Washington Redskins 2009 Preview
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A powerful public figure in Washington feels some heat from his constituents after another year of mediocrity and underperformance. Needing to instill optimism, said public figure goes out and identifies a problem that’s just relevant enough to distract people from the more complicated (and much larger) problem.
In a brilliant ploy at producing immediate short-term prosperity, the public figure throws wads of money at the small the problem, then talks publicly about the large problem in terms vague enough to make everyone forget about it a few weeks later. Ladies and gentlemen…the Washington Redskins!
In this particular story, the powerful public figure is team owner Dan Snyder. The stewing constituents are the fans. The small problem is the Redskin defense; the large problem is the Redskin offense. The wads of money amounted to $100 million over seven years, with the beneficiary being one Albert Haynesworth. Let’s make him the prism through which to evaluate the rest of this middle-tier Redskins franchise.
The Redskins once again showed their true colors when they signed the prized 28-year-old defensive tackle. Under Snyder, their general modus operandi has been to sacrifice long-term investments (see draft picks) for expensive short-term payouts (see free agents). Has it worked? Not really. Washington is 76-84 since Snyder took over in 1999, with no season yielding more than 10 wins. (But to their credit, they’ve been one of the most affluent businesses in the NFL.)
Haynesworth has a rare ability to dictate an entire NFL game. The earth-shattering plays he makes and double teams he demands can ruin an offensive game plan. The caveat is that Haynesworth, a former first-round pick, never played like this until he reached back-to-back contract years as a Titan. For much of his career, descriptions of Haynesworth included words like volatile, languid, streaky and but (as in “he’s gifted, but…).
In the weeks leading up to his free agency, Haynesworth strongly indicated that, like a morose investment banker or jaded happy-hour stripper, he’s just interested in the money. The Redskins sure interested him. League-leading attendance figures, steady merchandise sales and substantial corporate partnerships enabled Snyder’s club to award the two-time Pro Bowler with a record $41 million signing bonus. Whether Haynesworth will stay motivated after cashing monolithic checks is beside the point (for the record, the prediction here is that he absolutely will not). The bigger issue is that it’s just not smart football to tie up such hefty funds in a non-quarterback (especially when you have a defense that already ranked fourth in yards and sixth in points allowed last season, and an offense that ranked nineteenth in yards and twenty-eighth in points).
In fairness to Snyder, he and his trusted sidekick, VP of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato, tried to find a top-dollar quarterback. Washington made a serious run at Jay Cutler and later attempted to trade up in the draft for Mark Sanchez. In the end, not only did they fail to land a new signalcaller, they wound up alienating the one they already had. Jason Campbell handled the situation with utmost class, but how does the 27-year-old finally blossom as a leader if he’s a publicly-acknowledged fallback option? (Exacerbating matters is that Campbell received zero calls from team officials about extending his contract, which expires after the season.)
Head coach Jim Zorn is a quarterback guru who has diligently ushered Campbell through his first experience in a West Coast offense. Problem is, Zorn was one of the driving forces behind the Cutler pursuit. In a private meeting, Zorn, admirably, leveled with his quarterback. But you wonder if somewhere in the conversation, he said to Campbell, “Hey, don’t feel bad if the team doesn’t want you––I’m not sure I’m wanted here either.” Indeed, Washington’s 4-1 start last year preceded a 4-7 finish, prompting whispers about whether Zorn might be let go. Remember, he was originally brought in to be this team’s offensive coordinator; the head coaching title came about only after Bill Cowher said no thanks.
The Redskins are a lot like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge: strong overall, but weak in the wrong places. You can’t win in the NFL when your chemistry and leadership is disjointed. That’s been the case here, best illustrated in Clinton Portis, who is chummy with the owner and has enough political capital to publicly criticize the coach and question the game plan. Running backs aren’t supposed to rule the locker room and huddle.
Of course, there’s still hope. A mountain of chips is stacked against Campbell and Zorn, but they still have a chance to come out, light the brutal NFC East on fire and redirect this franchise in 2009. To do so, they need each other.
Fortunately, Jim Zorn, the longtime Seahawks quarterbacks coach, and Jason Campbell, the 2005 first-round draft pick, have a strong working relationship. Zorn is an astute teacher and Campbell, a humble learner. This will be the first time in eight years that Campbell enters training camp with the same offensive playbook as the year before. Or close to the same playbook as before; if Campbell is to truly lead this offense, he must become sharp enough to convince Zorn to open things up. Last year, dilatory reads and progressions made Campbell a predictable, overly cautious passer. His trademark throw became “The Short Dump-off On Third-and-Long.”
This must change if Washington’s offense is to have any explosiveness in 2009. Clinton Portis is an excellent workhorse on the ground, but his deteriorated speed and quickness prevent him from being a home run threat. Big plays must come through the air.
It’s not like Campbell is without the necessary weapons. Speedy ninth-year receiver Santana Moss is an electrifying playmaker. He’s lethal running after the catch and equally as dangerous over the top. The secondary receiving option is tight end Chris Cooley, a reliable utility weapon who rarely leaves yards on the field. Cooley, who can line up just about anywhere, must be used in more variegated fashions this year in order to maximize mismatch opportunities. Featuring Cooley might be easier to do if defenses felt obligated to pay more attention to Antwaan Randle El.
Randle El should be a gadget player out of the slot, but thus far, Washington’s young wide receivers––Devin Thomas (6’2”, 218) and Malcolm Kelly (6’4”, 219), both second-rounders in ’08––have grown like geraniums in dry shade. Neither was entirely healthy as a rookie, but neither understood the offense. It might help if Campbell becomes a more dynamic all-around passer. But the onus is still on the callow wide receivers. Thomas is athletic and fast and has at least shown hints of encouragement. Kelly––slower but just as gifted––does not. The fact that the Redskins hosted a slew of mid-to-lower-tier veteran free agent wideouts during the offseason (they were only able to sign Roydell Williams, who was out of football in 2008) speaks volumes about what coaches think of the receiving corps.
You can also throw tight end Fred Davis into the group of disappointing young pass-catchers. A second-round pick himself, Davis caught all of three passes as a rookie in ’08. That was five less than veteran afterthought Todd Yoder. It can be a little tough for the No. 2 tight end to get action in this offense, as Joe Bugel’s power blocking scheme employs a classic fullback (Mike Sellers).
Sellers, the best lead-blocker in football, joined Clinton Portis in Hawaii last season. Portis turns 28 on September 1st and has accumulated a laundry list of injuries in recent years. But don’t expect the Redskins to lighten his load anytime soon. Ladell Betts, with his poor quickness too often struggles getting out of the backfield, and Rock Cartwright is strictly a kick return specialist.
The health of the offensive line is vital. Outside of powerful and versatile Jeremy Bridges, the Skins have no experience along the second-string. This is relevant because Washington’s two best starters, left tackle Chris Samuels and right guard Randy Thomas, have both battled serious injuries before (Samuels, in fact, is coming off a torn triceps). When healthy, both are tremendous run-blockers, particularly on the move.
Left guard Derrick Dockery returns after a two-year hiatus in Buffalo. He’s solid in pass protection and borderline terrific in the straight-line ground game. Center Casey Rabach is average in a good way, while third-year man Stephon Heyer will once again be given the right tackle job that he couldn’t keep from a deteriorating Jon Jansen last year. Heyer must become more comfortable in his technique.
Even if he doesn’t live up to the huge contract, Albert Haynesworth is still going to help this defense. He’s simply too much of an upgrade over last year’s run-stuffing defensive tackles, Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery. Vociferous as he is against the run, Haynesworth’s most significant impact will be in passing situations. An excellent one-gap bull-rusher, Haynesworth draws the kind of attention that will leave defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and 252-pound end Andre Carter in one-on-one matchups. Carter especially needs space in order to operate. He’ll get it––just like the wide-aligning ends who played alongside Haynesworth in Tennessee always did.
Of course, the rotating ends opposite Carter, Phillip Daniels and Renaldo Wynn, are both aging run-stoppers who offer very little on third down. That’s why the Redskins were elated when Texas’s pass-rushing ace Brian Orakpo fell to them at Pick 13. The explosive Orakpo had an opportunity to develop unique versatility in college, which is why Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache believes the rookie can double as a third-down rusher and regular-down strongside linebacker. Orakpo must hone his strength and technique at the point of attack. Of course, if he doesn’t, frenetic middle linebacker London Fletcher can probably pick up his slack. Fletcher, 34, remains as fast and energetic as he was at 24. His play recognition is almost flawless.
Weakside linebacker Rocky McIntosh rounds out the starting linebacker group. McIntosh is a patient, steady player, but not one who’s ferocious enough to be considered upper echelon (Vinny Cerrato, by the way, will have the pleasure of explaining this to Drew Rosenhaus when McIntosh’s contract expires after the season.) Third-year pro H.B. Blades is neither big nor fast, but he’s proven to be dependable. He should have no problem beating out athletic ex-defensive end Chris Wilson and fifth-round rookie Cody Glenn for top backup duties.
Washington’s secondary can be very good in 2009. On the same day that Haynesworth was signed, cornerback DeAngelo Hall was re-signed. Hall banked an astonishing $22.5 million in guarantees, an indication that the Redskins believe he can return to being a playmaking superstar. In this scheme, he can––as long as he’s allowed to play the ball more than the receiver (Hall has iffy man-cover technique).
The other starting corner will be Carlos Rogers, assuming he can hold the job. Rogers rushed back from ACL surgery last season, played well early but gradually crumbled all the way to a benching in December. He is very nimble and instinctive, especially against deep patterns, but he’s also prone to falling behind in mismatches and never recovering. Fred Smoot has always been the same way, which is why he’s now the third cornerback. Smoot brings great physicality, but poor recovery speed can be a problem at times. Overall, Smoot is more likely to flourish than struggle, but should he struggle, third-round rookie Kevin Barnes could capture nickel duties. Barnes is green but has 6’0”, 187-pound size and 4.45 speed.
Two excellent young safeties make this secondary dynamic: LaRon Landry and Chris Horton. If Landry (free safety) can improve his instincts, he’ll have incredible range and be a playmaker. But so far, his progress has been too slow. Horton (strong safety) has no big-time athletic attributes––hence his seventh round draft status last year––but, like a Zach Thomas or an Emmitt Smith, he’s simply one hell of a football player. Horton anticipates passing lanes particularly well, and he’s a difference-making thumper in the box.
Kicker Shaun Suisham missed 10 of his 36 field goals last season, which means journeyman Dave Rayner will get a fair crack at stealing this job in training camp. The Redskins could no longer stand dealing with instability in the punting game, so they turned their back on Ryan Plackemeier and Durant Brooks and signed longtime Colt Hunter Smith. Punt returner Antwaan Randle El is little more than a fair catch specialist (he led the league with 21 last year). Rock Cartwright is surprisingly effective returning kicks.
All in all, the Redskins aren’t a bad team. But something that hasn’t really been mentioned yet is the fact that they play in the NFC East. That’s like being a budding tennis star and somehow landing on the same side of the bracket as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (never mind what those two are doing on the same side of the bracket––that’s not the point). Washington’s best chance at breaking out is if Albert Haynesworth winds up playing with fire and this entire defense becomes the absolute best in the NFC. That’s what it will take to compensate for an offense that, under tenuous quarterback Jason Campbell, will be no better than average.
Predicted finish: 4th NFC East
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