Year in Review: Recapping Washington Redskins' 2017 Season

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2017

Year in Review: Recapping Washington Redskins' 2017 Season

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    What might have been is the the best way to sum up the Washington Redskins' 2017 NFL season ahead of the final week.

    The Burgundy and Gold are a win over the struggling New York Giants away from finishing 8-8 and sealing a third non-losing season in a row. Yet things could have been so much better had this team not been plagued by a back-breaking run of injuries that depleted the talent levels on both sides of the ball.

    Injuries haven't been the only issue, though. Dubious coaching decisions and key free agents failing to deliver, particularly in the passing game, have proved just as significant in keeping the Redskins out of the playoffs for a third season out of four on head coach Jay Gruden's watch.

    There have been highlights, such as an all-too rare dominant showing by the running game prompting a big road win in Week 2. The dissolution of an underachieving defense in two games against a bitter NFC East rival count as the lowlights.

    Read on for an overview of Washington's season, including the two biggest surprises and two biggest disappointments on the team.

Injuries Derail Playoff Potential

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    Gruden has to wonder about how far his team would have gone if everyone had stayed healthy. Imagine what having all five offensive linemen available would have meant for quarterback Kirk Cousins and the offense Gruden calls.

    Speaking of the passing game, it's not much of a stretch to envisage how much more effective Cousins would have been with two of his favorite targets, running back Chris Thompson and tight end Jordan Reed, available all season.

    A potent air attack may have been enough to send Washington to the postseason, but swarming defenses would have made the Redskins dangerous in January. Dominance on that side of the ball seemed assured earlier in the season when a retooled front seven suffocated quarterbacks, only for the injury bug to bite hard.

    Top draft pick defensive tackle Jonathan Allen was lost for the season a mere five games into his debut year in the pros. Fellow linemen Matt Ioannidis and Terrell McClain were also lost, while leading tackler Zach Brown couldn't complete the season, nor could his fellow inside linebackers Mason Foster and Will Compton.

    While it may not be particularly graceful to cry the blues over injuries, there is no denying how much the Redskins have been hampered by them in 2017.

    Playing without a full contingent has left the Redskins to big up the scant consolation provided if they seal a .500 finish. Such a finish would be commendable given the injuries, but, to borrow an apt phrase from Thom Loverro of the Washington Times, it would also be "sustained mediocrity."

Surprise: Kendall Fuller

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    Kendall Fuller hasn't merely been a surprise in 2017, he's been a revelation. The player drafted in the third round a year ago instantly took to playing in the slot, one of the more demanding roles in the modern game.

    Showcasing a knack for getting to the ball, Fuller became the most consistent playmaker in a secondary already populated with capable veterans. Fuller managed to outshine Bashaud Breeland and Josh Norman, logging 53 tackles, including 41 solo stops, snatching four interceptions and forcing a fumble.

    It's been a stunning haul from a defensive back whose rookie year was stunted by injuries. More impressive than the numbers has been the way the former Virginia Tech star has stood up to some of the league's outstanding receivers.

    Fuller managing to mute Arizona Cardinals ace Larry Fitzgerald at key moments in Week 15 is a prime example, per ESPN's John Keim.

    To emphasize how good Fuller has been, his head coach believes he should have made the Pro Bowl, per Brian McNally of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It's next-to impossible to fault Gruden's thinking.

Disappointment: Terrelle Pryor Sr.

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    Terrelle Pryor Sr. looked liked like a can't-miss bargain when the Redskins signed him on a one-year deal in the offseason. Securing a dynamic physical specimen coming off a first 1,000-yard season as a wide receiver and boasting awesome upside on a prove-it contract seemed like the kind of deal front office executives spend a year patting themselves on their backs for.

    Fast forward nearly 10 months later and Pryor hasn't just failed to live up to the terms of his contract. He's come nowhere close to replacing the big-play potential the Redskins lost when DeSean Jackson walked through the exit door.

    There is no positive spin for numbers as meagre as 20 catches for 240 yards and just a single touchdown. Being benched and losing a good portion of the season to foot surgery merely sums up what has been a miserable year for Pryor.

    One of the hardest things to take about the 28-year-old's lowly showing in a Redskins uniform is how it started so brightly. The converted quarterback's thrilling performances during offseason workouts now seem almost cruel, knowing they were merely a false dawn rather than a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come.

    Washington has missed a true vertical burner at wide receiver while Pryor has floundered. The would-be free agent may not get another chance to prove himself.

Surprise: Anthony Lanier

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    Anthony Lanier's rapid emergence has been one of the few buzz-worthy things about the Redskins season since the chances of making the playoffs disappeared.

    A second-year interior defensive lineman who has spent time on the practice squad, Lanier has logged five sacks, good enough for third on the team. The 24-year-old has also recorded 10 solo tackles, batted down five passes and forced a fumble.

    Unheralded D-linemen making a splash has been something of a trend in Washington during 2017. Matt Ioannidis, another second-year former member of the practice squad, has been in on 4.5 sacks and forced a fumble.

    Yet Lanier's production has been the more impressive since it's come from three less appearances and eight fewer starts. From a smaller sample size, he has showcased a true flair as a playmaker.

    As Gruden put it, per Kimberley A. Martin of the Washington Post: "He is getting better and better. The sky is limit for him."

    It's easy to get excited for Washington's defense in 2018 when Allen, Lanier and Ioannidis are forming an intimidating rotation along the interior.

Disappointment: Greg Manusky

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    Remember those dubious coaching decisions I talked about? Well, most of them can be laid at the door of defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.

    He's been one of the season's biggest letdowns, despite being armed with a plethora of fresh talent after succeeding Joe Barry as play-caller. Manusky was given three new linemen, via both free agency and the draft, as well as a new middle linebacker and reinforcements in the secondary.

    He was also given a competent staff led by noted line guru Jim Tomsula.

    Yet even with those advantages his defense ranks 26th in points allowed and 21st in yards at the time of writing. Those numbers aren't all attributable to injuries, even if Manusky has missed Allen, McClain, Brown and rookie safety Montae Nicholson.

    Planning or rather the distinct lack of it, has been at least as big a hindrance to Manusky's unit. Too often, the Redskins have had no answer for a team's most notable offensive weapons, a sure sign of being under-prepared.

    Some defenses like to take the view, borne from macho defiance, they don't have to adjust or make special plans for particular opponents. These are usually units boasting elite talent at every level. The rest must adapt.

    Take the Seattle Seahawks, long practitioners of not making allowances for individual players and travelling one way. It worked when the Legion of Boom secondary was at its peak, but even the Seahawks have added new wrinkles to their familiar single-high schemes as their personnel have aged or been blighted by injury.

    Those wrinkles included some sophisticated blitz pressure to help destroy the Dallas Cowboys in a win-or-bust tussle in Week 16.

    Manusky has rarely adapted his approach even as injuries have mounted. Nor has he had specific remedies for individual playmakers, such as Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz or Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs.

    A defense refreshed on both the playing and coaching levels would have been a lot better if its coordinator had brought more than chest-beating aggression to the party.

Highlight: Running over the Rams

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    Washington's 39-carry, 229-yard rushing effort to beat the Los Angeles Rams on the road in Week 2 is undoubtedly one of the highlights from this season. In fact, it's a personal favorite.

    The reasons for holding this performance in such high regard are obvious. For one thing, the numbers were put on a Rams' front seven loaded with first-round talents such as Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Alec Ogletree, a group led by Wade Phillips, one of the best coordinators in history.

    Speaking of history, it's high time this franchise gets back to committing to the run. It's not just a matter of tradition, although the Redskins were once proudly the groundhogs of the league during the days Joe Gibbs was winning three Super Bowls in 10 years.

    History is fine to consider, but the present speaks volumes about why the Redskins should run more often. This offensive line has been built to bully teams on the ground. It's why the team drafted Brandon Scherff fifth overall in 2015 and elevated two third-round picks from 2014, center Spencer Long and right tackle Morgan Moses, to starting jobs.

    Trent Williams has been a mainstay at left tackle since coming off the board as the fourth pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Handing talents as high-profile as these to a line coach as accomplished as Bill Callahan was supposed to make Washington a hard-nosed team capable of running on anybody.

    Getting the line back healthy and maybe upgrading left guard Shawn Lauvao, along with adding a bell-cow back, can finally make the plan come to fruition in 2018.

Highlight: Trouncing the Silver and Black in Week 3

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    It was tempting to put Week 9's road win over the Seahawks here. However, winning in Seattle, still relatively rare though it is, is not the distinction it used to be.

    Instead, Week 3's 27-10 demolition of the Oakland Raiders is the more fitting choice. It was a comprehensive beatdown of a team with genuine Super Bowl aspirations delivered in front of a primetime audience on Sunday Night Football.

    More to the point, it was the one game this season when everything clicked and worked the way it's supposed to for the Burgundy and Gold.

    Things working included Cousins and his revamped receiving corps. The quarterback was near-flawless, missing on just five of 30 passes, hitting eight different receivers and amassing 365 yards and three touchdowns.

    Cousins was helped by being kept relatively clean by an offensive line skilfully handling a pass rush featuring Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. There was even, believe it or not, an element of balance on offense, with the Redskins adding 34 rushing attempts and 116 yards to their output through the air.

    Washington was just as impressive defensively. Manusky's group was every bit as physical as he demands in snuffing out bruising runner Marshawn Lynch, holding "Beat Mode" to a meagre 18 yards.

    The pass rush also swamped Derek Carr, sacking the rocket-armed quarterback four times and hitting him many more. Carr was under siege and unable to connect with his fleet of explosive receivers, who were shackled effectively by a handsy secondary.

    At the time, this felt like a statement win. Now it's merely a bittersweet reminder of how good the Redskins could be when healthy.

Lowlight: Both Games Against the Cowboys

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    If everything went right against the Raiders, Washington's grand plan was stuck in reverse for two games against old enemy Dallas.

    A defense reinforced to be tougher in the trenches was once again pushed around by the league's beefiest offensive line. The Redskins had gone big bolstering their front seven to stop the run, but Ezekiel Elliott rumbled his way to 150 yards to help the Cowboys leave FedEXField with a 33-19 win in Week 8.

    It was even more galling, to see former Redskins 1,000-yard rusher Alfred Morris stomp out 127 yards in Texas in Week 13. The 38-14 loss was the lowest point of the season since the Redskins still had hope of reaching the playoffs, but simply froze on Thursday Night Football.

    Washington has been building a roster capable of owning the NFC East. Yet based on two games against the Cowboys, as well as two losses to the Eagles, the Redskins need to make better decisions if they are going to become the superior force in their division.

    Those decisions must include hiring a new defensive coordinator, arming him with a standout nose tackle and finally solving the deficiencies on the ground. With those issues fixed, this roster is talented and deep enough, injuries permitting of course, to make 2018 a far more successful season.