The Redskins made it through the first quarter of the season 3-1 and in a strong position to contend in what is shaping up to be a fascinating NFC East divisional race. In a span of four games, speculation about whether they could land Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck in next April's draft was replaced by talk of a possible playoff berth.
But fans have been hoodwinked rather recently by a fraudulent fast start. The 2008 Redskins started 4-1 and 6-2 under Jim Zorn only to crash to an 8-8 finish. Fool us twice, shame on us.
So are these Redskins for real, or are they going to break another round of hearts?
THEY'RE FOR REAL BECAUSE ...
1. The roster additions on defense, especially in the front seven, have been impactful upgrades.
Washington took a bit of a gamble when it signed Barry Cofield and drafted Ryan Kerrigan with the intent to have them change positions. Cofield, a former 4-3 tackle, hasn't been dominant in his first few games as a 3-4 nose tackle, but he's much better than what the Redskins had last season. He's capable of pushing the pocket and anchoring against the run. Kerrigan has been a quick study in transitioning from collegiate defensive end to outside linebacker. He has significantly improved the power with which he rushes from a two-point stance, and he's taking more direct angles to the quarterback. Free agent defensive end Stephen Bowen has been exceptional against the run, as well, and occasionally flashes pass-rushing ability. Those three are a major reason why the Redskins ranked fifth in the NFL in yards allowed through four games.
2. The Redskins ran the ball effectively against teams without imposing defensive lines and linebackers.
They gashed Arizona and St. Louis by opening cutback lanes and rotating running backs. Washington's running backs averaged 5.7 and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively, in those victories. Running back Ryan Torain's emergence against St. Louis is a boon, too. He led the Redskins last season with a 4.5-yard average, and he has an uncanny ability to gain yards after contact - he had 105 against the Rams. He should play more now that he proved himself again. The Redskins need to run the ball to take the game out of quarterback Rex Grossman's hands. Offensive coordinator and play-caller Kyle Shanahan likes to throw it, but that isn't Washington's strength. A potent running game helps provide balance and creates manageable third downs. The Redskins at least showed in two games they can do that.
3. It's fair to expect the Redskins' offseason additions to continue improving as they get comfortable with their new responsibilities.
Just as those who played in coach Mike Shanahan's first season are now reaping the benefits of last year's growing pains, several new players will ascend the learning curve as the season progresses. Free agent cornerback Josh Wilson, for example, was exceptional in coverage against Dallas because he is more familiar with other players' responsibilities. He knew when he could afford to take chances. Free agent right guard Chris Chester has improved his technique and timing on combination blocks, as he transitions to Washington's zone blocking scheme from Baltimore's power approach. Over time, the team will collectively advance.
IT'S A MIRAGE BECAUSE ...
1. Rex Grossman is living up to his reputation as a quarterback prone to turning the ball over.
He beat John Beck for the starting quarterback job by making quick, smart decisions. Through four games, however, Grossman had seven turnovers compared to six touchdown passes. He made some exceptional throws - none better than his fourth-down touchdown late in the win over Arizona — but countered those with some baffling decisions. Failure to clearly see the field resulted in interceptions against Dallas and St. Louis. His longtime ball-security problem was an issue on fumbles against New York and Dallas. With Grossman under center, the Redskins have to take the good with the bad. That will result in some tense finishes. It also puts immense pressure on the defense, and there will be times, such as the Dallas loss, when it can't bail the offense out.
2. Lack of depth in certain areas could be a major pitfall if injuries become a factor.
The Redskins' 22 starters have proved they can be competitive against quality teams. Sound coaching and calculated personnel decisions over the past 21 months have helped Mike Shanahan get the most out of players in his schemes. But the roster deficiencies were so extensive when he took over in January 2010 that the Redskins haven't had the luxury of establishing the quality depth of a perennial contender. In many areas, Washington has devoted draft and free agency resources to fortifying the starting lineup. That leaves areas such as the offensive and defensive lines perilously thin. For example, two injuries on the offensive line would force Erik Cook, a second-year seventh-round pick, or undrafted rookie Willie Smith into action. The Redskins have been remarkably healthy so far, and their good luck must continue for them to make a run.
3. The Redskins' schedule is backloaded with quality opponents.
Given how their schedule is structured, they basically had to be 3-1 at this point to have any chance of contending. They play the woeful NFC West this season, but two of those opponents already are out of the way. Trips to Buffalo (in Toronto) and Carolina, teams that were terrible a year ago, now appear extremely challenging because of those teams' high-powered offenses. The second half of the schedule includes New England, the New York Jets, Dallas and first-place San Francisco. The Redskins travel to the New York Giants, Philadelphia and an extremely hostile environment in Seattle. Two NFC teams with 10-6 records missed the playoffs last season, so the Redskins would have to go 8-4 the rest of the way to feel safe. Finding eight wins on that schedule is not easy.
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