Why did the Washington Redskins finish 10-6 in 2012? There are several factors you can point to.
The Redskins' rushing attack finished first overall in the NFL. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III's play was superb. There was the resurgence of the special teams unit, and it was anchored by a reliable kicker.
But the biggest reason of all was the universal indicator of team success: turnover differential. The Redskins ended the year third in the NFL with a plus-17 differential, and they turned the ball over only 14 times. To put that in perspective, the all-time record for least turnovers in a 16-game season is 10, set by the 2011 49ers and the 2010 Patriots.
This is what could be worrisome about the 2013 Washington Redskins. It's tough to assume they'll repeat last year's success at protecting the ball; the chances of being that good again simply aren't feasible. If the Redskins were forced to win seven games in a row despite that success, can they really be trusted to put together a solid campaign in which the turnover differential could regress to the mean?
During that seven-game winning streak, the Redskins turned the ball over only five times. Surviving on an unsustainable rate of success is asking for trouble, and the Redskins have to realize that they can't depend on keeping the ball on their side of the field. Fumbles bounce the wrong way and bounce off players' hands; the art of preventing the turnover is as unpredictable as anything in sports.
A good example: In 2008, the Redskins stormed out of the gate with a 6-2 record, during which they turned the ball over just five times—including zero in the first five games.
They proceeded to turn the ball over 12 times in the final eight games and finished 8-8.
No matter how well the individual players perform in 2013, the Redskins will always have to focus on the turnovers. A measly 14 turnovers yielded 10 wins in 2012; if the Redskins turn the ball over 18-23 times, will that equate to two or three less wins? Or will the team finally learn to recover from its mistakes and win a tight ballgame?
No matter how healthy RGIII is, there's no way he's having another season with only five interceptions. Defenses have had an entire offseason to adjust to his talents; if he throws single-digit picks for the second year in a row, he'll have completed one of the most accurate two-season stretches in NFL history.
Perhaps one of the most important ways to separate the best teams from the average teams is to see how those teams respond to turning the ball over. If the Redskins can prove that they can fight the challenge of inevitably giving the ball away, they will have a great chance of repeating as division champs. If they can't, it will be a long, hard climb to the top for this up and coming club.
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