For Redskins fans, this is the “fingers crossed” portion of the 2013 campaign.
If quarterback Robert Griffin III continues to recover from his January knee injury, and if he returns to the field at full strength, then Washington fans can move from crossing fingers and knocking on wood to grinning and dreaming.
The Redskins’ best form a season ago was the stuff championship hopes can be pinned upon. This isn’t a perfect team entering 2013 — so much rides on Griffin’s recovery — but the ceiling for the Redskins is so much higher than it was.
Here’s our look at Washington as training camp nears:
At its best, and with Griffin at the controls, the Washington offense is a triumph of skill, flexibility and innovation. In 2012, the Redskins tailored their scheme to Griffin’s rare talents and reaped the rewards. No team a season ago gained more yards per rush and per pass than Washington did.
Ponder that for a moment, and think of Griffin faking the hand-off to running back Alfred Morris and zinging the ball over the top of a defense with linebackers and defensive backs ruing the false steps they took thinking it was a running play. Recall Griffin breaking containment and sprinting away from the Minnesota defense for the clinching 76-yard TD last October.
When Griffin is healthy, the Redskins can wear down and wear out opposing defenses with all of their options. No team attached the edges more in the run game a season ago, and why not? The Redskins racked up 6.8 yards per rush off left end and 6.2 yards per rush off the right end. When Griffin isn’t hitting swift receivers like Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan in stride or making a productive dash out of the pocket, Morris (1,613 yards, 11 TDs) is grinding out tough yards time and again.
From most accounts, Griffin is recovering well from surgery to repair ACL and LCL tears in his right knee. If he were to miss any time, the Redskins would turn to fellow second-year passer Kirk Cousins, a capable backup who led Washington to key win at Cleveland late last season.
The defense has an above-average outside linebacker tandem in Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Moreover, the Redskins were stout vs. middle runs a season, allowing a mere 3.35 yards per attempt up the gut, per NFL statistics.
Finally, the Redskins’ coaching acumen and experience is also a strength. Head coach Mike Shanahan has 18 full seasons as a head coach, and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris also have NFL coaching experience. Even Kyle Shanahan, young by NFL standards, is in his second stint as an offensive coordinator.
Here are the biggest concerns about Washington entering camp:
— The defense simply didn’t play all that well in 2013, and considering the core of that defense remains unchanged, improvement from within is needed. The Redskins’ play vs. the pass is of particular concern; only two teams allowed more yards through the air.
— The Redskins have several key players returning from injuries. Griffin is the headliner, but Orakpo (pectoral), Garcon (shoulder / foot), tight end Fred Davis (Achilles), safety Brandon Meriweather (knee) and defensive end Adam Carriker (quad) are other players whose recoveries need to be monitored. Orakpo’s health and availability is especially key; the defense could really use him after he missed all but two games a season ago.
— The Redskins struggled to get off the field on third downs, allowing opponents to convert a league-high 44.2 percent of their tries. What’s more, the offense — which did so much right in 2012 — also had its problems converting on third downs, ranking just 24th in this category. The upside of improvement in both areas is obvious — and it’s tied to having Washington’s potent offense on the field all the more.
With little salary-cap room, and with their first-round pick sent to St. Louis in the trade up for Griffin in 2012, the Redskins didn’t make many splashy personnel moves in the offseason. Cornerback E.J. Biggers (ex-Tampa Bay) could have the biggest impact among the veteran signees. Also added in free agency were outside linebacker Darryl Tapp, offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood and nose tackle Ron Brace.
The Redskins’ seven-player draft class is led by second-round pick David Amerson, a cornerback from N.C. State; and third-rounder Jordan Reed, a tight end from Florida.
Overall, the Redskins were able to keep the core of their division-winning team together, though they did lose Pro Bowl special teams player / linebacker Lorenzo Alexander to Arizona. Washington also has a new special teams coordinator, with Keith Burns replacing Danny Smith, who departed for Pittsburgh.
Most starting spots are capably filled in Washington, but there are a few areas to watch.
The club’s safety situation is unsettled. Madieu Williams, the starting free safety in 2012, was not brought back. The club added two safeties in the draft: Phillip Thomas (Round Four) and Bacarri Rambo (Round Six). Reed Doughty, who started the bulk of games at strong safety a season, has a knack for sticking in the lineup. Meriweather, if healthy, will also be in the mix for playing time. The wild card is ex-Buccaneer Tanard Jackson, who could be an option at free safety if he were reinstated from suspension by the NFL.
Keep an eye on the play of the club’s returners, too. Niles Paul (kickoffs) and Richard Crawford (punts) finished the 2012 spots in those roles.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Mike Shanahan-team if there weren’t interesting things going on at running back. Morris is the clear-cut starter, but rookies Jawan Jamison and Chris Thompson add to the competition for the backup spots. One reserve back to monitor is third-year pro Roy Helu, who’s trying to overcome a foot injury.
The Redskins’ rally to win the NFC East in 2012 was one of the season’s feel-good stories. Then came the gut-punch of Griffin’s injury, but the positive reports on his progress give hope he could potentially be on the field when Washington faces Philadelphia in Week One.
About that season opener: it’s the third time the Eagles have seen the Redskins, and Philadelphia will have had weeks and weeks to prepare for Griffin and Co. For those fascinated by the Redskins’ offense and whether it is viable long-term, it’s must-watch — and rewind again and again — TV.
The guess here is that defenses will probably catch on to certain aspects of Washington’s scheme. That’s life in the NFL. However, Mike Shanahan hasn’t lasted as long as he has by not understanding the game, and he definitely understands the importance of talent, competitiveness, prudence and intelligence at the quarterback position.
Griffin is skilled, and he will he adapt as defenses adapt. If he’s at full strength in 2013, that’s what will be fun to watch — not whether defenses short-circuit Washington’s offense, but the counter-punching between both sides.
We suspect Washington will, at the very least, give as good as it gets, especially if Griffin is close to top form. And if the Redskins can get just enough stops on defense, they are going to have a real shot at a second-straight East crown.