The Washington Redskins are inevitably seeking a quick turnaround, and the good news is they're in the right division to do it.
In 2011, the 'Skins finished dead last in the NFC East. In 2012 they finished first, and the Philadelphia Eagles finished dead last. And in 2013, the Eagles finished first with Washington once again returning to the basement.
It's been a decade since the division last had the same winner in back-to-back years, so the Eagles have their work cut out for them with a bull's eye on their back. The Giants and Cowboys have each missed the playoffs in four of the last five years and don't look as though they're going to run away with this thing anytime soon.
The Redskins have already taken some positive steps in the right direction by replacing the stubborn Mike Shanahan and his son with fresh, up-and-coming offensive minds in Jay Gruden and Sean McVay. They've also moved on from special-teams coach Keith Burns after an embarrassing season from that unit, replacing him with Ben Kotwica.
So with the key members of the coaching staff now in place, here are 10 things the Redskins will have to do to climb back to the top of the NFC East and get back into the playoffs in 2014.
1. Semi-ditch the read-option
It can still be a part of the offensive system Gruden implements, but the zone read and its tenets should no longer be the focus. Defensive coordinators proved against Robert Griffin III and Co. in 2013 that they had figured out how to defend the read-option plays, and the 'Skins struggled on offense with the surprise element no longer present.
Besides, an option-oriented attack means more opportunities for the somewhat fragile Griffin to take hits. I know the Redskins don't want to handcuff one of the game's most dynamic players, but he simply can't survive the amount of contact he's been exposed to the last couple years.
It won't go away. Hell, even Gruden has implied as much by proclaiming his love for it during his introductory press conference. But for the read-option to continue to work at this level, and for Griffin to be able to run it without dramatically increasing the number of hits he takes, the 'Skins have to use it as a weapon that they may or may not pull out of their pocket at any given time, rather than something they fall back on consistently.
2. Teach Griffin to be a pocket passer who can scramble when needed
This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. The key, again, is to protect the franchise's largest investment and most important player. This team stands little chance of winning anything if RGIII isn't healthy, and it looks as though even he realizes it's time to start becoming less of a runner and more of a prototypical pocket passer.
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported last week that the 23-year-old quarterback is down with running a pro-style offense:
That doesn't mean he can't run, but Griffin has to be less of a Michael Vick or Terrelle Pryor and more of a Fran Tarkenton or Randall Cunningham. His legs can make him a lot more dangerous, just as they helped those guys as well as John Elway and Steve Young, but his arm is what has to make him an elite quarterback.
As good as Vick has been at times, let's keep in mind that he's made it through only one complete season, and he's made it past the divisional round of the playoffs just once in 11 seasons.
3. Get bigger offensive linemen
Shanahan is gone, and the majority of his handpicked, undersized offensive line should also be given walking papers.
The zone stretch is no more, and we'll likely see more inside zone runs under Gruden, which would presumably decrease the emphasis on having small, nimble offensive linemen. But even if that's not a prerequisite, the 'Skins have to begin to prioritize Griffin's protection over potential holes for the running backs.
Right guard Chris Chester might be a decent enough run-blocker, but he embarrassed himself far too often in pass protection in 2013. Same with Will Montgomery, who gave up a ridiculous 22 pressures, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), despite working in a run-first offense. Montgomery was also the most-penalized center in football.
Check out Gruden's opening-day offensive line from Cincinnati last season compared to Shanahan's in Washington:
|Gruden's used to a bigger line|
|Left tackle||Whitworth (6-7, 335)||Williams (6-5, 314)|
|Left guard||Boling (6-5, 306)||Lichtensteiger (6-2, 295)|
|Center||Cook (6-3, 312)||Montgomery (6-3, 305)|
|Right guard||Zeitler (6-4, 314)||Chester (6-3, 315)|
|Right tackle||Smith (6-3, 335)||Polumbus (6-7, 300)|
|Average||6'4.4", 320.4 lbs||6'4.0", 305.8 lbs|
Alfred Morris and Roy Helu are good enough to manage without a running back-friendly line or system. It's time to bulk up the interior of the offensive line and maybe even upgrade on Tyler Polumbus, who isn't a particularly strong right tackle.
Maybe this means finding big bodies in the draft. It should probably mean looking for some specific players in free agency, such as 325-pound guard Mike McGlynn, or Charlie Johnson from Minnesota.
Whatever they do, they have to invest in more size for the trenches.
4. Add depth...everywhere
With those crippling league-imposed cap sanctions now history, the 'Skins finally have money to spend. In fact, based on an estimate from Rich Tandler of RealRedskins.com, they can expect to have over $28 million in cap space. And if they release some veterans—which is to be expected, especially with a new head coach taking over—that number might grow.
Rather than spending it all on one shiny player, though, the Redskins would be smart to use that money to plug gaps and bring in players who can compete for starting roles.
The core is already in place, headed by Griffin, Morris, Trent Williams, Pierre Garcon, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Barry Cofield. Now it's about making the roster more complete, and much deeper.
We mentioned that the special teams were historically bad this past season. In fact, Football Outsiders concluded that Washington had the second-worst special-teams unit in football dating all the way back to 1989.
|Worst special teams units since 1989|
|San Diego Chargers||2010||-10.2%|
You think that had nothing to do with those cap sanctions? The Redskins were so concerned with giving all of their available pennies to starters that the rest of the roster took a hit. Sure, coaching played a role, but it went beyond that. Just ask Lorenzo Alexander, who was their best backup and special-teamer in 2012 but who they couldn't afford to keep around in 2013.
Now, they have to add talent across the board and allow the trickle-down effect to help the special teams.
5. Get a new No. 2 wide receiver
Garcon had a career year and is now officially performing and being paid like a No. 1 guy, but Griffin needs a more reliable option opposite his top weapon. Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan basically split the starts in 2013, but neither stood out.
None of their top five receivers from this past season is taller than 6'1". It's time to bring in a guy who has a little more size and maybe even some extra speed.
Morgan might be done after a disappointing two-year stint in D.C., and Santana Moss is no longer a starting-caliber player as he approaches his 35th birthday. Aldrick Robinson is only 25, extremely fast and he got into a bit of a groove with eight catches for 166 yards in back-to-back games in December, but I don't think I'd be comfortable moving him into the No. 2 spot permanently without some stiffer competition.
|Washington's top receivers after Pierre Garcon|
|2012 (yards)||2013 (yards)|
|No. 2||Moss (573)||Moss (452)|
|No. 3||Hankerson (543)||Hankerson (375)|
|No. 4||Morgan (510)||Robinson (365)|
|No. 5||Robinson (237)||Morgan (214)|
|Pro Football Reference|
Maybe someone comes in on the free-agent market, or maybe they add someone like 6'5" Texas A&M receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who could compete for a starting job quickly. But they'd be crazy not to do something to help Garcon here.
6. Replace London Fletcher
Fletcher's long, awesome career is over. And even if the Redskins switch to a 4-3 defense (which doesn't appear to be likely to happen anyway), they'll need reinforcements in the middle. Perry Riley is coming off a very disappointing season and is an average starter at best, and the only options beyond that—youngsters Brandon Jenkins and Keenan Robinson—are completely unproven.
This team struggled more than expected against the run in 2013 and missed 143 tackles, per PFF, which was a 23 percent increase over their total from the previous season. That's because both Fletcher and Riley disappeared.
Maybe you bring in a proven veteran who can lead. Karlos Dansby, for example. Or maybe you take a flier on Pat Angerer from Indianapolis. Daryl Smith and Brandon Spikes are also out there.
They could hope for Robinson or Jenkins to emerge, and they'd be smart to draft another strong linebacker, but in this case the 'Skins should probably look for a vet.
7. Get one new starting corner, keep DeAngelo Hall
Time to wave goodbye to Josh Wilson, who has stunk it up for two seasons in a row despite the fact he's supposed to be in his prime. And I don't know if I'd bother bringing back E.J. Biggers. Keep Hall, mainly because, although he's sometimes unreliable in coverage, the guy makes plays.
|Most interceptions since 2005|
|1. Asante Samuel||48||639|
|2. Ed Reed||43||908|
|3. DeAngelo Hall||41||781|
|4. Charles Woodson||40||581|
|5. Charles Tillman||32||648|
|Pro Football Reference|
It's possible one of three youngsters—David Amerson, Richard Crawford or Chase Minnifield—eventually claims that starting role opposite Hall, but that's no guarantee, and it won't happen overnight. Besides, they lack depth anyway, and nowadays you need three starting corners, not two.
The 'Skins should make it a goal to land one of these veteran cover men, all of whom are slated to become free agents: Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib, Brent Grimes, Sam Shields, Brandon Browner or Corey Graham.
8. Get one new starting safety; declare open competition for the other spot
The 'Skins spent a pair of draft picks on Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas last year. Rambo generally struggled, and Thomas spent the season on injured reserve, but it's too early to give up on those guys. Let them battle it out with each other—as well as maybe Jose Gumbs and another late draft pick—for one starting spot, and give the other one to someone reliable.
No, not Brandon Meriweather. Antoine Bethea, Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward, Malcolm Jenkins and Bernard Pollard are all scheduled to become free agents. One of them has to be affordable. It's finally time this team had a decent veteran safety.
9. Put Jim Haslett on notice
Haslett has a prior relationship with Gruden, and so it appears he'll stay and get one more chance to fix a defense that has ranked near the bottom of the league for pretty much his entire four-year tenure as defensive coordinator.
I think the fact that general manager Bruce Allen now has more money to spend will certainly help the defense from a personnel standpoint, and now we'll see if that was a major reason for why Haslett hasn't been able to deliver half-decent results of late.
No more excuses. Orakpo, Kerrigan, Cofield and Hall are good players, and they'll be better supported in 2014. If this defense starts out poorly again, Gruden should be prepared to fire Haslett at an early stage, rather than sitting around and watching as the carnage unfolds for four months.
Who knows, maybe Raheem Morris in an interim role would light a fire under these guys....
10. Make Jordan Reed a centerpiece
This might come naturally, because the dude is a beast and Griffin loves throwing to his tight ends, especially Reed. Plus, his position coach from last year is now the offensive coordinator.
Reed had 499 receiving yards on 45 catches in only nine games and four starts as a rookie third-round pick, and he appeared to be improving at a rapid rate before his season was derailed by a Week 11 concussion.
We've mentioned that core that is already in place—including Griffin, Morris, Garcon, Williams, Orakpo, Kerrigan, Cofield and Hall. Well, if Reed hasn't joined that group by the time the 2014 season has hit the home stretch, it'd be a shock.
The sky is the limit for this team, but Reed might be the most promising non-quarterback on the roster.