Remember when Brian Orakpo tore his pectoral muscle in Week 2, and Washington Redskins fans anguished about the impact it would have on the defense? Remember when Fred Davis‘ Achilles gave way in Week 7, and Redskins Nation worried about the void it would leave in the offense? We’re talking, after all, about a top pass-rushing linebacker and a dangerous tight end. You don’t find replacements for guys like that on eBay.
That’s one of the most surprising aspects of the Redskins‘ season, which has taken them — after more twists and turns than a miniature golf course — to the brink of the playoffs. Orakpo and Davis are nice players, sure (in Fred’s case, the franchise designee), but the team has shown it can survive without them, thrive even. Who would have imagined the Redskins winning six games in a row with Orakpo and Davis on injured reserve? Heck, winning six games total seemed a more likely prospect, especially after the club’s 3-6 start.
It’s just another reminder that, in the 53-man game of pro football, few players are truly irreplaceable — a lot fewer than we think. Teams win, for the most part, not individuals. Why, the Redskins got by without Robert Griffin III, the center of their solar system, two Sundays ago. The offense might have looked a little different, a little more orthodox, with Kirk Cousins running it, but it was still plenty productive.
Allow me to point out that the longest run from scrimmage in NFL history — 99 yards by Dallas’ Tony Dorsett in January 1983 — was accomplished with just 10 offensive players. (His fullback, Ron Springs, was AWOL.) If you can do something like that short-handed, what can’t you do short-handed, including reel off six straight victories? As Wayne Sevier, the Redskins‘ erstwhile special teams coach, once said (while wearing short pants and a short-sleeved shirt during a freezing December practice), “It’s all a state of mind.”
The loss of Davis has been mitigated, of course, by the return of wide receiver Pierre Garcon, whose hard-to-heal foot kept him out of six of the first nine games. But it also has been lessened by an offense that’s been more run-oriented this season (477 rushes through 15 games vs. 375 in 2011) — and that, when it has thrown, has spread the ball fairly evenly among Joshua Morgan (48 catches), Garcon (41), Santana Moss (39), Leonard Hankerson (37) and the three tight ends (56). In other words, the Redskins haven’t missed Fred too terribly because they weren’t overly reliant on him or on any receiver, for that matter. Equal opportunity: It’s one of the best ways to reduce the impact of injuries.
(Let’s not overlook, too, that before he got hurt, Davis had 24 receptions for 325 yards and no touchdowns. His stand-in, Logan Paulsen, has virtually matched those numbers, with 24 grabs for 300 yards and one score.)
As for Orakpo, replacement Rob Jackson hasn’t racked up as many sacks (4.5) as Brian does, but he’s helped in other areas. In one sequence Sunday in Philadelphia, he stopped Bryce Brown for no gain, dropped LeSean McCoy for a 2-yard loss and broke up a pass to Jeremy Maclin — all in the space of four plays. Jackson also has three interceptions this season, one for a touchdown; Orakpo is still looking for his first NFL pick.
The thing is, with or without No. 98, the defense was never seen as a Redskins strength. The secondary was simply too suspect. The hope was that it could be a hold-the-fort unit, one that could keep the opposition in the 20-to-24-point range. Most weeks, that figured to be enough to win.
And, lo and behold, that’s what the defense has evolved into since Orakpo went down. It’s come up with big stops — in the fourth quarter and beyond — in three of the past four games.
Again, this doesn’t mean the Redskins are a better team minus Davis and Orakpo. It just means their absence hasn’t been as damaging as fans might have feared. The world, in other words, has gone on — as it always does in the Next Man Up League.
It’s something for Dan Snyder and Mike Shanahan to consider when deciding how to spend their cap money in the future. Who on this roster is really essential? Who makes a major difference? They haven’t always done a good job of that in the past, and it’s cost them. The closer they can get to making every dollar count, though, the closer they can probably get to the Super Bowl.