The Redskins fell off a cliff in 2013 as they went from NFC East champs to 3-13 under a wave of injuries, dissension and dreadful play.
There were some quick responses to the turn of events, most notably the hire of Jay Gruden to be the team’s new head coach, but things don’t look all that different when it comes to the roster. There have been changes, obviously, but the defense is essentially the same and the offense is still reliant on a quarterback that hasn’t shown he can stay healthy through an entire NFL season.
Those two topics kick off our look at five questions that will help determine whether or not the Redskins will have another extreme change of fortunes in 2014.
1. Will Robert Griffin III rebound from last season?
We’ve got four more questions after this one, but it is hard to think that the answers to them will be all that consequential if the answer to this one is no.
The optimistic view in Washington is that Griffin was rushed back into action last season and that the extended time since he injured his knee in a playoff loss to the Seahawks will bring him back to being the athletic weapon that took the league by storm as a rookie. Those holding that viewpoint also believe that the departure of Mike Shanahan will benefit Griffin on the field by putting him into fewer running situations that could lead to injury while also helping off the field because of how bad the relationship between coach and player got last season.
A less rosy take would be that Griffin’s only going to be a special player if he’s doing the kinds of things that will inevitably lead to injury because anything else would be using a thoroughbred to pull a carriage. For now, the Redskins say they won’t be calling designed runs for Griffin and there have been reports that Kirk Cousins has looked like the better fit for Gruden’s offense. That’s a moot point as Griffin is the starter, but there will continue to be doubters until Grifffin shows he’s got the 2012 magic back.
2. Is the defense any better?
There was so much focus on Griffin last season that the fact that the Redskins defense couldn’t stop anyone escaped the kind of notice it might have otherwise received. That didn’t wind up costing Jim Haslett his job and there’s been talk of a more aggressive approach from the coordinator now that Shanahan is out of the picture.
All of which sounds great right up to the point that you look at a roster that’s still short on top-level talent. The two biggest additions of the offseason — defensive end Jason Hatcher and safety Ryan Clark — are older players who have struggled with injuries during the summer while players like linebacker Perry Riley, cornerback David Amerson and safety Brandon Meriweather may be playing roles that ask too much of them. All in all, it is essentially status quo on defense in Washington and that’s a dubious way to move forward.
3. Can Jordan Reed stay healthy?
The Redskins think they have a rising star at tight end in Jordan Reed, but his rise could be limited by concussions. Reed was sidelined by one for the final seven games last season and he has a troubling history of concussions dating back to his time at Florida that will make for crossed fingers every time he goes over the middle.
If Reed can stay healthy, though, Griffin won’t have a shortage of targets to throw to this season. With DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon and Andre Roberts at wide receiver, Reed is going to see a lot of single coverage and last year’s 45 catches for 499 yards will just be scratching the surface of what he’s capable of doing in the NFL.
4. Was Gruden the right hire?
The breath of fresh air that followed Shanahan’s ouster is only going to last so long, so Gruden is going to have to show he can be more than just not Shanahan to be a long-term success in Washington.
Gruden oversaw a Bengals offense that has gone to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and A.J. Green blossomed into one of the league’s finest receivers on his watch. He also developed Andy Dalton into a consistent winner in the regular season, although the postseason struggles haven’t done either coach or player any favors. The move to make Griffin more of a pocket passer is one you could have guessed, but it would behoove Gruden to rely on Alfred Morris and the ground game a bit more than he did in Cincinnati.
5. How will they stop the pass?
The Redskins placed the franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo this offseason and he’ll be back on a one-year deal before potentially hitting free agency after the season. On the surface, that was a wise move as the Orakpo-Ryan Kerrigan tandem gives the team a pair of players who have had success rushing the passer. That’s vital for the Redskins because they don’t have a secondary that strikes much fear into opposing offenses.
That does make one wonder if the money spent on Orakpo could have been better invested in help for the defensive backfield beyond adding Clark and bringing back cornerback DeAngelo Hall, especially after the Redskins drafted linebacker Trent Murphy in the second round. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, there’s not much reason to believe that it will be hard to move the ball on the Redskins through the air and that’s never a good place to find yourself in the modern NFL.