Redskins game day: Why optimism reigns

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
10:05
AM ET
Robert Griffin IIIJonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesIf quarterback Robert Griffin III can stay healthy, the Redskins have plenty of reasons to expect big things this season. On paper, that is.

The veteran player, who has seen a little of everything, takes the cautious approach. He’s lived here through seasons of big expectations and failed results. He’s also witnessed the opposite.

So, as the Redskins start the season, receiver Santana Moss knows it’s best not to believe what you see. On paper, that is. On paper they have a talented quarterback, a 1,600-yard running back who is perhaps hungrier than a year ago and a defense that returns its top pass rusher. It adds up to legitimate hopes for an NFC East title repeat.

But when your franchise hasn’t won back-to-back division titles since winning three straight from 1982-84 -- and when they've won one playoff game since 1999 and haven't reached the postseason in consecutive years since 1991-92 -- it’s best to ignore what anything looks like on paper.

“It always looks great on paper until you show up and do what you’ve got to do,” Moss said. “As a team we have a better team than a lot of years, but until we play and continue to be efficient in all phases and be consistent, then we can’t speak about being better than this team or that team or being the best team. Until we do it I have nothing to say. I definitely don’t want to be the one talking about it. I want us to go out there and be good enough so our actions really speak louder than our words.”

Very true. The Redskins have entered a number of seasons with grand hopes only to crash (it wasn’t just the infamous 2000 season with Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith, either. In 1998, coming off an 8-7-1 year, they signed Dana Stubblefield and traded for Dan Wilkinson; team staffers were talking Super Bowl. Instead, they started 0-7. They made the postseason in 2007 with a strong finish only to have Joe Gibbs resign, Jim Zorn hired and the path back to glory lengthened).

But this is the first time there is something that could be sustained long-term because of Robert Griffin III. The Redskins haven’t had a franchise quarterback since Joe Theismann, someone capable of excellent play for several seasons and not just one (like Mark Rypien in 1991 or Brad Johnson in 1999). Griffin’s presence doesn’t guarantee anything other than hope. As long as he’s healthy, that is.

Even before Griffin arrived there was a different sense in the locker room, a growing confidence. A couple years ago tight end Chris Cooley talked about it before the season, only to see the Redskins struggle to a 5-11 season. But one reason Cooley was so glad to return last season was that he still sensed that difference.

Others do, too. At the bye week last season, with a 3-6 record, fullback Darrel Young (and other players) talked about how the Redskins were about to do something special. He said it with a look that suggested you take him seriously. Few probably did.

Now?

“In the past I was worried about wins and losses,” Young said. “The difference between now and two years ago is I don’t think that way. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to go out and win any game. Not that I doubted or questioned what we were doing [before] but then I would really say I want to win this game. Now it’s, ‘Let’s go win this game.’ It’s just different."

That’s what happens with a culture change plus a young star quarterback plus continuity. The offensive and defensive systems are the same for the fourth straight season. Twenty one of 22 starters returned.

“Put guys in the system and let them stick around for a while and you have a great chance of being successful,” Young said. “And the difference between this team and teams of the past is that you can’t key on Chris Cooley or key on Santana Moss or Clinton Portis, the guys that you know the ball will go to. Now you have guys like Aldrick Robinson. Or Alfred [Morris], stepping into the scene last year. Guys who were unknown who made a name for themselves. Everyone’s stepping up, playing a part in where we’re trying to go.”

OK, Robinson is not on the same level as Morris. But he can provide an occasional threat because of his speed. There are warning signs here: a secondary that must prove itself; a game-changing quarterback who must prove durable; a defense that needs to eliminate big plays and prove it can rush the passer; coverage in the back seven. Depth on the offensive line is a concern. This is a good team; it’s not a perfect team.

But they do have a good chance of being the first repeat NFC East winner since the Philadelphia Eagles from 2001-04. It’s not just because of Griffin, either. They won seven straight games in a variety of ways: with a backup quarterback; with the defense causing turnovers; with Morris’ legs; with Griffin passing. You don’t win seven straight because of one guy, though he is a good place to start.

So is Morris. Nearly two weeks ago he talked about where he felt he had improved. It’s something others in the organization have noticed, too, and it’s another reason they’re optimistic.

“He definitely understands the run game and how to set up his blockers better, seeing holes a lot better,” London Fletcher said. “Now it seems like he has more explosiveness and quickness and at the same time still has the same power.”

Having a healthy Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis on the field at the same time … having Brian Orakpo back … tapping into Ryan Kerrigan’s versatility. And, yes, then there’s Griffin. He will still run the ball – and must run the ball. With him as just a pocket passer, the Redskins would have a good offense. With him as a running threat, too the Redskins have a dynamic offense. The zone read option creates gaps and openings for other players and makes them more dangerous. Aldrick Robinson snuck behind the Dallas secondary because it was frozen watching the zone read fakes. Better running lanes after the catch result from linebackers scrambling into coverage.

But there’s no doubt for the offense to evolve, then Griffin must mature as a passer. He knows this. The Redskins, at times, simplified his reads to help a player who came from an elementary passing attack in college (compared to, say, Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck). What Griffin will know in a couple years will considerably dwarf what he knew, or could do, as a passer in 2012. It’s not about completion percentage; it’s about route concepts and reading coverages and getting through progressions just a little bit faster because of a pre-snap look. It’s about relying a little less on his legs and more on what he sees and his arm. But those legs will always remain a weapon. Can he sustain his career running 120 times a season? Not for a long time he can’t. But a kid this smart who works the way he does knows what he must do.

“Just do everything better than you did the year before,” he said.

Griffin was talking about himself. That applies to the Redskins as well; that is, if they want to do more than look good on paper.

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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