Any Hope For The Redskins In A Soft NFC East?

As a Redskins fan, I should know better than to do this exercise, but I’m going to anyway—after a Week 1 where the Eagles lost and the Cowboys and Giants played a game that was exciting only due to shared mediocrity, is there any hope of the ‘Skins stepping up and being a sleeper in the NFC East? If Miami is as good as a lot of pundits think they will be, then a close 17-10 loss is no shame. Here’s the pros and cons for Washington’s case, based on what we saw in Week 1…

Joe Gibbs Washington Redskins

You can see the progress in the Redskins offensive line. Alfred Morris found room for 125 yards on the ground and Kirk Cousins usually had time to throw the ball. When you consider the Dolphins defensive front has Cameron Wake and Ndamakong Suh, that’s no small thing.

The Washington offensive front isn’t about to stir memories of the Hogs, but with a first-round draft pick in Brandon Scherff, a second-year player in Morgan Moses and a terrific new position coach in Bill Callahan, there are reasons to like the direction.

Washington’s defense played a solid football game, holding Miami to 256 total yards and really never letting the Dolphins get anything going consistently. Ryan Tannehill never looked comfortable and the Redskins stopped the run consistently.

If Chris Culliver and Keenan Robinson finish the job on a couple of Tannehill passes that hit them right in the hands, this game has a different result. Culliver dropped a sure Pick-6 and Robinson dropped one that would have snuffed out a Miami drive in the red zone.

Kirk Cousins played a manageable game within the Jay Gruden system, which is built around short completions. He completed 21/31 (67%) and while he threw two interceptions, thus killing his QBR for the game (38.8), even this had a positive.

Redskins fans know the big concern with Cousins is what happens after he throws an interception. After committing a doozy of a blunder in the second quarter when he forced a 3rd-and-18 pass into coverage and had no chance of getting the first down anyway, Cousins responded. The defense bailed him out with a goal-line stand, then the ‘Skins went on a touchdown drive with Cousins hitting some key throws to support the running game. The second interception wasn’t the fault of the quarterback—it was a terrific play by a defensive back.

So if Washington runs the football, plays good defense and gets manageable quarterback play with a QB that may be growing in his mental toughness, what’s not to like? Well, now let’s throw some cold water on my NFC East title dreams…

The Redskins committed eleven penalties and once again these tend to be of the foolish, non-competitive kind. The false starts and such like that kill drives and that’s exactly what happened in the second half when Washington failed to score. This kind of flags are never acceptable, but when you’re offense is built around grinding it out and moving the chains they become absolutely fatal.

Special teams have been a nightmare in the nation’s capital recently and that continued, with allowing a punt return for a touchdown that broke a 10-10 tie and decided the game. Punter Tress Way took responsibility for kicking a line drive that went 54 yards, but didn’t give the coverage team enough time to get in position. I appreciate Way’s stand-up attitude, but while that might explain a 20-yard return, it’s no excuse to let it come back to the house. If nothing else, Way should be named team captain since he’s apparently the only one in Washington D.C., football or otherwise, that will actually take responsibility for something, even it means owning some blame that isn’t necessarily his (RG3, take note).

Am I overstating how well the offensive line played? The graders at Pro Football Focus who watch every play think so. The Redskins front five did not get high marks. In an article summarizing the grades (the complete numbers are subscription-only), I posed a question as to why.

You can read some replies which are thoughtful—one says that the left side of the line, where most positive plays came from, got positive grades (true), but the rest of the line did not. Another said the problem was the Dolphins were overly aggressive and Morris was able to slip past them and take advantage of the extreme pursuit.

Cousins might have completed 67% of his throws, but we should remember that RG3 completed 68% last year, a season that everyone—including myself—believes was a train wreck for the former starter. Again, Gruden’s offense is designed for the short completion. Cousins only generated 6.3 yards-per-pass, a statistic that reflects the receivers as much as anything, at least in this offense. Or more accurately, it reflects the presence (or lack thereof) of DeSean Jackson.

The big-play threat left the game early with a bad hamstring and will now miss up to six weeks. Given that Miami’s secondary isn’t very good, the task of creating big plays is only to get harder.

Finally, let’s come back to those dropped interceptions by Culliver and Robinson. If this happened with the Patriots, I’d be happy to say it’s something that will turn around next week. But when you’ve been as creative in finding ways to lose as the Redskins have been over the years, it seems like the same old story. It’s not to pick on Culliver and Robinson. It’s just to say that if it wasn’t this, it would be something else.

So is there any hope? Well, there should be. I don’t believe it’s going to be a high bar to win the NFC East and think the problems the three credible contenders had in Week 1 are a sign of things to come. But until we can stop having to find silver linings in defeat and actually string together a couple wins in succession, another opportunity is going to be missed.