suicide by quitting on the team last year just about a week prior to the regular season. He spent the year on a special reserve list, and last week was traded to the Broncos for a 5th round pick in this year’s draft, along with improved draft position in the 4th & 5th rounds
Remaining roster improvements needed
While any position on nearly any NFL team can be upgraded, and continuous roster improvement should always be the goal, the Redskins appear to have a limited number of true roster ‘holes’.
The single most obvious roster hole is at Left Guard, where the team currently doesn’t have a good option as a starter.
The next most pressing need seems to be at Running Back, where the Redskins have a deep group of JAGs, but lack the explosive game-changing 1st & 2nd down back that NFL teams need
After that, the needs are primarily depth or rotational needs: a blocking TE and Jordan Reed injury insurance, a run stuffing defensive lineman, a speed rusher, a young slot corner, another safety, an ILB with speed and cover skills — basically, the kind of needs that every team has going into the draft.
Draft flexibility in ‘18 and ‘19
The Redskins have 8 picks in this month’s draft. The team traded away it’s 3rd rounder as part of the cost of acquiring Alex Smith, but has an extra 7th from the Derek Carrier trade, and an extra 5th from the Cravens trade.
In addition, because the Redskins have lost 6 Compensatory free agents so far this season, while signing only one, they are likely to be awarded as many as 4 compensatory picks in the 2019 draft, meaning that they could have up to 11 picks next year.
Nineteen picks across two draft years provides the Redskins with lots of flexibility to move up or down the draft board at the end of this month in an attempt to get the players they want and need. Chances are that they’ll come out of the draft with a fully loaded roster that can compete for the division title and a spot in the playoffs.
The final word
The Redskins had an impressive start to the season in 2017. Had the team experienced an NFL-normal amount of injuries, they likely would have won a few more games and been a legitimate playoff team. There are good reasons to expect that the Redskins will have a more normalized amount of injuries this year, leading to an improved team.
The most notable loss from the 2017 Redskins is the starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins. As we have seen, the Redskins have upgraded the position by trading for Alex Smith — a quarterback who should give the ball away to the opposing defense only about half as often as Kirk Cousins, and who adds athleticism, experience, leadership and more skilled passing to Jay Gruden’s team and offense.
The team has made one potential ‘impact’ signing in Paul Richardson, a player who should restore a lost dimension to the Redskins offense. Aside from that, the team has had a somewhat muted free agency period, outside of re-signing many of its own players, including three inside linebackers, a key cornerback, and the placekicker.
The players that have gone to other teams have been, for the most part, depth and rotational players for the ‘Skins who have been signed to costly contracts by other teams, leading to increase in draft capital via the compensatory draft pick system.
The Redkins have the draft coming up in three weeks, with the opportunity to add two or three impact players, as well as some valuable depth players. Even after that, the team can continue to sign free agents to meet roster needs.
The 2018 roster is shaping up as one that should give Redskins fans a lot of confidence that the team will be competing for the division title in December.