The Redskins’ 2009 preseason concluded last Thursday night in the same fashion it started, with an ugly loss.
With each meaningless preseason game, fans hope to catch glimpses of improvement. The Redskins obliged until the Jacksonville game—the Jaguars are an average football team at best—created doubt in a team looking to turn the corner and perform (starters and reserves alike) on a consistent basis.
So what have we learned about the 2009 Redskins during the preseason, and what can we expect from them during the regular season?
Quarterback Jason Campbell looks confident when given time and has put an eventful offseason behind him. Campbell throws one of the prettiest balls when he stands firmly in the pocket. When opposing defenses put enough pressure on him, his technique suffers along with his accuracy.
Zorn will try to use as many three-step drop pass plays as possible to protect Campbell. But to increase scoring (the Redskins were ranked 28th in the NFL in 2008) Campbell will need more time to throw. While the three-step drop produces short completions and first downs, five to seven-step drops produce plays down field—often, touchdowns.
Campbell will get his shots down field as opponents sneak closer to the line to shut down the run. Evident in the preseason, Campbell and his receivers are not in sync with the long ball, but that will come as the season progresses.
Both QB Colt Brennan and QB Chase Daniel will not be part of the 2009 roster. Brennan was placed on injured reserve while Daniel was cut. Daniel may be selected to join the Redskins practice squad. That leaves 40-year old QB Todd Collins as the only other quarterback on the roster. The Redskins aren’t expected to sign or acquire a third quarterback any time soon. “It is not unusual to have two quarterbacks on the roster. Other teams are doing it. Besides, (Antwaan) Randel El can fill in adequately if we need him during a game,” Redskins Executive Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato said.
An aging but adequate offensive line is very thin. One or two lengthy injuries and the offense could be in trouble. Line coach Joe Bugel was counting on OL Chad Rinehart to improve on his impressive 2008 rookie season. But Rinehart, who has struggled thus far, needs to be ready as OL Randy Thomas (recovering from offseason back surgery) and OL Derrick Dockery may not be capable of making it through an entire season healthy. On a brighter note, OL Stephon Heyer has secured the right tackle position and looks more confident than he did last year.
OL Mike Williams who surprisingly made the 53-man roster will need time before the Redskins can count on him for extended periods of time. Williams has been slowed by an ankle injury and is continuously adjusting to his new body. Williams lost over 100 lbs in the last year in an effort to return to football and his strength and is not there yet.
The young receivers, Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas have improved their play and their health. Both were disappointments last season nursing injuries. Early in camp they appeared to be headed down that same path. But each has gone three weeks or longer without missing a practice and they will be factors in the offense.
Although Kelly and Thomas have made great strides, the best young receiver on the team may be rookie seventh round draft pick Marko Mitchell. The 6’4” lanky receiver can run and has very soft hands.
He impressed a number of people during camp while fighting for a spot on the roster, literally and physically. After a lackluster first week and half in camp, some of the veterans tried to jump start the rookie. CB DeAngelo Hall fired him up enough in one practice to cause the rookie to slug it out with the mouthy defensive back. “It’s all part of being a rookie,” Mitchell said.
Since the fight with Hall, Mitchell has been a different receiver. He has three touchdown receptions during the preseason and he will be a part of the game plan during regular season games.
We saw very little of running back Clinton Portis this August in an effort to keep him fresh. Since success in the running game is based on the ball carrier being in sync with the offensive line, a déjà vu start in New York appears imminent.
Portis will be fresh, but will he be in game shape to carry the ball 25-30 times in Week One?
That’s where RB Ladell Betts will step in at the end of the first half and on obvious passing downs. Betts can provide a spark for the offense in small spurts if Portis were to go down. However, he is not an every down back.
Thus, the team opted to keep RB Marcus Mason on the roster this year. Mason, who has been cut from the team the previous two seasons, is built like Portis and Betts and will see time as the short-yardage back and will get the ball near the goal line.
The defensive line will be the strength of the team. Rookie LB/DE Brian Orakpo will apply pressure from the outside while DT Albert Haynesworth can stuff the run and collapse the pocket up the middle. Orakpo will be very difficult to contain if isolated one-on-one with a tackle. Often, opponents will have to decide who to double team between the two.
The linebacker play against the run was strong during the preseason. The Redskins should be difficult to run against with LB London Fletcher in the middle. Though Fletcher’s pass coverage was exposed once again during the preseason, the Redskins can expect teams to take advantage of the aging backer.
With CB Carlos Rogers out most of preseason with an injured calf, it is difficult to determine if the defensive backfield will be a strength or weakness this season. CB Fred Smoot will be solid in small doses and CB DeAngelo Hall proved he can still play out of control at times. FS LaRon Landry appears ready to have a breakout season, while SS Chris Horton will provide little more than the solid play he lifted the team with last year.
Reserve rookie CB Kevin Barnes looked like a deer in headlights in the first preseason game. He improved his play and aggression the next two games, then lost it again against Jacksonville. He and CB Justin Tryon will see most of their action on special teams with Tryon utilized as the dime DB until Barnes is ready.
CB Byron Westbrook—brother of RB Brian Westbrook of the Philadelphia Eagles—is another practice squad player who improved his coverage and earned a spot on the roster. Westbrook had a solid preseason and may see time on the field before Tryon and Barnes.
The kicking battle never materialized during the preseason games. With very few opportunities to speak of, K Shaun Suisham wins the job over Dave Rayner. Rayner’s kickoffs are higher and deeper, but Suisham was more consistent in field goal practice competitions.
The kick return duties should go to WR Devin Thomas who auditioned for the job against the Patriots with success. Thomas is bigger and faster than the incumbent RB Rock Cartwright, but Thomas is also injury prone. This leaves Zorn with the decision of Thomas’ homerun potential or the consistency Cartwright provides.
Thomas would be the best solution to handle punt returns, a real weakness for the team last season, but the likely scenario is to start the season with WR Antwaan Randle El. Randle El is reliable catching punts. It’s returning the punts where the problems start. Thomas may be utilized in this role, but the threat of injury could prevent Zorn from taking the risk.
The coverage teams for both punt and kick-off will be comprised of reserved defensive backs, linebackers and linemen, with a few tight ends and receivers added to the mix. TE Fred Davis, DL Lorenzo Alexander, LB Chris Wilson and CB Kevin Barnes will be the cornerstones of these units.
Redskins coach Jim Zorn operated training camp as if it were a month long OTA. Physical practices were non-existent outside of line blocking drills. The only tackling that took place in practice was during an intra-squad scrimmage on Fan Appreciation Day.
Zorn’s No. 1 goal heading into camp was to finish it relatively healthy and he achieved just that—probably beyond his own realistic expectations.
With that said, Zorn’s willingness to sacrifice the team’s mental toughness, game speed readiness and intensity for health concerns will determine Zorn’s fate as the coach of this franchise beyond the 2009 season. He will either end up looking like a genius or a coach who didn’t prepare his team for the rigors of an NFL season.
Zorn is banking on his veterans to be a guiding force, leading the younger players by example. Teaching them to practice, prepare and perform like a professional athlete.
This team was assembled with a specific design in mind by former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs, with owner Daniel Snyder and Executive VP Vinny Cerrato built this squad around individuals with strong character who could come together as a unit and function as one.
Will Zorn’s training methods combined with Gibbs’ philosophy on personnel translate into success for the Redskins in 2009?
Expect another ugly game in the Meadowlands in week one as a result of Zorn preparing the team for a marathon rather than a sprint. Does that mean the Redskins can’t win an ugly game? Sure they can. They won eight of them last season.
Including the Giants game, the Redskins will start 2009 in the same manner they started 2008. With each week the Redskins should improve their play and with an early schedule that includes St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City a quick start out of the gates will silence doubters.
But unlike last season—a season that served as a learning experience for Zorn—expect Zorn and the Redskins to prepare a little differently for the teams they should beat on their schedule.
Like New York two seasons ago and Arizona last year, once you’re in the playoffs anything can happen.