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Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Do it again? Redskins can't wait to try

By Dan Graziano

Mike Shanahan
The 2012 Redskins put up offensive numbers that compared favorably to coach Mike Shanahan's Super Bowl title teams.
ASHBURN, Va. -- Mike Shanahan is so excited he literally cannot sit still. He is up now, out from behind his desk, riffling through binders on a credenza on the other side of his office at the Washington Redskins' team headquarters.

"Here," he's saying. "These are the numbers I show them. This is what I tell them, the players, so they know what they did wasn't a fluke."

The pages of Shanahan's binders show simple statistical comparisons. He has listed key offensive stats -- yards per play, first downs, yards per pass attempt, yards per rush, etc. -- for his 2012 NFC East champion Redskins compared to six carefully chosen other teams. They are the 1982, 1987 and 1991 Redskins teams that won Super Bowls, the 1997 and 1998 Denver Broncos teams that won Super Bowls with Shanahan as their coach, and the 1994 San Francisco 49ers, who won the Super Bowl with Shanahan as their offensive coordinator.

The 2012 Redskins hold up awfully well.

None of those other six teams can match the 6.2 yards per play put up by last season's NFC East champs. Only the '94 Niners (362) and the '98 Broncos (347) had more first downs than the Redskins' 341 last year. Only those '94 Niners (7.6) and the '91 Redskins (8.2) had more yards per pass play than the 7.2 Washington had in Robert Griffin III's first year as its quarterback. None of them came close to the 2012 Redskins' 5.2 yards per carry -- the '98 Broncos, the best of that bunch, fell a half-yard short at 4.7.

And of course, none of those teams had fewer turnovers than the 14 the Redskins committed in 2012 (not even the 1982 Redskins, who had 16 in nine games). Only four teams in NFL history have gone through a 16-game season with fewer than 14 turnovers. You'd better believe that number is all over those binders.

"Obviously, this isn't to say, 'Look, we're better than these teams that won championships,'" Shanahan says. "But these guys can look at these numbers and they see what they accomplished. They put up the kinds of numbers on offense that can win you championships. So you don't have to wonder if you can perform like that. You know you already did."

This is what makes the Washington Redskins one of the most intriguing NFL teams to watch in 2013. After finishing in last place four years in a row from 2008 to '11 and starting off 3-6 in 2012, the Redskins won their final seven regular-season games to claim the division title for the first time since the turn of the century. The thrilling exploits of rookie quarterback Griffin and the dynamic offense Mike and son Kyle Shanahan designed around him changed everything about the Redskins. And now fans who once wondered when they'd get out of the cellar are expecting this bunch to roll to a second straight division crown.

But is it that simple? Of course not. Nothing ever is.

Start with Griffin, who injured his right knee in Week 14 against the Ravens, injured it again in the playoff loss to the Seahawks and had major reconstructive surgery on it in January for the second time in three years. All the reports, all offseason, have been about how smoothly and rapidly Griffin's recovery has progressed. And the Redskins all insist they're comfortable with backup Kirk Cousins for as long as is necessary. But there's no way to know for sure yet when Griffin can be back to full strength. And whatever anyone thinks of Cousins, there are just certain things Griffin brings to the offense that another quarterback can't. If Griffin is absent or gimpy for any significant stretch, expectations have to be modified.

Then there's the defense, which found a way to patch things together during the seven-game winning streak in spite of significant personnel shortages brought on by injury, but which knows it didn't perform at a championship-caliber level. Only four teams in the NFL allowed more total yards than the Redskins did in 2012. Only two allowed more passing yards. To correct this, they're hoping for the return from injury of safety Brandon Meriweather to shore up the secondary and former first-round pick Brian Orakpo to help re-establish their pass rush.

"His skill set can't be replaced easily," nose tackle Barry Cofield said of Orakpo. "Offenses have to game plan for him. Offenses have to fly to him. When he's wandering from side to side on the line, I see every offensive lineman's eyes follow him as he goes, because he's the guy that has to be accounted for. He just makes everyone's life easier on our defense."

The expected returns of Meriweather, who appeared in only one game in 2012, and Orakpo, who tore a pectoral muscle in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season, are reasons for the defense to believe it will play better in 2013. The expected return of tight end Fred Davis, who tore his Achilles in Week 7, and better health from top wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who missed six games due to a foot injury, offer hope for even more from the offense. Even if Griffin runs less, Shanahan believes running back Alfred Morris' 1,613-yard rookie season was no fluke and that the Redskins should still be able to lead the league in rushing yards. The one statistical area in which his 2012 team does not outpace the others in his binders is the number of offensive plays per game, but he expects that to rise from last season's 62.1 now that the players have played a full year in this offense.

"I don't think anybody in here thinks it was a fluke or anything like that," Morris said. "If anything, I think everybody wants to talk about what they can do better, how they can improve, ways they can help more now that they're comfortable and have seen everything for a year."

If that is in fact the case -- if the Redskins' offense was only beginning to show what it could do last season -- the 2013 version should be impressive to watch. If Griffin can come back fully healthy, and if he and the coaching staff can work together on the goal of keeping him safe and healthy for the long term, there's no reason to think he's not capable of putting up big numbers as a passer. The read option isn't going anywhere, but if it lives on as a threat to slow down the pass rush and keep the defense on its heels, the Redskins should be able to accomplish big statistical things around that threat and the talents of the people running the offense.

Lots of "ifs," to be sure. But the Redskins showed us a lot of possibilities last season, and we're looking forward to seeing what they do for an encore.