Is This the Year the Washington Redskins Take Complete Control of the NFC East?
In 2012, two games separated the top three teams in the NFC East. In 2011, only one game separated the top three finishers. And there was a tie atop the division in 2010 and 2009. It's been half a decade since the "Beast" crown didn't come down to the final Sunday of the regular season.
That's tied for the longest streak in the NFL, and eventually, it'll end. The odds aren't in favor of any division remaining so tight for so long.
Las Vegas odds released in May essentially projected that the best team in the NFC East would be the worst of the eight division winners, while the worst team in the division was projected to be the best of the eight division basement-dwellers. But there's still a half-decent chance someone rises up to pull away from the rest of the pack in 2013.
If that happens, look for the Washington Redskins to be the team that finally breaks away. The Redskins enter this season as the defending NFC East champs, but it still feels like they're due. That was their first division title of the 21st century, and they haven't captured back-to-back NFC East crowns since 1984. Only 15 players on the current roster were alive when that happened.
Here are more reasons we believe the 'Skins could be on the verge of a dominant season within the league's most popular division...
Obviously, right? The franchise quarterback underwent reconstructive knee surgery in January but is already practicing and is thought to be close to 100 percent. Remember how dire things looked for RG3 and the 'Skins only seven months ago? He's not fully back yet, and you won't likely see him take a preseason snap, but it does look as though the team and its fans have survived that scary ordeal.
By all indications, Mike Shanahan will be more cautious than ever with Griffin, which is a very good thing. The 23-year-old won't play unless he's 100 percent, and he'll wear a knee brace all season. If the Redskins smarten up and do a better job at protecting RG3 going forward, that January knee injury could be a long-term blessing in disguise.
Assuming Griffin is healthy, he's the primary reason why the 'Skins could begin to gain some breathing room atop the division this season. Led by Griffin as a rookie, Washington finished fourth in the league with 27.2 points per game.
He was the league's third-highest rated quarterback—a stat that doesn't take his 815 rushing yards into account—and was the NFL's top-rated quarterback against the blitz. Oh, and he finished first in the league with 8.1 yards per pass attempt and first again with 6.8 yards per rush attempt.
In other words, nobody in the NFL produced more yards on a per-play basis than RG3, who was the clear Offensive Rookie of the Year and at one point was garnering MVP consideration. It's a cliché, but the sky is the limit going forward. Eli Manning and Tony Romo are great, but we probably know where their ceilings are located. With Griffin, the possibilities are almost endless.
Health has to be on their side, doesn't it?
The Redskins also lost their best defensive player to injury last season, but at the very start rather than at the very end. Brian Orakpo is back, though, which could make a dramatic difference on D. The team struggled against the pass last year, but a healthy Orakpo teamed up with third-year pass-rushing stud Ryan Kerrigan could make things a lot easier on the secondary.
Orakpo missed virtually the entire 2012 season, but in 2011, he was graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the seventh-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the game after applying more pressure than all but five other players at that position. He's only 27, and Kerrigan's only 24. And they're supported by quite a stellar group of front-seven defenders, including Barry Cofield, London Fletcher and Perry Riley.
And it's not as though Orakpo was the only quality player the 'Skins lost last season. They managed to win the division despite losing more starter games to injury than every team in the league except the Green Bay Packers, according to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. And Football Outsiders determined with an advanced formula that Washington was the fourth-most banged-up team in football last season.
The law of averages indicates that'll change this year, which bodes well for the Redskins.
The trajectory is pointed upward
That secondary was the team's weak spot in 2012, but it looked a lot better as the season wore on. This year, the Redskins will look to maintain that momentum. They've added four new, intriguing pieces via the draft and free agency, which, combined with Orakpo's presence up front could be a game-changer.
As you can see in the chart to the right, they improved their numbers against the pass during the second half of the season. DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson both struggled early but picked it up late. Hall finished the season particularly strong, putting on a clinic in the regular-season finale against Dallas.
And as the pass defense improved, the team got its act together right across the board. Don't forget that the 'Skins didn't lose after Week 9 last year, finishing the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.
If indeed this secondary can simply be average in 2013 with rookies David Amerson, Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas along with free-agent acquisition E.J. Biggers—who had a higher PFF coverage grade than any corner in the NFC East in 2012—it'll be extremely hard to find an Achilles' heel on this roster.
Continuity is key
While the Giants and Eagles have undergone major personnel and/or coaching changes and the Cowboys have made significant tweaks to their offensive and defensive approach, the Redskins are entering 2013 in familiar fashion.
Right now, it looks as though they could take the field on Sept. 9 with the exact same starting offensive lineup that they used against the New Orleans Saints on the first Sunday of the 2012 season. The defense has changed a bit, but those changes appear to be for the better, and Jim Haslett's system remains in place. That's important when you're bringing young stars along.
It'll be nice for Griffin to have starting tight end Fred Davis back, too. On paper, Davis was Griffin's favorite target last season before he went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in Week 7.
Griffin's offensive line, which remained completely intact for 15 of 16 regular-season games in 2012, will once again feature the same five starters in 2013. Right tackle Tyler Polumbus is the only question mark, but he's the weakest link anyway.
Balance helps, too
We've gone this far without mentioning the league's second-leading rusher from 2012. As a sixth-round pick playing in Griffin's shadow, Alfred Morris doesn't get a lot of attention, but the dude set a new team rushing record as a rookie in 2012.
Mike Shanahan has a golden touch with running backs, and his famed zone-blocking scheme has struck again. So long as he's got his types of backs to work with (Morris being ideal), Washington will be able to better protect its franchise quarterback while also setting paces and controlling games.
They match up well with everybody
The 'Skins went toe-to-toe twice with the Giants last season. Had it not been for a ridiculous 11th-hour touchdown from Victor Cruz in their first matchup, Washington would have swept that season series and gone a perfect 6-0 against its three division foes. The Redskins dominated the Cowboys on the road on Thanksgiving and clearly outplayed the Eagles in both matchups.
This is a new season, but it's gotta help the team's confidence to know that it's already been outplaying these guys heading in.
Less than 20 months ago, the Redskins were the runt of the NFC East. They were coming off a 5-11 season and had a ton of holes to fill if they were going to catch up in a division that featured "America's Team" as well as the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Now, they're not only expected to repeat as division champions, but the pieces might be in place for D.C.'s team to put together what some might call a divisional dynasty.
It's a perfect time for the Redskins to grab this division by the reins. And once that has taken place, they'll truly be able to start thinking about the Super Bowl for the first time this century.
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