During the preseason, the Washington Redskins received very little respect despite Mike Shanahan entering his third year as head coach, a plentiful offseason and the blockbuster trade executed to select arguably the most electrifying player in the 2012 NFL draft.
And when the Redskins dropped a Week 9 game against the Panthers in their worst outing of the season, those same critics from the preseason appeared correct. Washington was 3-6 and looking forward to five division games to close out the season. Another year of no playoffs, questionable confidence and a losing record.
Following that bye week, the Redskins would go on to win seven straight games en route to an NFC East division title and their first home playoff game of the modern century. It was a magical season that took everyone by surprise. Those preseason critics were left speechless.
How'd they do it?
A combination of things, really. Momentum, desire, passion, ball security. But let's not forget about the rookies. Boy, what an impact.
Here's a look at how the Redskins' 2012 draft class fared during their rookie seasons.
Round 1, Pick 2
Although his season came to a brutal end by way of a blown knee and a loss in his playoff debut, Robert Griffin III was nothing short of spectacular during his rookie season. Worthy of Rookie of the Year hardware, Griffin tossed for 3,200 yards on 66 percent passing with 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also added 815 yards and seven scores on the ground.
Upon Griffin's arrival, the Washington offense took on a new look that ultimately benefited the entire team. Kyle Shanahan's option-read served as an extension of his father's zone-blocking run scheme, and the Redskins helped to make the pistol formation an effective package in the NFL.
After losing Griffin to a severe knee injury during the final quarter of his first playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Redskins Nation awaits in anticipation of a full recovery that will hopefully return Griffin to his original form.
According to multiple reports, Griffin's rehab time ranges anywhere from 6-12 months. But for a weirdo panic-fan such as myself, I believe keeping Griffin off the gridiron for all of 2013 is the best and safest option for the Redskins.
Round 3, Pick 71
Coming into the draft with mostly fifth- and sixth-round grades, fans weren't necessarily ecstatic when the Redskins selected guard Josh LeRibeus out of SMU in the third round.
Addressing the offensive line was a priority for the Redskins heading into April, and adding a starter would be ideal. The team, however, had glaring weaknesses in terms of depth and wanted to add moldable prospects at the very least.
Although not all that familiar with the ZBS, LeRibeus demonstrated enough speed and tenacity in college to entice Shanahan. And during the draft, Shanahan likely viewed LeRibeus as more than just added depth. Redskins starting left guard Kory Lichtensteiger was returning from ACL surgery, and there were questions as to whether or not he'd return to his best form.
Steiger would make a full recovery and remain the Redskins' starting left guard. Despite performance struggles throughout the season in pass protection, the fifth-year veteran was effective in the run game, and this gave Shanahan more time to develop his rookie lineman.
LeRibeus would eventually play in four games during the regular season.
During the Redskins' unexpected playoff run to close the season, Lichtensteiger went down with an ugly ankle injury and LeRibeus was quickly called into action.
Not missing a beat, LeRibeus came in and played very well given the circumstances. He showed serious promise going into next season.
Shanahan might have had a few fingers pointed at him last April when he made this pick, but watch tape during the last two or three games of the season and you'll see what the coach saw in Josh LeRibeus.
Round 4, Pick 102
If you thought Shanahan received flak following his third-round pick, multiply that by about 15 to get the sort of criticism the coach received after selecting Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round.
Why would he waste a pick on a third-string quarterback? The Redskins just took a quarterback; why do they need another? Does Shanahan want a quarterback battle in Washington? What is Cousins expected to do there? Doesn't the team have plenty of other needs? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
And I'll be the first to admit that I was a little skeptical of the pick initially myself. But I'll also admit that it didn't take me long to warm up to the idea and understand what Shanahan and the front office were thinking.
For starters, Kirk Cousins was arguably the best player available by the time the Redskins picked at 102. Although the team did have other areas of concern, it's hard to fault a draft strategy that focuses on bringing in the best talent remaining amongst a large crop.
Second, every team needs a backup quarterback. And while some teams may not invest much in their No. 2, Shanahan obviously had other plans.
And that brings us to the third point. There wasn't any doubt that Robert Griffin III was the new starting quarterback in Washington. None. But given his style of play and having already had a serious knee injury in college, Shanahan wanted to equip himself with a good insurance policy.
Now that the season is over, you'd be hard-pressed to find one Redskins fan that questions that fourth-round draft selection Mike Shanahan made eight months ago.
When Griffin left the game against Atlanta with a concussion, Cousins stepped in under a huge spotlight and tossed a perfect touchdown to Santana Moss. Despite his two interceptions and the loss (to one of the top teams in the conference by just a touchdown), Cousins would receive deserved support from the fanbase.
Cousins' second look would come against the Baltimore Ravens when Griffin left the game with a vicious knee injury. Once again he was on a big stage and asked to deliver during a very tough spot. Cousins came in, threw a touchdown pass and then went on to convert the game-tying two-point conversion to send the game into overtime and eventually come out with the win. Cousins helped to keep Redskins' playoff hopes alive.
Then, with Griffin's knee injury still a factor, Cousins would receive the starting nod against the Cleveland Browns the following week.
Cousins had a few hiccups in his first career start, making Redskins fans sweat a little bit before showcasing himself as a guy that coaches and fans could trust. Leading the Redskins to victory (another must-win scenario), Cousins threw for 329 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
For the season, Cousins threw for 466 yards on 33-of-48 passing with four touchdowns, three interceptions and a quarterback rating of nearly 102.
Round 4, Pick 119
This pick in the fourth round got immediate approval from yours truly.
Not only did the Redskins need to address the linebacker position, but I secretly root for the Texas Longhorns. And I found myself liking Keenan Robinson more and more with every game I watched.
After converting from an outside linebacker to an inside linebacker with the Redskins in their 3-4 scheme, Robinson would serve as the backup to starter Perry Riley and also contributed on special teams.
Robinson had his ups and downs as a rookie, but the promising note, at least in my opinion, is his potential. He's not a lost puppy out there; he just needs to work the kinks out, as most rookies do. Robinson is athletic enough to get anywhere on the field, can drop into coverage and has the size to wrap up and bring guys down.
Unfortunately, Robinson would suffer a pectoral injury during the Week 12 Thanksgiving Day game against the Dallas Cowboys and was placed on season-ending IR.
Robinson recorded 12 tackles in 11 games for his 2012 rookie season.
Round 5, Pick 141
Sticking with the idea of athletic offensive linemen to provide depth along the front line, Shanahan selected Adam Gettis out of Iowa in the fifth round.
We didn't see Gettis after the preseason during his rookie year, but that could change come next season with salary cap penalties looming and some guys along the offensive line up for free agency.
It's hard to gauge a rookie when he doesn't see the field, so a hung jury is understandable. That said, anyone who knows Shanahan can tell you why he went with a guy like Gettis. He has the experience, the athleticism, the familiarity with the zone-blocking scheme and the versatility in the form of either tackle, guard or center.
Don't forget about Adam Gettis just yet. Shanahan has a way with offensive linemen and Gettis fits the mold.
Round 6. Pick 173
I can't lie to ya, I wasn't jumping up and down when the Redskins announced this pick. And if anyone other than Alfred Morris' mother tells you they were, then they're definitely lying too.
I know it's the sixth round and finding a starter at a skill position is rare, but I thought the Redskins had a few other options when they stepped up for pick No. 173.
I had a slight love affair with Cyrus Gray out of Texas A&M. I thought Alfonzo Dennard out of Nebraska could've worked. And then they announce this kid named Alfred Morris out of Florida Atlantic.
Most people know that Mike Shanahan has a way with running backs, especially when it comes to finding them in the late rounds and making them into household names. But this kid Morris was rumored to be slow, and his collegiate competition wasn't anywhere near that of other available prospects.
Not to mention, the Redskins could've skipped the running back position altogether and fans wouldn't have known the difference.
Shanahan did it again. And now I eat those initial draft-day words. I go back and study Morris during his combine workouts. I re-watch his college game tape. And I embrace this young man as one of the coolest dudes I've ever seen in a Redskins uniform.
Receiving Rookie of the Year attention of his own, Morris finished his rookie season with 1,613 yards on 335 carries with 13 touchdowns.
His 335 touches ranked third in the NFL, his 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns ranked second and his 1,690 yards from scrimmage was good for seventh amongst all offensive players.
I don't want to jinx anything and call Alfred Morris Mike Shanahan's new Terrell Davis, but it's hard not to get excited. Morris is a humble guy with an unbelievable work ethic that plays with extreme passion and has earned credit for being one of the toughest guys to bring down in the NFL.
Round 6, Pick 193
Like Adam Gettis, tackle Tom Compton didn't receive any action after the preseason during his rookie year. But because I was high on this guy coming out of South Dakota, and no one can really tell me otherwise based on his NFL game tape, I'm going to continue to plug this guy and say he has starting potential at right tackle.
This season, Redskins fans were forced to put up with Tyler Polumbus at right tackle, who notably did get better over the final two or three games of the season. He's set to become a free agent this offseason, though, and I don't think it'd be a complete shock to see him donning another team's colors next season.
If the Redskins are lucky enough to recoup some of their cap penalty and acquire a right tackle, Compton could slide into that No. 2 spot. And if the Redskins can't afford a new right tackle and Polumbus moves on, we could be looking at Compton starting on the right side.
Round 7, Pick 213
This was another pick that made a lot of sense for the Redskins. They needed help in the secondary, and taking a shot on an experienced cornerback seemed wise.
Turns out, it was.
Don't get me wrong. When Richard Crawford was burned by Andrew Hawkins during the Redskins' Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, I hung my head a bit and got down on the guy. His technique needed help, he was playing flat-footed, he couldn't get his hips turned, etc.
Then, over the course of the next several weeks, things changed for Crawford. By Week 13, punt returner Brandon Banks was benched and those duties were turned over to Crawford.
In his first game as the Redskins' staring punt returner, in overtime, under the brightest of lights and in a situation where the Redskins had to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, Crawford returned a punt 64 yards to help set up the game-winning field goal.
Not only did Crawford's return help the Redskins win that game, but it also impacted the rookie's confidence. He'd play in every game following that return to finish out the season, continuing to demonstrate his natural feel for the return game and satisfying fans with a north-south style.
As a result of that confidence, and following the suspension of Cedric Griffin, Crawford received more responsibilities as a cornerback. During the Redskins' final win-or-go-home regular season game against the Dallas Cowboys, Crawford recorded his first career interception en route to a Redskins victory and NFC East division title.
For the year, Crawford recorded 12 tackles in nine games with two pass deflections, one interception and that beautiful fumble recovery against Philadelphia in Week 16.
Round 7, Pick 217
The Redskins didn't get much feedback on their last pick of the draft when they selected defensive back Jordan Bernstine out of Iowa. The team had obvious holes in their secondary, and adding talent to see how it would pan out in camp was a solid move. Bernstine was a versatile player that could play corner or safety and fit what the Redskins were doing.
Bernstine played decently through the preseason, and his tackling was probably most impressive. He even recorded an interception during the final week.
In his first professional game during Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, Bernstine blew up his knee and was placed on IR. He wouldn't see the field for the rest of the season.
Not playing on Sundays is one thing, but not even being able to practice makes it even harder to gauge a player during his rookie season. The grade on Bernstine is still out. Having shown some good stuff during the preseason, we'll have to see how he returns from an injury that tore up his ACL, PCL and MCL