Two weeks from now, the Washington Redskins will envidently select, with the second pick in the 2012 NFL draft, their quarterback of the future. In all likelihood, this will be Baylor's Heisman Trophy-winning Robert Griffin III, a player who has already captured the hearts and the imaginations of Redskins fans to a startling extent. There is, according to anyone who's been asked, no reason to dream anything but the biggest dreams about what Griffin can be, and the extent to which he can restore the franchise to its former glory. These are fun times to be a Redskins fan.
One of the big questions these days, then, is not whether Griffin can make the Redskins a winner, but rather how soon. The Redskins had a good young defense in 2011, and there's reason to think it could be better in 2012. Fans are happy with the past couple of drafts, and the sense that there is a plan for the future. But at the same time, no one wants another five- or six-win season in Washington. Mike Shanahan, entering his third season as head coach, needs to show some concrete, on-field improvement in 2012 to avoid spending the capital he's built up from the trade that will allow him to draft his franchise quarterback. So what is reasonable to expect from the 2012 Redskins?
The key thing to remember is that, as excited as everyone is about Griffin, he still will be a rookie quarterback in 2012. Teams with rookie quarterbacks do not often reach the playoffs, though the past four seasons have offered several examples. Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco both reached the playoffs as rookies in 2008. The Jets made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game at the end of Mark Sanchez's 2009 rookie season. And last season's Bengals were a playoff team behind rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
But for the Redskins to emulate those teams' achievements, they will have to rely on much more than their rookie quarterback. In fact, the best way to get a rookie quarterback to the playoffs is to ask him to do as little as possible.
The 2008 Ravens ranked second in the NFL in total team defense and fourth in rushing offense. The 2009 Jets ranked first in total team defense (by a stunning 32 yards per game) and first in rush offense. The 2008 Falcons were not a good defensive team, ranking 24th in the league. But they were second in the league in rushing yards, which meant Ryan was not asked to carry the offense. Last season's Bengals ranked just 19th in the NFL in rushing yards, which put more of a burden on Dalton and his superstar rookie wide receiver, A.J. Green. But they did have that superstar rookie wide receiver. And they ranked seventh in the league in total defense.
Of our four examples, the 2011 Bengals asked the most of their rookie quarterback. They averaged 33.4 pass attempts per game, which ranked 20th in the league, and threw for 209.2 passing yards per game, which also ranked 20th. The other three examples on our list? They flat-out coddled their rookie quarterbacks by comparison:
2009 Jets: 24.6 att/gm (32nd), 162.3 pass yds/gm (31st)
2008 Ravens: 27.1 att/gm (T-29th), 185.7 pass yds/gm (28th)
2008 Falcons: 27.1 att/gm (T-29th), 215.0 pass yds/gm (17th)
Now, Shanahan is a better-regarded offensive coach than any of the men who coached those teams. Rex Ryan of the Jets, in particular, believed he could win it all with defense, and very nearly did. Shanahan will design an offense in which Griffin can flourish, utilizing his arm and accuracy as well as his athleticism, speed and mobility. He'll design an offense in which Griffin works in concert with the run game, and in which each needs the other to thrive. Shanahan is likely to ask more of his offense than Ryan did of his in 2009, or than John Harbaugh did of his in 2008.
But the Redskins might find themselves limited in how quickly they can make it all work. It's possible that Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson and tight end Fred Davis will be a great young receiving corps. But it's likely that it will take some time before they can really be that. There are likely to be growing pains, especially as questions persist on the offensive line, in the running game and on the back end of the defense. The 2012 Redskins are not as finished a product as the teams into which Sanchez and Flacco and Ryan were dropped, and it's unreasonable to expect instant success.
Could they contend for and even win a playoff spot? Sure. No one knows, because there are too many external factors to consider. Did the Giants get better? Did the Cowboys fix their defense? Can the Eagles make good on their mulligan? Heck, Sam Bradford's 2010 Rams weren't a very good team (12th in team defense, 24th in rush offense, by the way), but they went into the final game of that season with a chance to be an 8-8 division champion. You never know what kind of opportunity circumstances might offer.
If you're imagining big things for the 2012 Redskins, however, I think it's best to soft-pedal your expectations. In fact, those 2010 Rams might turn out to be the most apt comparison. But if the Redskins remain on the fringes of playoff contention deep into December and end up winning something like seven or eight games, as a Redskins fan you'd have to be happy with that, wouldn't you? Especially considering the direction in which things seem to be moving.
This is exciting, this idea of a new franchise quarterback. It's just important to remember how far down the Redskins have been for so long, and that fixing these things the right way can take some time.