The Washington Redskins’ scintillating run to the NFC East title last season overshadowed memories of their 3-6 start. Were they really as good as the final record, or did a depleted team just get hot with the help of a few breaks?
The Redskins' outlook for repeating their division championship depends on those answers. In coach Mike Shanahan's fourth season, their roster is good enough to beat anyone in the league. But several factors, including consistency, health and depth, will help determine whether Shanahan's building project progresses.
Here, then, are five reasons the Redskins will repeat — and five reasons they won't:
Why They Will
1. Quarterback Robert Griffin III will continue to improve as a passer by recognizing coverages and seeing the field better. His progress was evident at the end of last season in how he protected the ball and anticipated receivers getting open. He threw 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions during the seven-game winning streak, and his right knee was hurt for more than two of those games. Missing spring practices only delays the process.
2. The secondary features more personnel options, particularly at safety. The Redskins won 10 games last year without either of the two safeties they expected to start. Getting Brandon Meriweather back (right knee ACL) would enable the defense to disguise coverages better, which coordinator Jim Haslett loves to do. Rookies Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo at least will intensify competition for playing time until they're ready.
3. Several key players are expected to return from injuries that cost them significant time last season. In addition to Meriweather, two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (left pectoral) is an every-down player who balances the pass rush. His impact as a rusher should help the secondary by disrupting opponents' timing. Tight end Fred Davis (left Achilles' tendon) is elusive after the catch and an important blocker.
4. Continuity on both sides of the ball enables coaches to refine schemes and plug in players instead of spend the bulk of practice teaching basics. Offensive line coach Chris Foerster, for example, said his positional meetings this offseason began at Step 7 instead of Step 1 because this is the starting offensive line's third year together. Keeping a coaching staff for four years will have that effect.
5. If the secondary — or defense, in general — falters, the staff can rely on data from last year's adjustments. Coaches went into the lab during last season's bye to concoct a pass rush and settle on personnel combinations. The defense surrendered only 5.99 yards per pass after the bye, compared to 7.38 before, largely because of more aggressive and creative blitzes. Also, the defense averaged 2.1 turnovers per game after the bye, compared to 1.8 before.
Why They Won't
1. The issue of Griffin's health isn't going away. His progress since ACL revision surgery on Jan. 9 justifies optimism for a full recovery in time for the regular-season opener. However, backup quarterback Kirk Cousins better stay loose until Griffin proves he can harness his playmaking instincts in favor of preserving his health. Griffin can't be counted on to stay healthy for 16 games until he does it, and that leaves the offense's dynamic qualities in the balance.
2. Last season's good injury fortune along the offensive line is unlikely to repeat. The line's collective health was the most underrated factor in last season's success. First-stringers improbably accounted for 79 of the Redskins line's 80 player-starts (16 games, five linemen). Right tackle Tyler Polumbus was the only lineman to miss a start (concussion vs. Philadelphia in Week 16). Offensive line depth remains a major question because of Josh LeRibeus' and Maurice Hurt's poor fitness and other players' inexperience.
3. Some of the personnel shortcomings that limited last season's pass defense remain. The Redskins' need for a true frontline free safety continues five years after Sean Taylor's death. Perhaps Rambo, a sixth-round pick, will emerge as an imposing tackler and a playmaker who can range in the deep secondary, but that is unlikely so early in his career. The Redskins are more likely to begin the season playing free safety by committee, as they did at strong last year.
4. It took some lucky breaks for the Redskins to win the division. Their comeback against Baltimore wouldn't have happened if Ravens receiver David Reed had recovered Niles Paul's fumble inbounds just inches to the left. Or how about Griffin's fumble that Joshua Morgan caught in midair and advanced for a touchdown in a one-point win over the Giants on "Monday Night Football"? The Redskins don't need to apologize for getting those breaks; just acknowledge the razor-thin margin that separated them from nonplayoff teams.
5. The NFC East always presents formidable challengers. New York's 17-16 loss at Washington on Dec. 3 was all that kept the Giants from winning the division. They have a proven quarterback, offensive weapons and an imposing pass rush. Dallas also missed out on the division title only because of a loss at Washington. The Cowboys this offseason continued to build around quarterback Tony Romo, a quality regular-season passer. And the Philadelphia Eagles are a bit of a mystery with new coach Chip Kelly and questions at quarterback.
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