- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2018

ASHBURN — Josh Norman entered the Redskins locker room Monday, sunglasses on, and threw a trash bag into his locker.

Asked how he felt, Norman replied with one word: “crap.” For Norman, 2017 was, in the end, just another year his team missed the playoffs.

“You can get travel bags or you can get trash bags,” Norman said. “We got trash bags this year. There’s no travel bags. We’re not going to (play) no opponents, no opponents are coming to see us, we don’t have a bye to where we can have a break and then see who we play next week.”

The locker room cleanout is an annual tradition in the NFL, but it has become an especially frustrating day for the Redskins. Sunday’s 18-10 loss to the New York Giants capped off a 7-9 season, the second straight year in which the team has missed the postseason. Much was made around the NFL Monday about the Buffalo Bills’ return to the playoffs after an almost 20-year absence — but the Redskins haven’t been much better: the franchise has been to the postseason four times times since 2000.

Norman is accustomed to playing this time of year. The six-year veteran made the postseason in three of his first four seasons with the Carolina Panthers. He said the Redskins’ season was so frustrating, in part, because he knows what quality caliber teams look like.

“I’m tired of these stupid, close games,” Norman said. “We’ve just got to have a different mindset and approach when we come back to this field in 2018.”

Asked whether the Redskins even have the pieces to be a contender, Norman kept his thoughts to himself.

But it’s obvious to those inside and outside the organization that the Redskins in 2018 could look like an entirely different team — especially with quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ contract up in the air.

The Redskins are aiming to build continuity with bringing back coach Jay Gruden for a fifth season. Gruden, who is now 28-35-1 in his coaching career, signed a two-year extension in March. He’ll give his year-end press conference Tuesday.

Cousins‘ contract isn’t the only question facing the Redskins. Washington has 18 other unrestricted free agents — including names like center Spencer Long, cornerback Bashaud Breeland and linebacker Zach Brown.

The injury factor

They’ll also need to determine how much of 2017’s record can be attributed to injury or poor performance. The Redskins notably had 23 players on injured reserve, tied for third-most in the NFL. Multiple players said they’d never seen anything like it.

According to Man-Games Lost, a website that tracks injury data, the Redskins entered the season as the 14th most-injured team since 2009, the year they started tracking the data. In 2012 and 2015, Washington finished the season in the top five of games lost.

This year, the Redskins had already missed 196 games due to injury as of Dec. 20 — putting them in the top three.

Further, the Redskins were sixth in Lost Av, a metric that measures the quality of players lost. Washington struggled to fill the absence of players like running back Chris Thompson, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and safety Montae Nicholson during the year.

While acknowledging injuries were a factor, linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said the year came down to missed opportunities.

“I feel like we left some wins out there as a team,” Kerrigan said.”When you look at games like Kansas City and New Orleans, we get those games and these last couple of games are meaningful games and have playoff implications.”

Looking unprepared

The Redskins’ preparation was called into question at various points this season, in large part because of safety D.J. Swearinger’s critical postgame comments.

During the season, Norman held gatherings at his house every Thursday for the rest of the defense to bond, hangout and even help prepare for games. But linebacker Martrell Spaight said the number of players who showed up dwindled as the season went on.

“Josh kept saying when he was in Carolina, [the gatherings] would really help the team,” Spaight said. “The moment we really stopped doing it, we kinda saw stuff really fall off here and there. I was like, ‘Damn, he may have been right.’”

Norman said he felt the meetings were still productive, though admitted “we slacked off here and there.” He said he’ll continue to do them next season.

Despite recurring moments when the team seemed to be caught off-guard, the defense overall took a step forward in 2017 — statistically at least. Entering Sunday, they were ranked 13th in DVOA, a metric used to measure efficiency. Younger players like cornerback Kendall Fuller, defensive linemen Anthony Lanier and Matt Ioannidis all stepped up.

The improvement came despite facing one of the tougher schedules in football. Washington ended up having the sixth-hardest strength of schedule with opponents finishing the season with a combined .539 win percentage.

Swearinger said they were “definitely one of the top five defenses” when healthy.

Offensive woes

The Redskins’ offense, on the other hand, took a step back. Besides injuries, Washington struggled to replace the production of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, both of whom left in free agency.

Terrelle Pryor, the Redskins’ most noteworthy free agent signing in the offseason, never found a groove and had just 240 yards in nine games. Josh Doctson, the Redskins’ 2016 first-round pick, led Washington with six receiving touchdowns, but had just 502 yards. Washington was also without tight end Jordan Reed (hamstring) for most of the season.

The Redskins’ running game and the offensive line were constantly shuffling in new faces. Rookie running back Samaje Perine led the Redskins with 603 rushing yards, while Cousins was sacked a career-high 41 times and threw 13 picks.

Still, Cousins finished with 4,093 passing yards for 27 touchdowns.

After Sunday’s game, Cousins said he was “pleased with the character our team showed” during the season.

Cousins said he’ll address his future further in a paid-appearance Friday.

“Nobody let up on their effort or checked out,” Cousins said. “Everybody that was healthy and was there was engaged and practicing and playing all the way through to the end. I think it’s just about continuing to develop young players and bring our offense and our team along to where we have a lot of guys who can really play and can really contribute.”

For Cousins, the main question will be if he’s part of it.

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