The Triumph Of The System: How The Washington Redskins Rose From The Ashes

I admit it—calling the Washington Redskins 2015 NFC East title a “Triumph of the System” may be a little over the top. It sounds like a title you’d give to a book about the Brady/Belichick era in New England or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal political coalition, rather than about a team that they may still finish .500 and won’t beat a single winning team. But after 23 years of dysfunction this feels like scaling the heights. And what strikes me most is the complete contrast between this division crown and the last one in 2012.

Joe Gibbs Washington Redskins

The 2012 NFC East title run was keyed almost exclusively by RG3. Yes, he got significant help from Alfred Morris. One-man shows aren’t possible in the literal sense in football. But this one was pretty darn close.

But beneath the glitter and the flash of RG3 there were serious problems most everywhere on the team, within the organization and on the coaching staff. When Griffin’s knee gave out in that fateful playoff game against Seattle, the Redskins spent the next two years seeing how bad of a football team they truly were completely exposed.

This time is different. Whereas there was no doubt about who deserved primary credit for the 2012 NFC East crown, the 2015 NFC East title has an array of people lining up to get accolades…

*Any system starts at the top and ever since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, that’s been a source of dread for those of us who call ourselves Redskins fans. But there is one thing not even the biggest Snyder critic would ever deny and it’s that the man desperately wants to win. That zeal often led to Snyder getting in his own way, but he showed this past offseason just how bad he wanted to win when he voluntarily stepped back.

Snyder had spent fifteen years trying an array of organizational approaches—there was the all-powerful big-name head coach, most notably Joe Gibbs’ return and then Mike Shanahan. There was the unknown assistant, epitomized by Jim Zorn. There was the hotshot college coach—remember Steve Spurrier? But there was one thing Danny Snyder hadn’t tried and it was this—an all-powerful general manager who controlled personnel and then putting a businessman/football person in between Snyder and the football operation.

Enter Scot McCloughan. The man with a good reputation as a talent evaluator became the general manager. He replaced Bruce Allen, who’s a good man and a reasonably good football mind—at least for a businessman. But Allen was in over his head as the general manager. He’s now in a good role working with Snyder on the business side and Allen has enough football knowledge to serve as a good go-between between Snyder and McCloughan.

McCloughan and head coach Jay Gruden had a clear division of authority—the former would pick the players and the latter would decide who played. And they combined to use Snyder’s commitment to winning to make the single best hire of the entire offseason by any team.

Bill Callahan was the hottest assistant coach on the market. A veteran offensive line coach, widely regarded as one of the game’s best, had just finished overseeing an outstanding Dallas Cowboy front five. Callahan was a hot commodity. Salary cap considerations don’t come into play on a hire like this. Only the commitment of the front office does, and Snyder opened the vault to let McCloughan and Gruden make the hire.

The Redskins now had a mentor for an offensive line that was absolutely terrible. McCloughan then made sure Callahan had at least some young talent to work with. He used the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft to take guard Brandon Scherff from Iowa.

Scherff wasn’t the only display of straight-line organizational thinking. The greatest strength of Jay Gruden is his ability to pop receivers open underneath in the short passing game, seemingly at will. The drafting of Duke’s Jamison Crowder, a Wes Welker-type receiver, fit that system perfectly.

The selections of Scherff and Crowder to match the hire of Callahan and the system of Gruden made me wonder in the aftermath of the draft what franchise I was watching and could someone please find my dysfunctional Redskins.

Gruden made another hire for the coaching staff. This wasn’t a case of a bidding war over a prominent candidate who was a slam-dunk. This was a high risk decision that drew immediate criticism. He hired Joe Barry as defensive coordinator. Barry’s previous experience as a coordinator was with the Detroit Lions team of 2008 that went 0-16. I vowed to give Barry a chance, but be assured I was ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble. Others weren’t even that patient.

But this proved to be a big-time hire by Gruden. The Redskins stopped missing tackles and blowing coverages at every turn. The defense didn’t turn into the Legion of Boom, but they became credible. After finishing 29th in the league in points allowed last season, the 2015 Redskins are currently 16th in scoring defense. The improved tackling came in conjunction with more disciplined play generally. The Redskins stopped making a habit of jumping offsides or piling up false start penalties. They showed up and played hard and, for the most part, at least intelligently every Sunday.

George Allen Redskins

These virtues—playing hard and smart, making tackles and not jumping offsides—aren’t exactly rocket science. But in a league with as much parity as the NFL, I’ve always felt that teams who at least do this can jump from the scrap heap to the at least respectability very quickly.

Think of it like starting a diet—you can lose the first 10-15 pounds pretty quickly just by dropping the water weight. The rest of the program is slower and more demanding, but you can get that quick hit just by beginning. The 2015 Washington Redskins finally dropped the water weight. And they had the good fortune to be in a division where that was sufficient.

Watching the Redskin offensive line this year has been a pleasure. I key on Scherff at the beginning of each snap, and he consistently stands his man up and is rarely beaten. Last night in Philly he was only beaten once. Scherff often first takes out his man, then slides to the outside to help tackle Morgan Moses with an edge rusher. It’s not unusual for Callahan’s schemes to have Scherff kick out on a passing play—akin to blocking for a classic power sweep—and knock out a man on the edge.

Moses hasn’t been quite that good, but he’s an improving player. Trent Williams is a steady veteran at the other tackle spot. It’s not a great offensive line, but the pass protection this year has been consistently outstanding.

And you aren’t going to cover these receivers very long. Jordan Reed is finally having his first healthy season and has caught 83 passes for 907 yards. He simply can’t be stopped underneath, he’s great after the catch and is a downfield threat because of his speed and height. Reed was a favorite target of RG3’s in 2013 before injuries became a problem. Now Reed is a favorite of Kirk Cousins.

If you cover Reed underneath, DeSean Jackson stretches the field. The explosion of the Redskins offense can be precisely traced to Jackson’s return from his hamstring injury in Week 9. During last night’s NFL Network telecast, there was a graphic showing the drastically improved numbers from Cousins in the second half of the season. That’s not a coincidence—it tracks exactly with having DeSean available. Now these underneath passes that Gruden devises have more room, and if things get too tight, Jackson can loosen it up.

Pierre Garcon, a quality receiver himself, who can make tough catches over the middle, can get lost in the shuffle here but he’s made some big plays this year—a tough game-winner in the first meeting with Philadelphia being most prominent. Garcon and Crowder are consistently open when defenses get too preoccupied with Reed and Jackson.

And with that we come to Kirk Daniel Cousins.

The term used to describe Cousins—including by the quarterback himself—is that of a “distributor.” Cousins likes it because it’s more pro-active than “game manager” which implies a quarterback who plays scared. A “distributor” knows he has playmakers and need simply get them the football.

The combination of pass protection, excellent targets, a well-designed passing game and a defense that ensures the offense doesn’t feel constant pressure has allowed Cousins to flourish. He doesn’t press the way he did last year when one mistake too often led to an avalanche of errors. And paradoxically, the reduced responsibility on Cousins has led to greater production.

Cousins is an excellent rhythm passer. His improvisational skills certainly aren’t those of RG3 and they’re inferior to Colt McCoy’s. But when I’m watching the offensive line and Scherff off the snap and see the opposing pass rush held at bay, I instinctively think “this is a completion.” If you don’t get Kirk Cousins off his spot, he’s going to carve you up. And in the past several weeks, his game has drastically improved. He’s gone from completing simply the easy throws to confidently rifling the ball into some tighter windows.

I came into the season a deep Cousins skeptic. The first half of the season did nothing to change my mind. To be honest, I still think Colt McCoy could have done all this and more if he’d gotten the same vote of confidence Cousins did from the coaching staff. RG3, obviously, is an entirely separate subject with its own unique soap opera dynamic, with baggage caused by the previous head coach.

But whoever could have done this, the fact remains that Kirk Cousins has done it. He’s in a groove and improving steadily. Gruden and McCloughan believe in him. There’s no constant debate over who should be the quarterback. Just drop and distribute. That’s all Kirk has to do, and he’s doing it extremely well right now.

And that’s a very good place for an organization to be. The RG3 Run of 2012 was the single most intoxicating experience I’ve ever enjoyed as a sports fan (well, other than the 35 beers I drank the night the Reds won the 1990 World Series. I mean non-alcoholic intoxication). But the hangover was awful. Or to pick another dietary analogy, the RG3 year was like eating a lot of cotton candy. It tasted great, but when he got hurt, the stomach aches were unbearable. Whereas this 2015 team is like a solid meal, with all the food groups represented. It doesn’t give you that rush. But it feels very filling when it’s over.

It’s not over for the Washington Redskins. Not this season and the developmental process can’t be over either. It’s important for the team to go into the offseason recognizing that we are, in fact, a mediocre team. We’re just in the right division and in a place in our history where mediocrity feels great.

There are still needs. The center position is awful and the biggest reason the running game often struggles to get untracked. The interior linebackers and safeties need improvement. But we’re no longer one ACL tear away from complete collapse. We have a System that pieces can be plugged into. And for now, that’s enough for me.