ASHBURN, Va. -- The line has been stated before: This time will be different. So say the Washington Redskins when it comes to improving on a playoff season and, right now, no one can disagree. It’ll be six months before seeing if they’re right or not.
But they, of course, have entered the offseason optimistic they can indeed improve on a 9-7 record and NFC East title.
Why they’re optimistic
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins settled the franchise down with his performance, giving them hope his solid play will continue. The players believe in Cousins, something that’s been apparent for a while though it grew in 2015. No, he did not beat a team with a winning record, but that’s not on him alone. Cousins did throw 29 touchdown passes compared to only 11 interceptions, quieting one criticism of his game (turnovers). Even against a weakened schedule, it’s hard to imagine anyone predicting such numbers for him.
The coaches liked how Cousins grew in his knowledge of the game and his command at the line of scrimmage. He can definitely improve, although there’s no guarantee he’ll have a better season in 2016 or even match what he did this past season. What's his ceiling? He’ll need another strong season to quiet his critics. But the Redskins at least feel they can grow their offense with him at quarterback. His progress will be interesting to watch, especially after he receives a big contract in the offseason.
Young talent: The Redskins ended last season needing to improve their talent base of under-25 players; they accomplished that with last year’s draft. It remains to be seen if any of them will develop into All-Pros, but it’s clear that a few should start and contribute for a while, including guard Brandon Scherff, linebacker Preston Smith, running back Matt Jones, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and safety Kyshoen Jarrett (as long as they stay healthy, of course). In the playoff game, 12 of the Redskins’ 22 starters were 27 or younger. Not all of them will start next season, but regardless the Redskins are in better shape with their young base than a year ago. They also will get a number of players back from injury, including linebacker Junior Galette, tight end Niles Paul and cornerback Chris Culliver.
Culture change: It sounds simple but it really isn’t. It helps that the team won, and part of the reason for that is the culture that had been created. The Redskins were resilient, and until the playoffs they won every game considered a must-win. That doesn’t just happen; in the past the Redskins lost those games, even to teams that were considered average or worse. Strong leadership and improved quarterback play made the difference. While the atmosphere will change next season based on who the team acquires and gets rid of, the Redskins feel good about the blueprint they’re using.
“I hear these guys talk and they want to win,” said running back Pierre Thomas, a late-season addition. “They want to be great. They want to bring their fans a championship. It’s the attitude. You don’t see it too often. These guys are focused.”
Defensive lineman Kedric Golston said, “No matter who’s here, you want guys who come in that are cut from the same cloth, guys that love football and care about their teammates, that are unselfish and you can create an atmosphere like the one we had.”
Why they should be concerned
Tougher schedule: They only play two games that stem from their first-place finish, but it’s a brutal two: Arizona (away) and Carolina (home). And they play six teams overall who made the postseason this year (and a couple teams who did not but who might be dangerous next season in Dallas, assuming quarterback Tony Romo is healthy, and Baltimore). This past season, the two games based on common finish in the division were Chicago and St. Louis -- the Redskins won both. Indeed, the Redskins only played four games against teams who made the playoffs in 2014. So there’s a chance the Redskins might be a little better and not have the record to show for it (depending on how much the rest of the division bounces back). They'll face seven of the top 15 defenses in yards allowed per game and five of the top 12 in points per game. In three games against top-10 defenses in points per game this year, Cousins posted a 69.9 rating with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Of course, a schedule that looks daunting before the season doesn't always unfold that way.
Change needed: The Redskins aren’t done building by any means. The question is, how much more is there to do? They want to get younger along the defensive line and might need to add a starting nose tackle. They need more help in the secondary. They have to figure out who they want starting inside (Will Compton and who else?). They want to add another starting-caliber running back. They might need to make another change on the offensive line. The Redskins will need another good offseason to keep improving. If there's too much change it could take time to improve.