Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. Not the integrity of a quarterback’s knee ligaments, nor a team’s salary cap space, nor the fate of a team with a 3-6 record. Nothing. It’s what makes the league so compelling for us observers. It’s also what turns coaches’ hair gray and keeps them up at night.
Winning, then, is about percentages. Stack the odds as much as possible and try to reduce the unpredictability. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan talks about this every day.
Each decision Shanahan makes is his attempt to give his team the “best chance to win.” He says the phrase so often it has exceeded cliche status. Shanahan should have it tattooed on his forearm so he could just point to it and save himself the breath.
Those chances to win in 2013 suffered a severe blow in March when the NFL upheld this year’s $18 million salary cap penalty. That forced Shanahan and Redskins decision-makers to sharpen their focus on what approach to roster building, given the financial limitations, could keep the odds on their side this year and beyond.
The Redskins’ guiding philosophy during this salary cap crisis is clear little more than a month after free agency began. They believe continuity and familiarity can help offset whatever gains in talent the club could not achieve because it lacked necessary cap space.
Such a logical approach makes for a fascinating case study, considering how discontinuity characterized the organization for the decade preceding Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen’s arrival for the 2010 season.
When the Redskins reported Monday for the start of their nine-week offseason program, 21 of 22 starters from last year’s division championship team were under contract. Only free safety Madieu Williams is not. Pro Bowl special teamer Lorenzo Alexander signed with Arizona, but the team’s top offense and its defense remain almost entirely intact.
Free agent additions, especially cornerback targets Aqib Talib and Antoine Winfield, could have helped the team on paper. But Washington’s 21 returning starters proved they can win 10 games and the division despite numerous injuries. It’s within reason to assume that group is capable of duplicating last year’s feat if quarterback Robert Griffin III returns from right knee surgery to full fitness by midseason.
“I think that’s something people really undervalue — knowledge and comfort level with the existing playbook and the existing staff,” said second-string tight end Logan Paulsen, who has been with the team since 2010 and re-signed this offseason as a restricted free agent. “Bringing people back is so much better and in some ways more efficient because you get a guy that has had a year, two years, three years in that offense, in that scheme, they know the details and the ins and outs. It allows you to play faster.”
Shanahan on Monday welcomed his team back to Redskins Park for the fourth time. He told players not to rest on last year’s accomplishments or get complacent, defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. The Redskins complacent? This is indeed a new era.
This season, Shanahan will equal the length of Joe Gibbs’ second tenure. But even Gibbs switched offensive schemes.
Remember how former first-round quarterback Jason Campbell, whose tenure bridged Gibbs’ and coach Jim Zorn’s, was forced to endure system changes? Such instability is history now.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is back for Year 4. Same with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Only one position coach — special teams coordinator Keith Burns — was outside the organization last year.
“I think it allows the coaches to build on what they’re doing, and it allows the players to be even more comfortable and build in the schemes,” Golston said. “You also understand what your players can and can’t do and understand how to call games better. You’re able to communicate better and throughout the course of games make adjustments on things.”
Without the addition of free agent talent, improving on last season’s body of work will depend on fortuitous health and better play from certain positions.
Griffin’s health is vital, and his rehab results through three months have prompted optimism.
Getting two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo back from the torn left pectoral muscle that cost him 14 games last season would be a big help. And if strong safety Brandon Meriweather (right knee ACL) and tight end Fred Davis (left Achilles) return and contribute as expected, that would be among the best-case scenarios.
Then there’s the possibility that younger players such as fourth-year inside linebacker Perry Riley and third-year tight end Niles Paul develop their skills and make a greater impact.
And the Redskins still could upgrade talent in next weekend’s draft. It would be surprising if they did not select a defensive back or two before the latest rounds.
Those are a lot of “ifs,” but every NFL team confronts such conditional statements this time of year. The Redskins face more because of the salary cap penalty, but working with last year’s established group is a sound Plan B. Familiarity means predictability, which is a good thing in a league without guarantees.