NFL

The Washington Redskins: Expect a Super Bowl Contender

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Let’s suppose that I told you there was a hypothetical team that finished in the top 3 in both yards per play passing and yards per play rushing. Let’s say I also told you that team had a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back, and was without its best wide receiver and starting tight end for a large chunk of the season. Oh, and this team won its last 7 regular season games, and was leading in the playoffs against one of this year’s Super Bowl favorites, until the quarterback suffered a knee injury.

We will add that the team lost its best defensive player in the 2nd game of the year, and finished in the bottom half of the league in points allowed. Brian Orakpo is back to give the Redskins their pass rushing pair of Ryan Kerrigan and Orakpo.

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Of course, I am talking about your team from the nation’s capital.

Unlike, say, the Cincinnati Bengals, no one is really talking about Washington as a Super Bowl contender. Let’s alter that. I’ve already talked about the New Orleans Saints and how they are a major bounce back candidate. Like New Orleans, Washington rated in the top 3 in the league in net yards per pass, but had a below average defense (below average, of course, doesn’t fairly capture the Saints historic struggles). Here is a list of the other teams in the last 15 years to finish the year in top 3 in Net Yards Passing, but finish 20th or lower in points allowed.

Great Passing, Bad Defense

Only one of the teams failed to have a winning record the next year (Minnesota, 2000). These teams went from 9.8 wins on average to 11.1 wins. Several teams made sizeable jumps the next year. The St. Louis Rams were involved in shootout after shootout in 2000. The next year, hiring Lovie Smith at defensive coordinator, they went back to a decent defense, and the result was a 14-2 season, and a team that was upset in the Super Bowl. The 2002 Chiefs were a great offensive team but a horrible defense. The defense didn’t improve much the next year, but the special teams returns of Dante Hall and even more offensive dominance resulted in a 13-3 year. The 2008 Saints went from 8-8 to a Super Bowl title when the defense became simply below average but opportunistic.

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The rub with Washington is how you view the pistol offense and how likely it is to continue to have success. It also depends on Robert Griffin III’s health in 2013. He has been medically cleared to play in the opener, and has been itching to get on the field for weeks. How rusty will he be?

Consider me a believer in the pistol offense for the 2013 season. I think it is still on its ascendency, and I don’t expect the teams that were racking up huge yards to suddenly get stopped after one offseason. In Washington’s case, we have to remember that Robert Griffin III was a rookie, and has plenty of room to improve as a passer. In addition, Pierre Garçon missed 6 games last year, tight end Fred Davis missed 9 games, and Roy Helu had only 2 carries before going on injured reserve. It is easy to forget that Helu was expected to be the starter entering last camp before his injuries and Alfred Morris’ emergence. Helu provides an additional element out of the backfield, as Morris was little used as a receiver. This preseason, Helu had 157 yards rushing preseason, but was notably held out, along with Morris, in the final game. That indicates a sign that Shanahan may have bigger plans for Helu than people realize.

Washington went 4-0 this preseason. Preseason records themselves can be notoriously deceiving, but I’m going to point out a few things that are notable here. Over the last three preseason games, Washington outscored the opponents 64-19 in the first half, when most of the starters and top reserves who will play in rotation were in. (In the second half, it was 20-13 for Washington). One of the criticisms of Washington in the past during the Daniel Snyder era was a tendency to go for veterans and ignore depth and youth. This preseason’s results would counter that past reputation. Oh, and this was done without Griffin playing, and with backup Kirk Cousins throwing 10 passes before getting hurt.

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The defense will deal with the early four game suspensions of Jarvis Jenkins and Rob Jackson, the two guys that replaced Adam Carriker and Brian Orakpo last year. Adam Carriker had surgery again on his leg and will start the season on the PUP, so this will be a defense that should get better when guys return. The secondary has added David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo to the mix, and they should compete for playing time right away.

The other potential reasons why Washington does not realize continued improvement include offensive line health, and turnover regression. The offensive line had four guys start every game last year, after previous years dealing with injuries to starters Trent Williams and Kory Lichtensteiger. Key injuries there could impact the growth of the offense. Washington was +17 in turnovers in 2012. I do tend to think that this offense puts defenses in a bind, and dictates situations that are favorable to being better at avoiding turnovers. We shall see, but while I expect some regression, I still look for Washington to be pretty good at avoiding turnovers on offense.

So let’s go out on a limb here in regard to Washington and their 8.5 win total expectation: Robert Griffin III plays as well or better than last year, the offensive skill players are healthier, allowing even more diversity and creativity to counter what defenses will try to do. Washington averages even more than the 27.2 points they averaged last year. Meanwhile, the defense with Orakpo returning moves toward average, and Washington should be on everyone’s short list of contenders for the Super Bowl title.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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